helmuth rilling

Oregon Bach Festival review: Bach to the future

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

By BRUCE BROWNE 

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.

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The Shrinking Oregon Bach Festival

Declining ticket sales and choices accompany University of Oregon festival's shift in focus and leadership

by TOM MANOFF

Editor’s note: this post has been updated to reflect corrections provided by the Oregon Bach Festival. ArtsWatch invited the festival to respond to the story when it was published and will publish a response if provided.

JUDGING by its 2017 program, the Oregon Bach Festival has made substantial cutbacks in programing in the post-Helmuth Rilling era. The German conductor, who co-founded the festival with the University of Oregon’s Royce Saltzman in 1971, retired in 2013. He was succeeded by the highly regarded conductor Matthew Halls.

The most pressing concerns are a decline in ticket sales, a reduction in the number of performances at the city’s major concert venue, and a substantial cut in the number of performances by professional musicians. It’s hard to know which of these developments are cause and which are effect. But either way, this year’s scaled-back schedule offers fewer choices for patrons and also raises questions about the festival’s future.

Matthew Halls conducted Brahms’s ‘A German Requiem’ at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Josh Green.

The festival has faced some dire financial situations over the years according to former executive John Evans (2007–2014). Evans, who died last year, had the festival mostly in the black during his leadership, but saw the downturn coming. In a report first made public by Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer, Evans suggested that Rilling’s retirement was a core reason:

Oregon Bach Festival Director Emeritus Helmuth Rilling. Photo: Michael Latz/ Interationale Bachakademie.

“Helmuth Rilling wasn’t the only individual who retired in 2013, so too did many of his most loyal and passionate supporters,” Evans wrote. “And the donor, corporate, foundation, audience, and ticket revenue figures bear this out.”

During the transition from Rilling to Halls, OBF paid ticket sales dropped by 21 percent: 2011 had 14,502; 2014 counted 11,360. Overall attendance dropped by over 50 percent : 2011 had 44,148; 2014 had approximately 20,000. Attendance last year remained at 20,000. 

While Halls’s musical leadership is one component in reviving the festival, important decisions are also now made by Janelle McCoy, the executive director who came to the festival in 2015. McCoy inherited a festival already in the midst of audience and funding decline, and her decisions  will play a central role in the festival’s future. However, McCoy seems relatively inexperienced for OBF, an internationally-known festival with a budget of approximately 2.8 million. After all, she replaced John Evans, who was music director of the BBC, a world expert on Benjamin Britten, and, like his predecessor Saltzman, an acute judge of talent with extensive connections within the classical music world.

Oregon Bach Festival artistic director Matthew Halls and former executive director John Evans.

This year, McCoy has cut back concerts by professional musicians by half — a questionable strategy, considering the opportunities for many additional concerts at reasonable costs. Changes of venue also reflect OBF’s efforts to downsize the festival, apparent from this year’s opening night.

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When Oregon met Arvo

With help from composer Arvo Pärt, Royce Saltzman wanted the 1994 Oregon Bach Festival to be his grand finale. It was nearly a disaster.

Editor’s note: From Feb. 5-12, Portland choir Cappella Romana presents Portland’s Arvo Pärt Festival honoring the world’s most performed living composer. The festival includes a chamber music concert by Third Angle New Music, several choral concerts by Cappella Romana, a film biography that airs this coming Sunday, February 5, and more. ArtsWatch is running a series of stories about the 81-year-old Estonian legend, beginning with a story by University of Oregon student Justin Graff, recounting his encounter with Pärt in Estonia and continuing with this story, originally published in Oregon Quarterly, about the Oregon Bach Festival’s commission of a new work from Pärt in 1994. Details on the festival events follow.

As Royce Saltzman boarded the plane that would take him to Berlin, he couldn’t help feeling anxious. Saltzman, executive director of the Oregon Bach Festival for a quarter century, had devoted his life to music. As a singer, his instrument had been his voice; as a conductor, his choir.

Now Saltzman played people — the performers, staff, funders, media, volunteers, and dozens of others who came together each year to create a two-week extravaganza of more than 40 separate concerts, lectures, and workshops that each summer drew audiences of more than 30,000. Note by note, year by year, he’d cautiously nurtured the annual classical music event into what the Los Angeles Times called “a musical enterprise virtually without equal in America.” His skills had earned him many accolades, including leadership of the U.S. and international choral organizations.

Roycs Saltzman

Yet as the plane rose from the Eugene airport in January 1993, Saltzman knew he was approaching a critical juncture. The Festival had made its reputation through sharp performances of centuries-old masterworks. But for the 25th anniversary edition to be held in June 1994, Saltzman wanted to add a new dimension: an original piece by a major contemporary composer. And he had someone special in mind: a 56-year-old Estonian whom many regarded as the world’s preeminent active composer. His name was Arvo Pärt, and securing a new work from him might propel the Oregon Bach Festival into the first rank of classical music institutions. A successful premiere concert from so prominent a musician would encourage other composers to submit their new works to the OBF — and that, in turn, could make it an internationally recognized beacon of great new music as well as great old music.
The ’94 festival was special to the 65-year-old Saltzman for another reason: it would be his last as executive director; he’d just announced his retirement. If he could get Pärt, Saltzman have an opportunity that every musician craves: to go out with a grand finale.

Only one thing stood in the way: Arvo Pärt himself.

