bach festival musings

jeffrey kahane and yo-yo ma at oregon bach festival

I’m just entering my first weekend of the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene, Oregon, and there’s a lot going on at the southern end of the Willamette Valley. The OBF is starting its search for a successor to the festival’s co-founder and artistic director for the past 41 years, Helmuth Rilling. Two of the front-runners seem to be Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (and formerly Colorado Symphony) music director Jeffrey Kahane, and Matthew Halls, a young conductor, a former artistic director of the King’s Consort. Early music specialist Nicholas McGegan is also among those being considered. It’s a multi-year process that will eventually send the OBF on its new course for the next several decades.

The first concert I took part in was the opening gala featuring Yo-Yo Ma in a performance of Osvaldo Golijov‘s Azul (2006) for cello, percussion, hyper-accordion, and orchestra. Azul is a sprawling, 27 minute meditation of the evolution of the universe, and it largely succeeds in being a mood piece of epic proportions that befit its subject matter. The centerpiece of the work is a section called Transit, where the two ethnic percussionists and hyper-accordionist (the hyper-accordion is a normal accordion that is electronically enhanced to expand its range and tonal possibilities) begin a frenetic jam session with the cello soloist. The poly-rhythms and interplay between the three combo members and Ma was just amazing to watch from just feet away. Yo-Yo, as usual, played with full commitment and laser-like focus throughout. As an encore he played the sublime and prayerful Sarabande from the sixth cello Suite of J.S. Bach. ¬†Jeffrey Kahane was the conductor, and led the orchestra ably, with the first half consisting of the chamber orchestra performing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 and Magnificat with the expert OBF chorus.

Friday brought us our first interaction of the festival with music director Helmuth Rilling. I’ve yet to play under Helmut in a rehearsal or performance which fails to reveal something fundamental about the piece being played. His is a probing mind, constantly examining the music like a cinematographer might explore the intricacies of a location shoot. While his interpretations don’t often vary substantially from one another over several years, there are often many small changes that alter the overall trajectory of the piece in subtle ways. Friday’s rehearsal was of the great German Requiem of Johannes Brahms. It’s a piece which is hard to bring off – it doesn’t have a lot of overt drama like, say, the requiem of Verdi, for example. And tempos tend to be very non troppo in character. It can easily become a wallow rather than a majestic statement. From what we rehearsed Friday morning, it seems that Rilling is very much aware of this, and that a truly wonderful performance is in the works for Sunday afternoon at the Hult Center.

More from the OBF – stay tuned …