royce saltzman

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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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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