2003 Season • Article/Feature
June 27, 2003
By David Stabler of The Oregonian.
Some music festivals open with a trumpet fanfare. Others begin with the chime of bells summoning audiences. But the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene commences with the sound of 350 children filling the Hult Center plaza with sweet harmony.
It’s a wonderful tradition, and worth the effort to arrive early (6 p.m. Friday), before heading inside to savor the festival’s traditional opening work, usually a powerful choral piece by Johann Sebastian Bach or George Frederic Handel.
Each year, the Pacific International Children’s Choir — youngsters from St. Louis; Columbus, Ind.; Pennsylvania; Mississippi; New Jersey; San Diego; Spokane; and Salem — raises the curtain on 17 days of concerts, classes and lectures. Musicians gather from Europe, Asia and North America to perform 50 concerts, large and small, grand and intimate, international and local, turning Eugene into a global village of music.
But even though the festival has an international reach, it manages to stay grounded, even intimate, avoiding the hype and commercialism of splashier cousins like Tanglewood and Aspen. That’s due to the festival’s artistic director, Helmuth Rilling, a soft-spoken German scholar and conductor who gave equal weight to learning and performance when he founded the festival 34 years ago.
The twin traditions continue this year when Rilling opens with Handel’s stirring oratorio “Jephtha.” It’s a first in Eugene and just what the festival does best, a summoning of large musical forces under the conductor’s authoritative baton.
Handel, who was practically blind in 1751, the year he finished “Jephtha,” based his last significant work on an Old Testament story of heroism and sacrifice. A warrior pledges to God that, if he’s victorious in battle, he will sacrifice the first person he sees on his arrival home. As fate would have it, that person is his daughter.
The story gets the full Handelian treatment, with mighty choruses and tragic and beautiful arias for five vocal soloists: Elizabeth Keusch, soprano; Anke Vondung, alto; Matthew White, countertenor; James Taylor, tenor; Sanford Sylvan, bass. The performers will sing in English with Supertitles projected above the stage.
Other highlights include:
All five Beethoven piano concertos over two nights, with the festival’s favorite pianist from California, Jeffrey Kahane; Tuesday, Thursday.
Duo-piano recital with Ya-Fei Chuang and Robert Levin, a husband-and-wife team that promises to rock Rachmaninoff; July 5. Close to selling out.
Brahms’ consoling Requiem, a choral masterpiece and a Rilling specialty; July 6.
“The Tao of the Well-Tempered Bach,” an intriguing performance of Bach’s seminal keyboard works (a selection) by the sharp-witted Levin, interpreted by tai chi master Chungliang Al Huang; July 9. Close to selling out.
“Bach and Ballet,” two new ballets set to Bach’s pumping Orchestral Suite No. 1 and the Concerto for Three Violins, choreographed by Eugene Ballet’s Toni Pimble and danced by company members; July 11.
But don’t overlook the “Discovery Series” at 5 p.m. each weekday. These are among the festival’s most popular and intimate events, mixing Rilling’s insights into the symbolism and structure of a particular work, with a performance led by an eager apprentice conductor.
This year’s “Discovery Series” looks at a number of Bach’s cantatas, those short, musical gems that the master churned out each week for his church choir in Leipzig, Germany. But the series also includes “From Africa to Gospel” (Thursday), with pianist Andre Thomas tracing the roots of modern gospel music. Levin, a widely noted Mozart scholar and performer who teaches at Harvard, will take over two “Discovery” afternoons, the first on “Beethoven as Inheritor of Mozart” on July 10 and the second on “Mozart’s Unfinished C Minor Mass” on July 11.
The festival, which splits concerts between the Hult Center and the University of Oregon’s Beall Hall, rounds out each weekday with free noon concerts, lectures and talks by the musicians. One particular lunchtime concert not to miss presents Guy Few, the Canadian trumpet virtuoso, on July 9 in the Hult Center lobby. Few is a force unto himself.
Something else to bear in mind is an attempt to improve the dry acoustics in Silva Hall, the Hult Center’s main, 2,400-seat auditorium. The 20-year-old arts center spent $1.2 million upgrading its mechanical and electrical systems, replacing a fiberglass acoustic shell with a wooden one and building wooden risers for the chorus. Early reports from the musicians are encouraging.
But the kids won’t need any help Friday.
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