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Bach Fest: an ace in the mule

A pair of historically informed concerts from the Big Names of the Concert Hall display the stubborn pleasures of keeping things elemental

EUGENE – I once spent a day at the mule races. They were a lot like the horse races, except more … eccentric. A mule race, I discovered to my delight, is a singularly unforgettable experience, unpredictable and unrepeatable in its essence: like snowflakes, no two mule races can ever be alike. The animals seem comical, but in a serious way, with a strength and power and sheer cussedness all their own. A nobility, too: a mule is a mule, and not an imitation horse, and it’s here to make sure you know it. A mule is happy to go where you want to go, as long as where you want to go is where it wants to go, too, and that makes the task of jockeying one of these sturdy contrarians seem like an attempt to tame an intransigent force with a flexible straw. It can be a major accomplishment simply to get the mule pointed in the right direction and focused on actually crossing the finish line. When you manage it with speed and style as well, it’s a triumph.

The memory came galloping back on Sunday afternoon as I was watching and listening to Andrew Clark’s mastery of his own particular mule at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene. Clark, an Englishman who is now principal horn with the Vancouver Island Symphony in British Columbia, was straddling a cantankerous coil of brass in a program of Beethoven and Mozart, including Beethoven’s 1800 Sonata in F Major for Horn and Piano, Op. 17. Even the modern horn is a touchy beast, fully capable of untoward surprises. Clark was playing a valveless period instrument, the kind that Mozart and Beethoven would have been familiar with, where embouchure is everything and you change keys by adding or subtracting a section of tubing. The sound is soft and burnished and impetuous, a wayward gambol through the woods on the back of a beast that is insistent on making its independence known, and if it sometimes nods its head toward the side of the path, Clark’s quiet and mellifluous command of it constituted both an adventure and a triumph.

Pianoforte virtuoso Robert Levin and Berwick Academy director Rachel Podger. Photos courtesy Oregon Bach Festival

Pianoforte virtuoso Robert Levin and Berwick Academy director Rachel Podger. Photos courtesy Oregon Bach Festival

The program, in the comfortably classical and resonant Beall Concert Hall on the University of Oregon campus, was called Viennese Masters III: Quintets for Piano and Winds, and it featured in addition to Clark some fellow masters of period instruments: Debra Nagy on oboe, Eric Hoeprich on clarinet, bassoonist Marc Vallon, and fortepianist Robert Levin. The sound they produced was winsome, balanced, light, and quick, with the fluid deliberation of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Throughout the performance, too, was the visual evidence of the sheer amount of labor it takes to keep these antique-style sound vessels going: Clark tapping his horn and disengaging sections for the occasional shakedown of spittle; Hoeprich elegantly running a cloth through the length of his clarinet to clean it out. Occasional pauses between movements made it possible to perform these instrumental ablutions with a minimum of disruption. We’re so used to the larger sound of the late Romantic and modern eras (let alone the plugged-in decibels of contemporary popular music) that the woodier, breathier, more organic, intimate and delicately balanced sound of period instruments can surprise us and shift our expectations in fascinating ways even decades after the period performance movement began.

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Willamette Master Chorus review: Triple treat

Helmuth Rilling leads singers and orchestra in richly rewarding performances of J.S. Bach cantatas

by BRUCE BROWNE

When we encounter Helmuth Rilling, we can always count on learning in triplicate: theology, pedagogy and, of course, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Last Saturday night, at Hudson Hall on the campus of Willamette University, the internationally famous conductor and pedagogue brought us three distinct gifts — and a bonus present.

Helmuth Rilling and the Willamette Master Chorus. Photo: Sue Hale.

Helmuth Rilling and the Willamette Master Chorus. Photo: Sue Hale.

Well known for four decades in Oregon as the founder/music director of the Oregon Bach Festival, Maestro Rilling retired from OBF in 2013, but continues to guest conduct internationally, and most recently in the U.S. where he started on the east coast, touched down in Minneapolis to lead a Brahms Requiem, and finally here in Salem, to grace us again with Bach. Since he will not be conducting at the Bach Festival this summer, for the first time since he founded it in 1970, this was the only opportunity to hear Rilling work his magic in Oregon this year.

There is a special aura that surrounds an event like this: a buzz through the audience at intermission; an ebullience of spirit before and after the concert. It was an event that brought together choral cognoscenti from Salem, Eugene, from Portland, high school, college and community choral directors and performers, all converging in Salem to appreciate a uniquely Oregon transplant, Helmuth Rilling. Both concerts (Saturday and Sunday) were sold out. We were richly rewarded.

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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

by BRUCE BROWNE

“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.” 

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Helmuth Rilling takes his final bows as artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival this weekend.

Helmuth Rilling takes his final bows as artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival this weekend.

ArtsWatch recently noted how some of the state’s classical music institutions are beginning to look more to the future instead of almost entirely the past, and Chamber Music Northwest is a case in point, having staged the world premiere of Portland composer Darrell Grant’s “The Territory”  last week. The next in a line of 100+ CMNW commissions and premieres stretching over its four-plus-decade history happens Saturday and Sunday, when CMNW artistic director David Shifrin joins fellow clarinetist Chad Burrow and the Miro Quartet in the West Coast premiere of “Quasi una Fantasia” by one of today’s most popular classical composers, Dallas-born Christopher Theofanidis, who teaches at Yale. The concert includes a rarely heard septet by Johann Hummel (most famous for his trumpet concerto and piano concerto) and a similarly genial Divertimento by Hummel’s mentor, Amadeus Mozart, performed by a coterie of CMNW stalwarts including rising star pianist Alessio Bax, oboist Martin Hebert, flutist Tara Helen O’ Connor and other worthies.

Hummel was also a student of Haydn’s and friend of Beethoven, three of whose great Razumovsky quartets will be played by the Miro Quartet in Thursday and Friday’s recommended CMNW concerts. Monday and Tuesday’s CMNW concerts with starring ever-dynamic violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg are sold out, so we won’t even tease you by running one of her photos.

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