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Majestic Brahms opens Bach fest

  • Jul 2, 2007
Monday, July 02, 2007 DAVID STABLER The Oregonian Staff EUGENE -- Scenes from Friday's opening night of the Oregon Bach Festival: Hundreds of children singing in lavish harmony to welcome patrons inside the timber-columned lobby of the Hult Center. A standing ovation that grew to shouts and roars before the music even began, for a quiet-spoken man named Royce Saltzman, who helped found the festival 37 years ago and is retiring after this year's festival. And the enveloping beauty of the "German Requiem" by Johannes Brahms. For three decades, Eugene has been home to an international festival with a cultlike following for performances of large-scale choral works, including the Passions of J.S. Bach, the Masses of Mozart and Haydn and the oratorios of Handel and Mendelssohn, spiced by premieres by today's leading composers. It's a good question how much of that will change with the arrival of Welshman John Evans, a former BBC radio executive who will take over as chief administrator from Saltzman. Under German director Helmuth Rilling's musical leadership, the 17-day festival has always been the most European of American festivals, both in its choice of music and performers. On Friday, it was all Brahms. Some of the most beautiful music of the 19th century comes from his Requiem, which reflects gracefully on human frailty and the transitory nature of life. Rilling's probing, untheatrical direction -- his signature contribution to these renowned works -- clarified those reflective qualities with flowing, polished performances from the 103-voice choir (beautifully prepared by Kathy Romey) and orchestra. Rilling's tempos in the seven movements may have been measured, but tension didn't sag. The singers' tone bloomed from the outset, creating the illusion of stopped time in the opening chorus, "Blessed Are They That Mourn." Brighter energy followed with an outburst of triumphant feeling in the next movement, but we all knew what the evening's highlight would be: the exquisite "How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place." The too-short piece is simplicity itself but soars to lofty heights, and with so many singers, you might expect thick textures. But the choir and orchestra fooled us. I couldn't bear it to end. Unfortunately, the vocal soloists, soprano Simone Saturova and baritone Yorck Felix Speer, were merely adequate. Neither inhabited the words with character. The orchestra didn't play its best, either, but the chorus stole our hearts.