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.

When Pärt was first suggested to him two years earlier by a colleague, Neill Archer Roan, Saltzman and Roan had made inquiries among myriad sources in international classical music circles. The unanimous advice: forget it; no one had been able to get the sensitive, hermit-like composer to write a piece on demand and deadline. Like the monks he resembled, the bearded, baldpated, ascetic Pärt had dedicated his life to music and God, and lived a cloistered life with his wife and children in Berlin. His recording success allowed him to shun the pressures of public appearances and commissions.

But Saltzman was determined. For two years, he’d tried and failed to obtain a meeting with the reclusive genius. Then he learned that the way to get to Pärt was through his record producer, Manfred Eicher, president of ECM Records, who was also a musician and protective of his artists’ privacy. Saltzman called him and explained that Pärt’s music was a natural fit for the Bach Festival. He emphasized the festival’s atmosphere of inspiration unencumbered by business or logistical concerns.

Eicher, impressed, persuaded Pärt to consider writing a piece for the festival. But a face-to-face discussion would be crucial to seal the deal. Saltzman booked the flight to Berlin.

Pärt & Eicher. Photo: ECM records.

After arriving at the Berlin airport, Saltzman, Roan, and OBF artistic director Helmuth Rilling set off to meet Eicher and Pärt at the composer’s apartment. During the 45-minute taxi ride through the icy city, the three men talked with guarded enthusiasm about getting Pärt to come to Oregon. But they’d have to handle him carefully; he didn’t need them nearly as much as they wanted him.

Eicher’s directions led them to an old neighborhood where apartment buildings surrounded a gloomy cemetery. As they emerged from the taxi, Saltzman’s outward calm masked his eagerness. They knocked on the door. But the woman who greeted them had never heard of Arvo Pärt. Who? No, she had no idea where he lived.

It was the wrong address. They trooped to a phone booth, but Pärt’s name wasn’t listed. No use calling their offices: it was Sunday.

Saltzman was near panic. Here they’d spent two years building up enough trust to get an intimate meeting with the elusive Estonian, spent festival money to fly across the Atlantic — and now they were about to stand him up.
Pärt, they knew, lived near the cemetery, so, with no other options, they began a house-to-house search. Above them loomed long rows of dark, Gothic-looking old apartments. But which one? They all looked the same.

They decided to split up, read names on mailboxes and knock on doors. They ran up and down the streets, cutting through the ancient cemetery, crunching the steely ground frost.

Finally, after 45 minutes of increasing desperation, they knocked on the right door. Pärt graciously welcomed them in, showing no irritation. They sipped tea and munched on sandwiches, served by the composer’s wife in the atrium, which grew warm as the winter clouds broke. As the room brightened, Pärt seemed to warm up as well. As he described his current work in progress, Pärt grew more animated, the words tumbling out faster than Rilling could translate from German. Pärt jumped up and led the visitors downstairs to his studio.

Saltzman looked around. The studio walls were covered with charts sketching the architecture of the composition-in-progress. It would be his biggest, most ambitious work yet: a 90-minute production for choir, orchestra and vocal group, based on a Biblical text from the Book of Genesis. He called it Adam’s Lament.

Arvo Pärt. Photo: ECM records.

Pärt sat down at the piano and played portions of the opening movement. It was all so dazzling, so magnificent, even better than Saltzman had imagined. Behind his mask of silver-framed spectacles, neatly groomed hair, and soft-spoken politesse, Saltzman glowed as they climbed the stairs back up to the atrium.

Rilling said the piece would be perfect for the Festival. In that case, Pärt said, he’d love to come. Saltzman exulted — they had him!

Saltzman sensed an affinity between Pärt and Rilling, based on shared language and musical ideas. Then Pärt mentioned, casually, that since the text had been written by a medieval Russian monk, naturally it would have to be sung in the original Russian.

Russian! Saltzman’s gut tightened. Western choirs were used to singing in Latin, German or English. It would be hard enough to mount such a massive production with the Bach Festival’s short rehearsal time — a few days at most. How would they be able to train a choir to read and sing Russian, while learning the music?

But Pärt was adamant; he and Eicher considered this a critical issue of artistic integrity.

Saltzman hesitated. Should they back out now while there was still time? The festival had never staged anything this complex. But Pärt obviously had everything planned out, and the piano, the sunny atrium, the intimate conversation of a world-class genius and the promise of a glorious swan song so easily within reach…. It was worth the risk. Russian it would be. They shook hands.

Betting the Festival

Over the next ten months, Saltzman deployed his team to make the most of their coup. Roan, who was now executive vice-president at the Center for the Performing Arts in Escondido, California, remained project coordinator for the Part performance, and he and Saltzman spent many late nights and weekends overseeing the arrangements. They used Pärt’s participation to land one of the world’s foremost vocal groups, England’s Hilliard Ensemble, which had sung on several Pärt albums. Rilling programmed the whole festival around Adam’s Lament‘s theme of Spirituality in Music. Roan trumpeted Pärt’s appearance in order to raise public awareness of the silver anniversary concert, and leveraged his participation to snare a substantial grant from the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest foundation. With the stage set for Saltzman’s momentous send-off, Roan was named to succeed him as executive director of the Bech Festival. As the end of 1993 approached, venues were set, a dozen pieces scheduled, and everything hinged on Adam’s Lament.

