“Music should never be merely comfortable, never fossilized, never soothing. It should startle people and reach deep down inside them, forcing them to reflect.”
— Helmuth Rilling
Helmuth Rilling continues to be one of the world’s preeminent interpreters of Bach and conductors of the choral-orchestral repertoire. He served as artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival — one of the most expansive and critically acclaimed platforms for Bach’s music in America — since its inception in 1970. Handing over his role of artistic leader to Matthew Halls July 15, 2013, Rilling now serves the Festival as a director emeritus.
Born in 1933 in Stuttgart, Germany, Rilling studied at the State Music Academy with Hans Grischkat, Johann Nepomuk David, and Karl Gerok and at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome with Fernando Germani. Concentrating on conducting, choral music, and the life and work of Johann Sebastian Bach, he founded the Gächinger Kantorei in 1953 and its resident orchestral ensemble, the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, in 1965. After studying with Leonard Bernstein in New York in 1967, Rilling became professor of choral conducting at the State Music Academy in Frankfurt, a post he held until 1985. He also conducted the Frankfurter Kantorei there until 1981.
Teaching has always been a central focus of Rilling’s. His work at the Oregon Bach Festival has led to invitations to teach at such schools as Indiana, Temple, Iowa, St. Olaf, Baldwin-Wallace, Westminster Choir College, Yale, and USC. In 1981, he founded the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart (modeled largely on his achievements at the Oregon Bach Festival), an institution that further inspired similar Bach academies in Buenos Aires, Cracow, Prague, Moscow, Budapest, Tokyo, and Taipei. His emphasis on reaching young musicians led to the founding of the OBF’s Youth Choral Academy in 1998 as well as major youth ensembles in Stuttgart.
His distinctive, insightful lecture-demonstrations of Bach’s B Minor Mass and the St. Matthew Passion have been recorded in more than five hours of high-definition video and are available worldwide through the Digital Bach website (http://digitalbach.com)
Rilling has appeared as guest conductor with virtually all of the world’s important music institutions, including the Chicago, Cleveland, and Toronto symphony orchestras and the New York, Vienna, and Berlin philharmonics. His 2011–12 season included concert tours of China and South America with the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart and Gächinger Kantorei, a Bach academy in Taipei focusing on the St. Matthew Passion, and a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah at the Kennedy Center. In 2013 he continued his history of guest-conducting appearances with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and has a scheduled tour of the St. Matthew Passion to South America.
A believer in the power of music to cross political boundaries, Rilling has built a special relationship with the Israeli Philharmonic. He was the first German conductor to lead an orchestra in that country and has since returned more than one hundred times. He conducted the musical portions of Germany’s official reunification ceremonies in 1990. In 1994, his Stuttgart Bach academy was awarded the UNESCO Music Prize, and in 1995, he received the Theodor Heuss Prize for advancing reconciliation and international understanding.
In 2003, he became an Honorary Member of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, joining the company of such luminaries as Kofi Annan, Walter Cronkite, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Albert Camus, and in 2008 – on the occasion of his 75th birthday – he was awarded the Staufer Gold Medal, the highest award of his German home state of Baden-Württemberg.
His stature in the music world was further acknowledged in November 2011, when he accepted the Herbert von Karajan Music Prize, joining the company of such artists as Anne-Sophie Mutter, the Berlin Philharmonic, Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, and conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim. In October 2012, he was the seventh recipient of the Martin Luther Medal of the Council of Germany’s Evangelical Church, part of ceremonies leading up to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.
His commitment to new music has led to many commissions, including several new works by Wolfgang Rihm, the Water Passion by Tan Dun and La Pasion Segun San Marcos by Osvaldo Golijov, the Messiah by Sven-David Sandström, and Krzysztof Penderecki’s Credo, for which Rilling and the Oregon Bach Festival won a Grammy award in 2001. Among his many volumes of recordings are the complete works of Bach, totaling 172 compact discs, issued in 2000 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death — a proud legacy of Rilling’s lifelong devotion to the celebration of Bach’s genius.
Rilling's final season as OBF's artistic director was both a tribute to his 44-year legacy and a celebration of his 80th birthday, and it was marked by a series of commissions, honors and awards. In the run-up to the 2013 Festival, Rilling received Eugene's Arts and Letters award, and Chorus America's Distinguished Service Award. The Festival commissioned an Alleluia in his honor (inspired by Bach and underpinned by a quote from one of Bach's favorite Lutheran chorales) from the Scottish composer, James MacMillan; and on the final evening of the 2013 season, John Evans, OBF's President & General Director, presented Rilling with a special hand-bound facsimile of MacMillan's score in a special presentation case, at a community salute to the maestro at the Hult Center. During the same ceremony, Oregon State Representative, Phil Barnhart, honored Rilling with a resolution from the State of Oregon, proclaiming the conductor's contributions to the cultural life of the state; and in an exclusive Conductor's Society reception later in the evening, UO President Michael Gottfredsen presented Rilling with his third honor from the University of Oregon, its Presidential Medal. Rilling became the first person in the history of the university to have been honored witth all three of its highest awards, having previously received the UO's Distinguished Service Award in 1985 and an Honorary Doctorate in 1991. "Each in its own way memorailizes the very best in human endeavor," said President Gottfredson. "Tonight, you [Maestro Rilling] become the first person in the history of our university to have been honored with all three of these awards."