2004 Season • Article/Feature
38 voices, 50 years: The choir Helmuth Rilling has led for half a century makes its first trip to the Oregon Bach Festival
July 4, 2004
By Fred Crafts of The Register-Guard.
Necessity being the mother of invention, Helmuth Rilling became the father of the Gaechinger Kantorei.
The year was 1954. Rilling was a 21-year-old, first-year music student at the State Music Academy in Stuttgart, Germany.
He already had his eye on a conducting career, but he was frustrated over not having anything to practice conducting on.
Then the idea hit him to start his own choir.
“I just gathered some friends of mine – all very young people, between 17 and 21,” Rilling recalls.
The small village of Gaechingen, about 18 miles from Stuttgart, in the Swabian Alps, was selected as the rehearsal site for a very practical reason: “Friends of my parents had a small house there,” which they offered for rehearsals.
In tribute, the choir was named after the city.
Rilling says he was “very inexperienced” when he first stood before the choir. But he knew he needed to work though this period.
“You need chances to do something – to rehearse, to work, to perform,” he says. “Only as a conductor with experience do you grow.”
For repertoire, Rilling chose a combination of very old and very new music. Some was from the 16th century and 17th century. Some was contemporary.
“These two things – old music and contemporary music – are something which the choir has done through the many years after college. The idea was born at the very beginning,” he says.
And from the very first rehearsal, Rilling realized this group of singers was special.
“We were already making music at a very high level,” Rilling says.
In effect, Rilling and the choir grew up together. The better he became as a conductor, the better the choir sang. The more engagements he received, the more the choir got to sing.
Fifty years later, Rilling and the Gaechinger Kantorei are still together and celebrating their remarkable musical milestone at every opportunity.
Earlier this month, the choir held a 50th reunion party in Stuttgart.
“Many from the very first years turned up. They’re my age now,” Rilling says.
And they’re no longer singing in the choir, as the choir’s personnel has changed frequently through the decades.
“It’s wonderful that always we had young people wanting to join the chorus,” Rilling says. “We have auditions every three months, and there are always many hundreds of people who want to audition. We have to select from these good young people the best ones. Today, I think the average age of, for example, the sopranos is around 25.”
The 38-member choir – most members are in the mid-20s to mid-40s – has been a regular at festivals such as the Salzburg Festival, the Festwochen in Berlin, Luzern and Vienna, and the Prague Spring Festival, as well as festivals in London, Berlin, Leipzig, Strassbourg, Santiago, Buenos Aires and Ansbach.
At this 2004 Oregon Bach Festival, the group has sung in several concerts already and will be spotlighted on Tuesday when they perform J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
This is the first year that the group has sung at the Oregon Bach Festival.
Bringing a choir from overseas is expensive but festival executive director Royce Saltzman thought it was a necessity in an anniversary year to “symbolically build a bridge between the Oregon Bach Festival and the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart.”
“When you bring choirs of two different cultures or nationalities together, they really become neighbors without passports,” he says. “It just simply makes a statement that, because we are all involved in singing, we’re part of a global family, particularly with our two organizations, one in Stuttgart and one in Eugene. We are really one. Bringing the Gaechinger Kantorei here says that in a very graphic way.”
Saltzman, who often adjudicates at choral festivals around the world, says the Gaechinger Kantorei is an elite musical ensemble.
“They’re very musical,” he says. “They have a distinct sound – that is, less vibrato than you have in other choirs. Their dexterity, their musicianship, their sensitivity is first-rate. Having worked with Rilling over many, many years, they have an expressiveness and an understanding of interpretation, particularity of Bach repertory, that really is wonderful.”
Saltzman’s not the only one singing the choir’s praises.
It’s abilities are readily apparent to anyone – especially to critics – who has listened to Rilling’s recordings. Together with their orchestral partner, the Bach Collegium, they have recorded all of Bach’s cantatas and passions – some 200 in all – on CD.
Besides Bach, the choir and orchestra have also recorded many of the classical choral masterpieces from W.A. Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt.
They have also sung many world and European first performances including “Litany” by Arvo Part, and “Requiem Versohnung” and “Deus Passus” by Wolfgang Rihm.
The Kantorei and Collegium play an essential role in accompanying students and professors alike in Bach academies throughout Eastern and Western Europe, the United States, Japan and South America.
Yet, for all its visibility – the choir sings 60 to 70 concerts a year – Rilling points out it “is not a professional chorus in the way that they would make their living from that.”
“They are getting paid expenses and hotels and so on, but they are not really paid people. It is a challenge for them to be in that chorus.”
Why do they do it, then?
“The chorus has a wonderful prestige,” Rilling says. “It’s a very well-known ensemble here in Germany. So, it’s fun for them to be part of that chorus.”
And for us to get to hear them here.
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