Oregon Bach Festival review: Rilling’s Passion

Festival’s founding music director returns to lead a masterful performance of J.S. Bach's St. John Passion


“Passion” conveyed more than one meaning on Thursday evening in Eugene.

Of course, the artists and audience gathered to hear the performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion, an oratorio revolving specifically around the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, meant to be performed during Passion Week in the liturgical calendar. “Passion” was burned into the entire performance on several levels.

Rilling conducting the St. John Passion on July 9.

Helmuth Rilling. Photo via OBF.

And certainly this Oregon Bach Festival crowd was passionate about seeing emeritus music director Helmuth Rilling in his singular concert offering this season. The concert at the Hult Center’s Silva Hall was dedicated to a man who devoted much of his life to Oregon. David Frohnmayer, passionate father, lawyer, Oregon Attorney General, and University of Oregon president from 1994-2009 and major advocate for the Oregon Bach Festival died in March of this year. He called OBF “the crown jewel of the University of Oregon.” 

The OBF has made several moves to expand in recent years. In one direction, it’s added more components, including an early music division, the Berwick Academy for Historical Performance, and by the same token, has invested more money in the chorus, building it into one of the premiere choirs in any summer program on these shores.

rilling conducting st johnSome (ahem, several) decades ago chorus members were enticed to sing with the offer of non-air conditioned dorm rooms, some meals and the opportunity to work and learn with Helmuth Rilling and perform with some of the finest guest artists in the world. We few, we happy few, came year after year. These straits have been improved upon to the point where now, an auditioned chorister is given a goodly stipend, room in a motel, meals – and the same opportunity to learn from the extraordinary Matthew Halls, et al. For Maestro Rilling, the Berwick vocalists sang with the same passion as the early choristers. I hope they have as much fun as we did.

Nicholas Phan sang the role of the Evangelist. Photo: OBF.

Nicholas Phan sang the role of the Evangelist. Photo: OBF.

With only one exception, the soloists were of the first rank, and the players (an appropriately smallish orchestra) were the cream of the crop. Most impressive were tenor Nicholas Phan, who sang the Evangelist, and bass Nathan Berg, who sang the role of Pilate, and also sang two of the bass arias, including “Eilt, Eilt,” (“Run, Run”) one of the most strenuous arias in the oratorio literature. The tempo of the latter was breakneck, and thoroughly satisfying. The chorus’s haunting query, “wohin?” (“go where?”) to the imperative of “eilt,” were eloquent in their quietude.

Phan appeared last summer as the Evangelist in the reconstructed Bach St. Mark Passion, and in both OBF offerings was commanding and lyric – ‘evangelism’ suits him perfectly. This year, Phan sang the arias as well. This is not for the faint of heart – or voice. His arias were perfection in clear, silvery production.

The chorus was equally one of the stars of the show — formidable, decisive, with text spouting from teeth and lips in geysers of sound. The chorus must play three roles in this Passion: worshipping Christian in the chorales; pompous high priest; and rabid mob. The famous (and in this oratorio, Bach’s greatest dramatic feat) crowd choruses, were intrepid and insistent due to Rilling’s choices of tempo and timing. This performance aspect, timing, is one of the Maestro’s many strong suits. His pacing is notably unrelenting, with perfect control of the silences and fermatas, one thing many conductors do not always “get,” to this extreme..

In the excitement of the “rolling of the dice” chorus, where the soldiers are gambling for Jesus’ garment, the celli/bass were perfectly coordinated with the choir in portraying the undercurrent of the dice moving on the robe of the savior.

My only reservation was in the final piece, “Ruht wohl” (“Rest well”), where the choir actually covered the orchestra! What a concept! Nonetheless, they were over-loud to these ears.

As to the other soloists, baritone Tyler Duncan was compelling and flexible in portraying a benevolent Jesus. Mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu, an excellent singer, was very effective, except for the times she had to carry low in her register. Bach was composing these for a boy or male alto, and it’s very challenging to find a singer who can float the high notes as she did, but also dig deep for the lower tones, as she could not always do.

The soprano, Joanne Lunn, had an off night perhaps. If she had spent as much energy spinning long lines of music, as she did making overt facial expressions and gestures, in “Ich folge dich gleichfalls” (“I follow thee also”), results might have been more felicitous. It’s a nice voice, but the phrases were stopped in mid-stride too often and not allowed to bloom. The two flutes in that same piece, however, were breathtakingly perfect.

Other obbligato instruments throughout were also just right. The flute and oboe in “Zerfliesse mein herz” (“With tears overflowing”), were absolutely cloned in phrase and tone. Organist Boris Kleiner and Portland cellist Hamilton Cheifetz, were one with Rilling in his exacting facilitation of the recitatives. Portland State University professor Cheifetz, no stranger to elegant performances (Florestan Trio and others), said afterward that this “was one of the peak musical experiences in my life.”


People have strong opinions and tastes, and there continues to be much discussion about period performance, that is, using baroque-era instruments. Maestro Rilling first studied at a time when much less attention was paid to this. He has since honored period performance practice only by using smaller orchestras, not smaller choirs (Bach’s was perhaps 16-24 at most for even the big performances and probably all male). Because of his depth of knowledge and spirit of each facet of Bach, and his brilliant pacing of the works, this issue matters little to me. His tempi are brisk, never romanticized, so a leggiero articulation is present, no matter the instrumental selection.

rilling smilingHelmuth Rilling is not just any conductor, or any conductor of Bach, but is the iconic masthead of leadership in the general pedagogy of Bach, as well as the mastery of all the oratorios, motets and cantatas (he has recorded all of them). He co-founded the Festival and kept the artistic light burning until his retirement in 2013. Co-founder. Ah. Let’s talk for a moment about the co-.

