Oregon Bach Festival review: Bach to the future

Festival‘s return to its original performance space provides a welcome reminder of past glories


The walls of Beall Hall on the University of Oregon campus have absorbed a great deal of beautiful sounds for almost ninety years. Walking into the Mira Frohnmayer Music Building and into this grand dame of venues the other night was as comforting as ever, like putting on those comfy old slippers and settling back with a snifter of calvados. We were there for an old friend – J.S. Bach that is – and his epic St. Matthew Passion, the opening concert of the 2017 Oregon Bach Festival.

Beall is the choice of halls — and Halls — this year for the season’s Bach St. Matthew Passion, the Berwick Academy concerts, the [Re]Discover education series and the Howells Requiem/Taverner Protecting Veil concert. OBF forces will also perform three times in the Silva Concert Hall in Eugene’s Hult Center, offering there the Stangeland Youth Choral Academy concert, Handel’s Hercules and the season closer Missa Solemnis by Beethoven.

The 2017 Oregon Bach Festival opened with an unsurprising work, Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion,’ and a surprise conductor. Photo: Athena Delene.

The choice of Matthew Halls as artistic director in 2011 brought great change to the Oregon Bach Festival: “an exciting new chapter in the festival history” was the statement from then president and general director John Evans. Now in his fourth year of artistic leadership, Halls prepared the OBF Festival Orchestra and Chorus, soloists and Pacific Boychoir for his first Oregon Bach Festival St. Matthew Passion. 

Another first, however, this one for the Halls family, brought about a change of plans. A son was born to conductor Halls and his wife (congratulations all) and the baton passed to Scott Allen Jarrett, director of music at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel and director of the Vocal Fellows program and chorus master for the Festival.

Scott Allen Jarrett conducted J.S. Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion.’

Standby conductors are kept in the wings for these necessities. “Everything was covered, because we knew going in that Hall’s wife would be giving birth around this time,” emeritus founding festival director Royce Saltzman said. Nevertheless, Mr. Jarrett had only four rehearsals with the entire ensemble. For a Bach cantata or even a Mozart Requiem, this would be enough, but for the heavyweight St. Matthew, weighing in at three hours, it is barely enough for most mortals. Yet Mr. Jarrett pulled it off with panache, and a calm demeanor of authority.

This was an elevated performance, one that was never overly controlled or pushed, but allowed to happen. Scott Allen Jarrett is the opposite of a martinet on the podium: a willing participant, co-operating with the other forces to forge a creative atmosphere. He often dropped his hands when he heard the instrumentalists get in a creative groove, further allowing the musicians to create. Get out’a the way, let ‘em play.

Key to the overall success of this performance was the pacing set by Jarrett: always forward, never stalling, propelling the drama with vigor and foresight. Soloists always moved gracefully into position ahead of their musical entrance; there were no pauses to facilitate the sitting and standing of the choruses. Jarrett kept everything moving upward – almost a musical metaphor toward salvation.

This is by far Bach’s “biggest” work in many senses of the word. St. Matthew is a long-breathed Biblical Passion text in the first place. Then Bach amplifies the dimensions of the piece by composing for double choir, double orchestra, separate boy choir deftly sung by the Pacific Boychoir Academy, and six principal soloists. This gives the listener much to take in. The choirs take on by turns the roles of disciples, priests, religious observers, and general crowd.

In the latter, the singers were obvious in their vehemence about “voting” for Christ’s crucifixion “Lass Ihn kreuzige” (Let us crucify him), and worshipful in the chorales such as the famous “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (Oh head all bloody and wounded). They were all nervous and questioning in asking Jesus (and themselves) “Herr, bin Ich’s?” (Lord, is it I?).

Charles Daniels sang the role of the Evangelist.

The choral sound was more present than their numbers suggested, the singers heroically responsive and dramatic, chewing up and spitting out text. All the male comprimario parts (first and second witnesses; priest, Judas and Peter, and the two high priests), sung from within the choir, were first rate. Doug Gordon, Brian Giebler, John Buffett, Andrew Kane, Edmund Milly, Michael Hix and Enrico Lagasca all deserve mention here. The women singing first and second maids were less vocally effective.

The principal soloists were skilled in varied ways. Each in their own way offered a dignity, a sublimity, to their singing. There was an absence of showmanship in favor of partnership. Countertenor Reginald Mobley displayed a tender grace and a silky-smooth delivery. Tyler Duncan, who also played Pilate, used a brilliantly shaded voice in his final aria that matched the richness and depth inherent in Bach’s music and text “Mache dich mein Herze rein” (“Make my heart pure”), while fellow Peter Harvey brought a gravitas, a variety of emotions, at times even an appropriate anger, to the role of Jesus. (This anger is deserved, especially where Jesus berates his Disciples for falling asleep on the night of his betrayal.)

The justly celebrated Charles Daniels was a literate and flexible narrator (Evangelist) who sang intelligently and luminously. This is a very long night for the Evangelist, who must provide miles of narration in song, and Daniels paced his singing like a marathon runner saving energy for the final lap.

