Willamette Master Chorus review: Triple treat

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


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.

Streamlined vocal phrases, peppered with crystal clear diction and fastidious rhythm, were the hallmarks of a near perfect rendition of the two cantatas on the program. The first, Ein Feste Burg is unser Gott (A mighty fortress is our God), was preceded by the first gift: a masterful “peek over the composer’s shoulder” by Mr. Rilling, an approach he pioneered at OBF. Using neither notes nor score, Rilling walked us through each aria, recitative, arioso and choral movement, deconstructing each in a way that the lay person could follow, so that by the end of his elucidation, each audience member was on intimate terms with the cantata. He also delved deeply into Bach’s theology as revealed in the music, tying the composer’s musical ideas to his (Bach’s) musical motives.

Helmuth Rilling conducted Willamette Master Chorus. Photo: Holger Schneider.

Helmuth Rilling conducted Willamette Master Chorus. Photo: Holger Schneider.

The second gift: masterful performances. Soloists were uniformly gifted, and well able to sing in the style of Bach, as interpreted under Mr. Rilling’s baton. Among the highlights of the solo renditions were recitatives and arias by Anton Belov. Singing with a rich, resonant tone, he coolly dispatched each word with inner meaning, particularly in the bass recitative, “Verstockung kann Gewaltige…” (The mighty can be blinded by stubbornness).

Tenor Les Green was at home with the high registers employed by Bach (this performance was sung at A=440, a modern frequency that’s a half step higher than Bach would have used – so tenors and sopranos – beware!) His silvery tenor voice easily negotiated the twists and turns of “Hilf Jesu, hilf” (Help Jesus help…), the aria he sang in the second cantata, No. 147, Heart and mouth and deed and life.

The two female soloists, Catherine van der Salm, soprano, and Hannah Penn, mezzo, were equally commanding in their solo work. In her aria from Cantata 147, “Bereite dir, Jesu” (Make ready O Jesus the way…) Ms. van der Salm shone like a Polaris star. This is really a duet for singer and violin, with the adept concertmaster, Stephen Sharff, playing perfect ‘pitch and catch’ with the soprano. (Sharff is a long time associate of Mr. Rilling, having played in OBF in previous decades). The vivacious tone of Ms. Penn was on display in a comely duet with Mr. Green, “Wie selig sind doch die…” (How blessed are those…), and in an arioso with two double reeds, also from Cantata 147 “Der hochsten Allmacht Wunderhand” (The wondrous hand of the sublime).

The combination of violin and oboe da caccia was an inspired choice by Bach. The tones of the oboe combined in a beautifully sonic way with the violin. There is some elaborate counterpoint at times, and the words are vividly characterized.

The third gift, the other “star” in this concert’s firmament, was the venue itself: Hudson Hall on the Willamette University campus is a fine hall, fair to all no matter where they are sitting, as it disperses the sound easily without losing highs or lows. My guess is that its ring time is about 2.0, perhaps more when vacant. (“Ring time” refers to the length of time a played or sung note or notes will reverberate in a given venue. So that 2.0 means “for two seconds.” That is considered to be very good. Lincoln Hall at PSU and Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall both have less than that, around 1.0 or less, considered good for speaking, OK for a band or orchestra, but not good for a choir.)

Willamette Master Chorus performed two cantatas by J.S. Bach. Photo: Doug Lusk.

Willamette Master Chorus. Photo: Doug Lusk.

Thanks to Paul Klemme and the Chorale for bringing this sterling event to us, amassing a truly fine orchestra, stellar soloists, and the immaculate chorus, which was the equal of any I’ve heard recently in the Seattle-Portland corridor. The extra special gift was experiencing the choral sound and spirit emanating from the wonderful Willamette Master Chorale.

Portland choral director Bruce Browne led Portland Symphonic Choir and Portland State University choral programs for many years.

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