In the early 1970s, at an American Choral Director’s Association convention, I listened over breakfast to a young choral professor named Royce Saltzman passionately speaking of his travels to Germany during which he encountered an extraordinary young choral musician who intended to record all of the choral cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. Over the next decade, Royce Saltzman planted Helmut Rilling and Bach in Eugene and they all grew and grew into the OBF of today. I watched Royce Saltzman receive the American Choral Director’s Association lifetime achievement award this year at its annual convention.

Other facts known: on Thursday night, Rilling, at 82, was appearing in Eugene for the 45th year. As always, he conducted from memory and eschewed a tuxedo, favoring a loose, black shirt.

Unknown by most though, was that having suffered a fall in Germany just a week earlier, the Maestro must have been enduring significant back pain. Notwithstanding age or pain, Rilling gave no indication of either during the stellar performance of a 145 minute work (although a stool was available for his use during the many recitatives). Great energy and command still emanate from his podium, and his staunch and masterful pacing kept even the smallest detail from marring this performance.

Those of us who have passionately followed this great musician over the past 40 years could justifiably pluck from the Passion the words, “Rabbi” (“Teacher”) and “Herr” (“Master”) and apply them to the Maestro. Helmut. Rilling may not like this, but we do not care.

Just prior to his initial downbeat, Maestro Rilling spoke emotionally of his friend David Frohnmeyer. He expressed, with the latter’s words, his wish that the “jewel” that is the Oregon Bach Festival continue to be cared for, polished. So say we all, Herr Rilling. “Ruht wohl”; it is in good hands. See you next year.

Sidebar: Bach to Bach to Bach

I’ve had the opportunity to hear three St. John Passions in the space of about 18 months, two in the past month. The first, in Seattle, was eminently forgettable, as the conductor had not the least idea how to handle pacing, recitatives or choir/orchestra balance.

About the two in close proximity, one in Astoria (reviewed in ArtsWatch), and one in Eugene, we can draw some interesting comparisons. Objectively….

• The choirs: one of 12 singers (drawn from Portland’s The Ensemble), and the other of 54 singers. The strings: 1 on a part, and the other orchestra, about 18 altogether. The continuo band: organ, cello and bass; the other the same, but in Astoria the notable inclusion of theorbo and lute. The lute was a handsome addition, for example, to some lighter arias in St. John.

• The staging: one performance staged for light drama, with evangelist interacting slightly, the other a traditional staging. One stage compact in front of the proscenium – challenging choir and soloist placement; the other, well, cavernous Silva Hall stage.

• The conducting: Keith Clark often stepped out of the “zone” for recitative and arias. Helmuth Rilling relinquished nothing.

• The soloists: all worthy of praise and qualified to be on stage. However, in only one case was a soloist called upon to sing chorus parts as well.

The evangelists: Oliver Mercer in Astoria delivered a relaxed and intimate narration and was not asked to sing the tenor arias; Nicholas Phan was fervently evangelical and did sing the arias.

The orchestra musicians: pulled from the finest in the world in both cases.

One big difference: the Eugene performance took place in a much bigger venue, the Hult Center’s Silva Hall. And a review of the performance is music, the orchestra, the choir, the interpretation — and the hall.

One element sorely missing in performance of early music today is the “period” venue. Consider the venues used by Bach and his predecessor, Heinrich Schutz, or some of Bach’s successors. The reality: the Oregon Bach Festival is Eugene, Oregon, not Leipzig and even if it were in Leipzig, the St. Thomas Kirche or Nikolaikirche have been renovated since Bach’s time. And, sure, it would be wonderful if the University of Oregon’s intimate, warm Beall Hall a few blocks away could have been expanded to 2,400 seats. But OBF has Silva. It is a glorious multipurpose room. Opera one day, piano recital hall the next. Broadway musical on a Sunday, St. John Passion on a Thursday. Eugene is lucky to have such a site. And yet….

Silva, like so many modern halls in varying degrees, is a high-end hall, that is, the primary sound carried to the ear is the upper range sounds – soprano, mezzo soprano, tenor, not so much alto, and bye-bye bass. And bye-bye the grounding aura of the fundamental tone. In addition, Silva’s design and accoutrements (carpet, et.al.) discourage “ring” which is why some say it is a “cold” rather than warm listening environment. Then, up on the stage it is “a lonely existence,” as one singer put it. “I hear a voice to one side, perhaps one in back. I’m singing into the wind.” That negates the concept of blend in general although not necessarily in this performance.

So Silva it is. And when performers know the hall, perhaps performers should adjust more for the hall. There are ways.

Portland choral conductor Bruce Browne worked with Helmuth Rilling at Oregon Bach Festival for two years in the 1980s. He also prepared the Portland Symphonic Choir and Oregon Symphony’s production of Haydn’s “Creation” for the Maestro, and in addition to attending numerous lecture demonstrations at OBF, observed Rilling both in Europe and on these shores in rehearsal and concert. 

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