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Festival's finale grand, though short of perfect

  • Jul 16, 2007
By Tom Manoff For The Register-Guard Published: Thursday, July 19, 2007 The Oregon Bach Festival closed Sunday at Silva Hall as Helmuth Rilling conducted Ludwig van Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis." The concert was Royce Saltzman's last as executive director, a moment not lost on an appreciative audience. The Bach Festival Chorus sang gloriously with warmth, focus and uncanny intonation. No question that these singers were the stars of this festival. Saltzman began as a choral conductor, and the superb vocal performances these two weeks were a testament to his career, and the festival that he and Rilling made from scratch. The "Missa Solemnis" is genius-struck in a way that cannot be captured with musical terms such as melody, harmony or form. Hewn from an imagination that had abandoned any temporal sense of music, it exists almost beyond the reach of performance, beyond the confines of any one interpretation. While the chorus is ever-present, the work is truly symphonic and must be carried by the orchestra. That didn't happen this night. Missteps throughout - especially uncertain entrances and tempos - distracted from what was successful and at times transcendent. But the energy in the effort had its own momentum and emotional reward. The soloists were uneven. Both mezzo Roxanna Constantinescu and tenor Corby Welch have beautiful voices that easily cut through dense textures. But they pushed too often. By contrast, bass Yorck Felix Speer and soprano Simona Saturová sang expressively while fitting into the overall sound. By that I don't mean that a soloist shouldn't soar when the composer offers wings. Saturová seems to understand this innately. A great singer can make difficult music sound easy, while an average singer can make easy music sound hard. Saturová is a great singer, and when she does turn on the power, it seems effortless and natural, and always at the right moment. She also sings with honesty and tenderness. Her voice was the highlight of the festival for me. The same vocal quartet sang more successfully last week, when Rilling conducted the best performance of the festival - Franz Josef Haydn's "Mass for Theresa." Except for that concert, the orchestral playing this year seemed average at best. Looking back on the two-week event, musical personalities were more interesting than familiar repertory. Midori played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with conductor Jeffrey Kahane, a reading far from perfect. Tempos were rushed and the performance lacked the seamless flow of a good collaboration. But Midori is an enchanting presence with a beguiling sound and liquid sense of phrasing. The audience was sprinkled with young people who stayed for the whole concert. Many younger listeners are put off by the length and seriousness of grand religious works, so this kind of concert has an important niche in future programming. Violinist Rahel Rilling is a gifted and intelligent musician. As a soloist in J.S. Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, her lyricism shone, though her constant vibrato gave no nod to historically informed playing. But she sculpted Bach's melodies with musical savvy. It's hard to know how she really hears Bach from this concert. Her Mozart that evening was a joy. The surprise from Rahel Rilling came as concertmaster at the Youth Choral Academy performance of Antonio Vivaldi's "Magnificat." She played with no vibrato. Such "straight tone" playing is one step toward historically informed performance. Sadly, none of the other string players followed suit, which made the string sound messy. Ultimately, this decision should come from the conductor. It's an oversimplification to target non-vibrato strings as the only way to play Bach's music. Baroque players certainly used vibrato in varying degrees. But using "straight tone" these days indicates a willingness to think about the many issues of historical authenticity. Pianist and conductor Robin Engelen came to play jazzed-up Bach and lead a performance of Arthur Honegger's "King David." The Bach was disappointing. As a conductor though, Engelen was terrific. Confident and technically excellent, he somehow drew out subtleties from Honegger's pedestrian score, while keeping the onstage drama under control. Engelen seems comfortable bringing unwieldy musical endeavors together in a short time, and had me dreaming about semi-staged opera at the festival - a tidy "Cosí fan tutte " by W.A. Mozart, or a gripping "Turn of the Screw" by Benjamin Britten, for example. He also would open up many possibilities for programming contemporary works. Engelen's baton was the eye-opener of the festival, and he's a fine addition to its conducting roster. -- Tom Manoff is the classical music critic for Natonal Public Radio's All Things Considered.