Opening night resonates with celebration
By Tom Manoff
For The Register-Guard
Published: Monday, July 2, 2007
The beginning of the Oregon Bach Festival on Friday evening continued an extraordinary run of musical excellence in Eugene's cultural life. Arriving on the heels of Renée Fleming's Eugene Symphony gala and the Philadelphia Orchestra's concert for the Hult Center's 25th anniversary, the return of the Bach Festival - Eugene's premiere arts event - should have audiences celebrating the fine state of classical music in their city.
Helmuth Rilling opened the festival with an emotionally charged account of Johannes Brahms' "A German Requiem," one of the conductor's signature works.
When Brahms assembled a text of biblical excerpts for his Requiem, he rejected extremes. The music is sometimes sad but never maudlin, celebratory but never bombastic, and without a whiff of fire or brimstone. Instead, the composer chose unceasing lyricism to carry the heart.
Rilling's musical outlook, characteristically devoid of excess and contrivance, seemed a perfect fit for the work. When a conductor leads without a score - as Rilling did this night - it shows not merely a trick of memory, but a deep understanding of the work, and how musical details fit into a broader logic. Thus, his interpretations don't sound idiosyncratic, but grow faithfully from the composer's intentions.
It took awhile for the performance to settle in. While the chorus was splendid from the outset, the orchestra didn't find a cohesive sound until the third movement. The work has seven movements.
Bass-baritone Yorck Felix Speer first appears in the third movement. His focused singing - warm in timbre and clear in musical intent - introduced a sturdy presence, in keeping with Brahms' dramatic plan. Speer was even more commanding in the sixth movement. This isn't a solo for the timid, but it's not opera either, and can't be pushed vocally or lyrically without sounding blusterous. Speer's oratorio style made both music and message believable.
Soprano Simona Saturova, a gifted singer with a lovely sense of phrasing, appeared in the fifth movement. Although she had some uncertain moments this particular evening, she brought a tenderness to the work that set up its later emotional resolution. I'm eager to hear Saturova sing at other concerts next week.
Both soloists were at a disadvantage, positioned in an acoustically dead spot too far back on the stage. You can't get a vocal vibrato to "spin" in this the Silva Concert Hall without moving closer to the audience.
The chorus was spectacular. Chorusmaster Kathy Romey proved again that she is among the best anywhere in preparing singers for this kind of repertory. Rilling then added his choral magic, drawing an intensely radiant sound from the ensemble without a hint of oversinging.
Some performances gain energy and focus as they move forward, taking on greatness in the process. In its closing movements, this performance reached such greatness. The last movement, especially, was exhilarating.
Friday's concert was the festival's eighth performance of the Brahms Requiem since 1976. And repetition in programming at the Bach Festival has become an issue lately of some discussion. But, as a two-week event whose aim is polished performances, the festival must rely, in part, upon works in repertory. That said, there's a tangible loss in interest for some listeners when hearing works many times.
But the house was nearly sold out, and audience response was enthusiastic and affectionate. This is the last season for executive director Royce Saltzman, and in that light, the Requiem resonated with sentiment and celebration.
Generally speaking though, the festival might get more artistic mileage from repeated works through innovative use of the Internet. Why not target the iPod generation with one free download of a Rilling favorite each year? What a generous way to pass on his art to the world.
Tom Manoff is the classical music critic for Natonal Public Radio's All Things Considered.