On a grey November afternoon in 1993, the phone rang in Saltzman’s home. It was Manfred Eicher calling from Munich. He had terrible news. Arvo Pärt had just told him that he had hit an artistic crisis, and would be unable to complete Adam’s Lament.

Arvo Pärt: Even if I Lose Everything plays Sunday at Portland’s Northwest Film Center.

After hanging up, Saltzman sat back in his chair, unable to speak. He considered the catastrophic implications. They had built the entire festival around the new work: lectures, a concert of other Pärt works, an article in the Festival’s magazine …. Publicity materials were about to go out. It was far too late to change the festival’s theme or to acquire a new composition now, six months before opening night.

Worse, just as the ripple effect of a triumph would have boosted the festival, a disaster could damage it, especially with a new director taking the helm next year. Saltzman might have jeopardized the institution he’d worked a quarter-century to build.

Seduced by Sacred Sounds

For as long as he could remember, Royce Saltzman’s great loves had formed a holy trinity: music, family, and God. Some of his earliest memories were of his family singing hymns in church and at home in Abilene, Kansas. He sang in vocal groups through his college years in the 1940s, and decided to pursue his love of music by studying, teaching and conducting it as a college music professor.

One day in 1956, while singing in Bach’s B-minor Mass, Saltzman was overwhelmed by the power of the music surrounding him. From that moment, he devoted himself to bringing sacred music to as many people as he could reach. For it could touch the soul: a great performance could produce a spiritual epiphany, when everything came together so sublimely that, instead of applauding immediately, the audience sat for a few moments in silence, contemplating the connection music had made with something that transcended this world.

Helmuth Rilling at 2011 Oregon Bach Festival master class.

In 1964, Saltzman came to the University of Oregon to teach, conduct choir and set up a graduate program in church music. Four years later, when he met the German conductor Helmuth Rilling, the two men felt an immediate link: their love of sacred music. Saltzman invited him to Eugene to teach workshops and present two concerts. Out of these meager beginnings grew the Oregon Bach Festival.

In the years that followed, both men’s reputations blossomed along with the festival’s. In the early days, Saltzman handled everything himself. By 1993, he worked 12-16 hour days, supervised an 8-member staff and dozens of volunteers, and flew all over the world to line up performers, grants, advertisers, and funding. Saltzman’s adept management left Rilling free to concentrate on working with singers and musicians, running rehearsals, and conducting performances.

Despite Eugene’s distance from the classical music capitals and the festival’s limited funds, Saltzman steadily attracted brighter performers and bigger funding by creating an atmosphere where music came first. Now, after a slow, steady crescendo of increasing respect, the Festival was poised for greatness.

Arvo Pärt would have helped it achieve that. Most classical concerts consisted of the warhorses of the repertoire — music by long-dead giants like Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Handel. New “classical” music had a reputation among many listeners as thorny, dissonant stuff.

But Arvo Pärt was different. Where other modern composers shunned melody, Pärt embraced it. His rhythms marched in a stately order and his unusual harmonies sounded alternately soothing, stark and melancholy, evoking the shadowy hush of Gothic cathedrals. As popular among critics and other composers as with audiences, the reclusive Berliner’s work managed to be innovative yet accessible.

By 1993, Pärt had become the closest thing to a superstar in contemporary classical music, leading a trend toward consonant music that touched the spiritual longings of audiences far beyond the usual graying classical music buyers. Saltzman, a deeply religious man, wanted to bring that contemporary spirituality — and that new audience — to the Oregon Bach Festival.

That’s why he’d bet the festival on Pärt. And now, it seemed, he’d lost the bet.

Delicate Dilemma

Saltzman didn’t panic. He had salvaged tough situations before. Like the time a featured soprano fell ill two nights before the opening concert and he had to track down a Canadian singer who knew the part — even though she was camping with her family in the woods. Or the time he’d worked the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and a brigade of Russian officials in order to wangle visas and reservations for a Latvian choir after an obstinate Soviet bureaucrat had denied them permission to leave at the last minute.

But never had the stakes been this high. Saltzman liked to find consensus in reaching a major decision, so he discussed his options with Roan. Both felt it was urgent to immediately reassure Pärt before he grew despondent. But even a phone call from the OBF director might unnerve the composer, who was surely feeling terrible about letting the festival down already. Years of dealing with performers’ anxiety had taught Saltzman that the last thing an artist in such straits needed was added guilt. And what if he refused to come to the phone?

Instead, they decided to send Pärt a fax — not assessing blame, not asking for an explanation, not demanding a solution. He typed up a short note expressing his concern for Pärt’s well-being during the crisis, and offering support. “We have common objectives,” Saltzman wrote, “and I know we will be able to work out some kind of solution.”

