What they've learned: conductors
By Paul Omundson
Planting seeds of inspiration and education is the underlying goal of the Oregon Bach Festival. This key purpose, nurtured since the festival began as a series of workshops and a concert in 1970, is vividly underscored in the Master Class in Conducting. The world's best young conductors vie for the opportunity to join Helmuth Rilling for two weeks of advanced training in choral and orchestral conducting that combines master classes with concerts.
Here's a look at how the experience influenced three of the 2006 conducting class participants.
No Longer Afraid of Bach
Guadalupe Rivera, Jr. makes no bones about it. "Up to now I was afraid of Bach," he said. Guadalupe's experience had previously been in classical, romantic and 20th Century music. "But here in Eugene, Helmuth gave me a real insight into what Bach is all about and how to approach him.
He encouraged me gently yet forcefully and said I could do it. And I think now after this experience, yes I can," Guadalupe said, with a confident smile.
He currently serves as assistant conductor of the University Community Chorus at the University of Arizona where he is pursuing a doctorate of musical arts degree in choral and orchestral conducting.
The native of Corpus Christi, Texas, and former assistant conductor of the Turtle Creek Chorale (Dallas) looked back on this year's conducting master's class and said it will indelibly shape his professional career ahead.
Two key factors weigh in: Spending quality personal time with one of the world's most renowned living conductors and interpreters of Bach, and two weeks of camaraderie and learning from his fellow up-and-coming conductors, who came to Eugene from all parts of the globe.
"Professionally, what I learned here at the festival was how to dramatically improve my rehearsal technique," Guadalupe said. "Helmuth taught me the importance of listening to the chorus and the orchestra, not getting too involved in the music but paying close attention to things like rhythmic accuracy, precision and balance. Those kinds of things are really important for the conductor to focus on at rehearsal. That allows me to fashion a clear, crisp concise performance. Then, at the concert, it's time to really get immersed in the music itself."
Next up for Guadalupe this summer are festivals in Europe and then back to the University of Arizona in Tucson in fall to continue working on his doctorate.
He will stay in touch with Helmuth and plans to seek out opportunities to work with him, hopefully in Stuttgart. And yes, of course, Guadalupe vows to return to the Oregon Bach Festival. "Man, I'm going to miss this," he sighed, on the last day of the Fest. "I wish it wouldn't end."
The Answer is in the Music
Every master class conductor took home a nugget that resonates personally. For Kuan Fen Liu, it was Helmuth's instruction to her to look deeply into the notes.
"He kept telling me that the answer is in the music," she recalled. "He emphasized to me to be absolutely true to the composer, the era, and the music. That approach gives me a framework of discipline that I can work on and use to really improve," she added.
Typical of her colleagues, Kuan Fen quickly added that working with Helmuth goes far just beyond technical mastery of the craft.
"He is not only a master of the music, he is a great personal inspiration," Kuan Fen said. "He is strict and pushes all of us to improve, but his style and manner are so welcoming and friendly, that it's very easy to handle and learn from him. His own mastery is incredible. It's an honor and a privilege to work with him."
Kuan Fen, who is artistic director of the Channel Island Chamber Orchestra, also praised the festival as "a big, friendly family. I felt very welcomed here in Eugene. The festival staff did everything to make me comfortable so I could concentrate totally on the music."
Rilling, the Reincarnation of Bach
Australian David Russell smiled, but he was completely serious when he said "If you believe in reincarnation then it's beyond a doubt that Helmuth Rilling truly is the reincarnation of Bach."
The master class conductor from Sydney went on to say that the depth of Helmuth's knowledge of every aspect of Bach, from his personality and style to the era in which he lived, gave all the conductors an incredibly rich experience during the two-week master class.
"Helmuth personally taught and inspired me to go beyond what just the choir is doing," David said. "He got me attuned to recognizing what the orchestra is doing as well."
Russell is the assistant conductor of the choir of Christ Church St. Laurence in Sydney, and performer with Cantillation, a professional choir. "I look at a score differently now," he said of lessons learned in Eugene. “I can see patterns and structures that I didn't notice before."
David pegged the Oregon Bach Festival as remarkable.
"It's a unique set-up here," he explained. "We had the chance of a lifetime to work with professional soloists and orchestra over an extended period of time rather than a one-shot deal. And the time with Helmuth for all of us in the master conducting class, both personally and collectively, is invaluable. We learned from him, from each other and from all the festival performers. Where else can you get anything like that?"
Even though he lives on the other side of the world, David plans to be back in Eugene and hopes to be back for the festival's 40th anniversary.
Paul Omundson is a freelance writer based in Eugene.