Rilling takes final bow with B Minor Mass
By Marilyn Farwell From The Register-Guard The last night of the Oregon Bach Festival is always special. A large work usually caps the fortnight of intense music making; the musicians are exhausted, nostalgic and yet energized; and the audience is prepared for what is often the highlight of the season. Sunday afternoon’s presentation at the Hult Center of J.S. Bach’s B Minor Mass, with Helmuth Rilling at the helm, had all of these elements and more. As the last concert of Rilling’s 44-year tenure as artistic director of the festival, it was not simply a concert but an inspired event, joyful and sad at the same time. The sold-out performance left many in tears. Rilling once again proved that he channels Bach’s music. Bach is an architect of music. The sections of the B Minor Mass are carefully ordered to highlight the core Christian beliefs. His fugues are the height of rational construction, and, as Rilling has taught us in the many afternoon Discovery Series talks, Bach’s music is also a theological allegory. When, for example, the texts of the Mass speak of Christ as the second person of the Trinity, Bach constructs a duet in which the lines, representing Father and Son, mirror each other. Yet with all this rational structure, the beauty, variety and emotional truth his music attains are astonishing. Rilling’s conducting mirrors these qualities. It is exacting and precise, yet dramatic and moving. And so it was in Sunday concert. The musicians seemed inspired by the occasion. The choir was its usual precise and superbly blended self, spitting out consonants and clearly separating the notes of the long fugal passages. The negative side of this precision is the staccato effect created by such details. The orchestra was again superb with the obbligato solos beautifully rendered. Rilling molded a drama from the Mass, making even the credo moving. He sculptured the central sections starting with “Et incarnatus” and ending with the declaration of the resurrection as a mysterious statement of faith, beginning with awed pianissimo and ending with a joyful shout. The soloists also rose to the occasion. Two of the most impressive solo movements included tenor Nicholas Phan, his duet with the bright soprano Julia Wagner and his solo in the “Benedictus.” Alto Roxana Constantinescu again sang dramatically and powerfully. Bass Tobias Berndt was ideal as the figure of oneness and solidity that Bach’s music demands. In his opening remarks to the audience, Rilling thanked those who made his time here possible and fruitful. After the concert, the community thanked him with plaques and the announcement of an endowment fund in his name. Few artistic directors of important or growing festivals stay for 44 years because they usually move on to more prestigious appointments. That one person, along with retired founding director Royce Saltzman, shepherded a music festival from a single concert of amateur musicians to a two-week series of extraordinary music by top-flight singers and instrumentalists and did it in a city of humble size, is incredible, even miraculous. Danke schön, maestro. Marilyn Farwell, a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon, reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-Guard.