Helmuth Rilling. Photo: Michael Latz/Interationale Bachakademie.

Fortunately, two days later, Saltzman was scheduled to fly to Caracas to attend Rilling’s newly established Bach Academy patterned on the Eugene format. There he, Rilling and Andreas Keller, Saltzman’s counterpart in Germany, planned the next move. Should Saltzman write Pärt a letter offering to come to Berlin to talk things over? Or just fly to Berlin without asking? No, they decided: Saltzman would be a living symbol of the institution Pärt had let down; his presence, however well-intended, would only heighten the stress.

But Rilling…. Pärt obviously respected the warm, soft-spoken conductor as a fellow artist. It was agreed: Rilling, who was returning to Germany a few days later, would call Pärt and offer to come over and discuss the situation.

On his return to Eugene, Saltzman threw himself back into the preparations, fretting the whole time. Finally, after three teeth-gritting days, Rilling called — with good news. He’d met with Pärt, who had been so inspired by Saltzman’s supportive fax that he proposed a remedy: a setting of Russian prayers he’d long admired. Though much simpler than the Lament, it would use the same forces and fit the spirituality theme. Litany would be about half an hour long — and sung in English.

Saltzman and Roan agreed. Pärt fled to the Sinai to work in near-solitude at an ancient monastery. Six months before the June premiere wasn’t much time to write, orchestrate, revise and rehearse a major new composition, but there was nothing Saltzman could do to help now.

Swan Song

On June 19, 1994, Arvo Pärt arrived in Eugene — a week before the premiere — bearing score sheets for the players. For the next few days, Pärt and Rilling rehearsed the musicians, trying different approaches, making corrections. On Friday, 48 hours before the curtain would go up, Pärt asked the members of the orchestra for their part-books. He gathered them in his arms, ignoring the gasps of disbelief, and took them home to do yet more rewriting. Saltzman, Roan and Rilling fought their doubts.

As the audience filed into the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall on Sunday, June 26, Royce Saltzman felt the same anxiety that had gnawed at him when he had boarded the plane to meet Pärt a year and a half earlier. He worried that the audience might feel shortchanged by the new work’s 25-minute-length or that Pärt might be disappointed by the hastily arranged performance. He knew that music critics here from around the U.S. and Europe would send news of an artistic disaster far and wide.

Litany began almost inaudibly, with a violin shimmering between two high notes. The lines were picked up by, in turn, each member of the Hilliard Ensemble. A few orchestral exhalations, then the choir wove it into a hymn.

-O Lord, of thy heavenly bounties deprive me not
-O Lord, deliver me from thy eternal torments.

As the sequence of prayers proceeded, the singers’ voices merged, harmonized, then separated again. Before the fifth prayer opened, five slow drum beats sounded, with pauses between them like some divine breath.

-O lord give me patience, implant in me the root of a good life — thy fear in my heart.

The last prayer broke the stillness; the music rushed to a climax, the unearthly high voice of the lead singer piercing the orchestral veil, then receding. The choir erupted into chant, punctuated by bursts from the orchestra, reaching a melancholy yet unmistakably right resolution.

-O lord, forsake me not.

Then the final amen, sung over a deep chord at the low end of the chorus’s range, receding like the distant rumblings of a thunderstorm passing.

As the last chord faded, the spacious concert hall grew utterly silent. Even the customary rustle of programs and covered coughs vanished. In the hush, Saltzman, deeply moved himself, felt the audience holding in and contemplating the spellbinding moment.

Then, beginning softly, claps and shouts emerged from the spell, building to a standing ovation. In the eyes of many audience members, Saltzman saw the unmistakable expression of rapture, of having been taken somewhere new and meaningful. He breathed deeply.

After the applause died down, Rilling explained the piece’s construction and had the musicians play a few short sections to demonstrate some of his points. Then they played the work through a second time. Again came the pause, again surged the cheers and whoops, louder this time, waves of it washing over the stage.

The ovation went on for a full 15 minutes, until, amazingly, the shy Pärt himself leapt up to the stage, a beatific smile beaming from the dark cloud of his beard, then embraced Rilling and the singers in turn. He took the bouquet offered, handed flowers to the singers, and flung the rest into the orchestra’s wind section. A bassoonist picked one up, stuck it in his instrument, and waved it above his head.

Saltzman turned to watch the audience laugh and applaud even louder. He felt them reaching out to the composer in gratitude and affection for the profound experience he’d given them, the experience Saltzman helped create. He turned back to watch the celebration onstage and let the applause roll over him.

This story originally appeared in fall 1996 issue of Oregon Quarterly. Since then, both Saltzman and Rilling have retired from the Oregon Bach Festival. Arvo Pärt remains one of the world’s most revered living composers. He finally finished Adam’s Lament in 2009.

Cappella Romana’s 2017 Arvo Pärt Festival begins Sunday February 5 with a screening of the documentary “Arvo Pärt: Even if I Lose Everything” at Whitsell Auditorium, Northwest Film Center, Portland Art Museum, and continues through February 12 at various venues throughout Portland. Information and tickets online.

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