Sophie Junker performed in Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion.’

Soprano Sophie Junker owns a lovely lyric voice, and was especially effective in the great “Aus Liebe” (From Love) aria. A slight musical misstep prompted her to break character but she recovered and finished well.

The obbligato players from the orchestra, chiefly flutists Stephen Schultz and Mindy Rosenfel and oboists Debra Nagy and Lot Demeyer; and violinists Marc Destrube and Robert Mealy, were brilliantly translucent. Cellist/continuo player Sarah McMahon was on fire throughout the night. Boris Kleiner, longtime OBF keyboardist, was a marvel on the portative organ. However, in the large concerted numbers, his sound was muffled by its placement in the middle of the orchestra, masked by the bodies of some of the players in front. The lute, played by Simon Martyn-Ellis, directly in front of the organ, was delightfully present, however.

One of the most impactful contributions from the orchestra was their variety of articulation. This is the mark of great preparation and understanding of style. This Passion is striking in that Bach differentiates all of Jesus’ words by surrounding them with a “halo” of strings, and the the string players were accordingly glistening in their support of all of Jesus’ recitatives and ariosi.

Enhancing Explanation

A few modest proposals. St. Matthew is a drama; extra attention is needed for the audience to fully connect to the entire experience.

One of the most important claims in the Festival brochure is that Matthew Halls, and by extension, the Festival itself, aspires to promote music education among young people (students). This is proven out by the immense energy and generous influx of funding to the Berwick Academy choir, and conductor Anton Armstrong’s Stangeland Youth Choral Academy, some of the vast educational opportunities in the two week event. Why not take this a step further and within the concert, educate the audience in these ways:

  1. The supertext was nearly invisible. Those audience members who were even aware of the 3-line screen hovering above the orchestra just below the stage lights  could be heard complaining of having to squint. It should be repositioned to avoid the glare of the lights.
  2. While the full festival program is lovely, it does nothing to get us to buy into the action and text of the choral music itself. The two-sided slip sheet provided was not legible (was that 6-point type?) and the movements were listed only by number and a vague reference to first lines. Many listings were inaccurate or at best misleading.

Beall for Bach

Beall is a mid-sized space, certainly not imposing in the ways of Silva or Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland. Comparisons made between Beall Hall and Silva Hall for purposes of artistic integrity parallel the comparisons of modern orchestral instruments to baroque and of modern orchestral “delivery” to baroque.

The Festival opened in its original home, the UO School of Music and Dance’s Beall Concert Hall.

With director Hall’s dedication to period instruments and style, it is more possible for the audience and performers to conjure J. S. Bach in Beall Hall than in Silva. The intimacy in Beall Hall is due in great part to a direct connection to the primary source of sound. In Silva, there is a necessity to enhance electronically. In Beall, it’s is almost as though the vibration itself wafts into the audience, to be felt as well as heard. Such is the case in churches such as St. Thomas Kirche, Bach’s principal church in Liepzig. Bach was writing in and for this acoustic, not for a concert hall. Silva is the hall for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; Beall Hall is for Bach.

A future investment toward further improving the insides of grand old Beall hall is laudable. But I sincerely hope a portion of that includes better audience involvement devices, as mentioned above, and facilities for the audience’s, uh, relief? If I had a couple hundred thousand to spare, the Browne Trust Bathroom Wing would put me in very good stead with OBF crowds. Perhaps season tickets or at least “go to the head of the line” bathroom pass. That change would be welcome by all.

Helmuth Rilling co-founded the Oregon Bach Festival and led it for decades.

You know, we miss Helmuth Rilling. I miss his sly humor, his search for the perfect word in his brilliant lectures. I feel that I sharpened my Bach conducting talons on his unique approach to recitatives, his Lutheran spirituality, his ability to work gracefully with conductors and singers of varied talents and not cause a tear to be shed.

We miss the camaraderie in the hot dorm rooms, along with so many good friends – those who were there to hone their conducting skills with Rilling and those from all over the world who made up the master class choirs in the 1970s and ‘80s.

We miss the pizza and beer (Track Town is still there, folks). Our children were dragged to concerts at OBF for years. My daughter still asks about “cantata man” – her childish but fitting name for Rilling about 40 years ago.

We could turn and walk away and only talk about the good old days gone by, but the Oregon Bach Festival is still there. Differently staged, managed, funded, with new artists, conductors and repertoire.  Old and yet new!  When Royce Saltzman and Helmuth Rilling took the stage on the season’s opening night 47 years ago, they imagined, I am sure they imagined, something that might be created and recreated for generations to come, for those yet unborn.

But who could have imagined that the sound we made when we were singing Bach in the early ’80s with Mr. Rilling would develop over 35 years to fit perfectly back in its old home, Beall Hall. “La plus ca change,  plus ce le meme chose” — the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Bruce Browne is a conductor and educator. He is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties.

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