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How Eugene turned into Bach Mecca

Careful nurturing of the Bach flame for 38 years has produced a major international festival each summer. Our critic assesses the achievement of Helmuth Rilling, the wildly prolific artistic powerhouse behind the festival, and samples some of this summer's concerts.
Helmuth Rilling, conductor of the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene. (University of Oregon)

Helmuth Rilling, conductor of the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene. (University of Oregon) None

It takes Johann Sebastian Bach, an 18th-century musical genius, one wildly prolific conductor, a schedule of 50 concerts, stages crowded with youth and adult choirs, visiting virtuosos, and thousands of eager tourists to get a sports-addled city's attention. This convergence happens for two weeks every summer at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene. The festival, 38 years old, grew from a few master classes in a University of Oregon School of Music hall to a destination event now luring 35,000 listeners to the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Ticket prices remain very reasonable, starting at $15, and some events are free. Eugene is definitely on the cultural map. As National Public Radio classical-music critic Tom Manoff wrote in the Eugene Register Guard earlier this month: "Arriving on the heels of Renée Fleming's Eugene Symphony gala and the Philadelphia Orchestra's concert for the Hult Center's 25th anniversary, the return of the Bach Festival – Eugene's premiere arts event – should have audiences celebrating the fine state of classical music in their city." With a budget of $1.8 million and an endowment of $5.8 million, the Oregon Bach Festival, which runs through July 15 this year, has enough money to attract internationally known artists, including Midori, Ben Heppner, and Bobby McFerrin. But it remains primarily a choral festival. Most of the concerts are built on a professional choir drawn from the many singers who want to study with Bach master and conductor Helmuth Rilling. At 74, Rilling still presides over most of the concerts, and he shows no sign of slowing down. A widely acclaimed expert on the works of Bach and other musicians of that time, Rilling has a prodigious resume of recordings, including a 172-CD collection of all of Bach's choral music. His recording of Krzysztof Penderecki's Credo with the Oregon Bach Festival Chorus won a Grammy Award in 2000. Rilling, a native of Germany who began making his mark as a conductor and organizer of Bach festivals and master classes in the 1950s, directs the International Bachakademie Stuttgart, conducts and lectures at the International Bach Festival, all while maintaining a demanding schedule of appearances around the world. Rilling is well known outside the music world, as well, for breaking down barriers resistant to politicians; he was the first German conductor to conduct the Israeli Philharmonic in its country. Yet despite Rilling's vigor, one of the questions on the minds of longtime festival-goers is how long he'll stay at the helm, especially in light of the retirement of executive director Royce Saltzman, who co-founded the festival with Rilling in 1970. A successor for Saltzman has been selected: John Evans, head of music programming for the BBC, who takes over next year. Rilling has said that he thinks it would be unwise for him to retire until Evans has a few years under his belt. Many festival-watchers are betting on conductor Jeffrey Kahane as the likely choice for Rilling's podium. Kahane has conducted at the festival since 1988 and gets choice opportunities each season to work with the most prestigious guest artists. A top-tier pianist himself, Kahane is featured in an all-Chopin piano recital, which was the first program to sell out this year. In the first concert I saw this season (a departure from the choral performances that dominate, so a curiosity for me), Rilling conducted two pieces by Bach and two by Mozart. His knowledge of the music has depth and breadth and joy. He crouches like a cat as he conducts, this time eschewing a podium to be all the more connected to, and inspired by, his musicians. After intermission, Rilling conducted Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra. Both of his daughters, violinist Rachel Rilling and violist Sara Rilling, were the able soloists. Sara needed more volume, and her intonation was hesitant, but more distracting were the serious expressions both sisters maintained while playing. The concert ended with a glorious rendition of Mozart's Symphony No. 41 ("Jupiter"). On another night, Kahane conducted an all-Mendelssohn concert that featured Midori in the beloved violin concerto. The concert began with the Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a work that requires smooth-as-silk violins and soft texture from the brass and woodwinds. In this performance the violins were uneven and the Festival Orchestra sounded under-rehearsed. Things immediately improved when Midori made her appearance. Kahane and the orchestra instantly absorbed her confidence, and the result was marvelous. Kahane and the orchestra concluded the concert with a strong performance of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 5 ("Reformation"), which was refreshingly light of foot. Sound in Hult Center isn't as bright as Benaroya Hall in Seattle, but the acoustics are still quite good, thanks to some improvements a few years ago. Among other things, the updates improved the shell behind the stage and cut the height of the seats, both moves that allow sound to project and fill spaces previously a bit dull. The electronic enhancement system was upgraded, too. Still to come in this year's festival are choral concerts, organ recitals, a collaboration of theater and music in Arthur Honneger's King David (July 12); the Five Browns (five piano-virtuoso siblings) (July 13); chamber music, and three "Wild Nights" of new music (July 6-8) by contemporary composers who are attending a composing symposium under the direction of Robert Kyr.

James Bash is a freelance writer based in Portland. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.


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