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MUSIC REVIEW : Oregon Bach Fest Tests the Other Bs

Times Music Critic

The Oregon Bach Festival, now celebrating its 20th enterprising season, doesn’t always concentrate on good old Johann Sebastian.

This summer, the second city of the Beaver State is playing host to some decidedly diverse diversions. The 16-day agenda boasts a personal appearance by the noble bard of Lake Wobegon, a recital by a glamorous Metropolitan Opera star, a picnic Bacchanalia, a supertitled concert performance of Boito’s “Mefistofele,” Monteverdi’s antiphonal Vespers, jazz interludes and mime matinees, all in addition to the wonted “Brandenburgs” and B-minor Mass.

For better or worse, Eugene--population 107,485--has become festively eclectic.

It all began in 1970 when a faculty visionary named Royce Saltzman persuaded the University of Oregon to sponsor a few workshop-oriented concerts on campus and in a nearby church. In 1983, the major events moved downtown to the spacious new Hult Center. This striking wood-glass-and-concrete mirage tries heroically to fuse a ruggedly modern high-tech ski-lodge exterior with the interior trappings of a poshly conventional opera house.

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Eugene’s most visible musical hero from the start has been Helmuth Rilling, the universally admired, much recorded scholar and choral specialist from Stuttgart. The stylistic evolution of the Bach Festival has neatly reflected the expanding ambition--and artistic outreach--of its conductor.

Now, as Rilling and Eugene approach their third collaborative decade, certain paradoxes are coming into focus. The festival treads a precarious line between the popular and the sophisticated, the obvious and the esoteric. It settles for home-town popularity one moment, stretches for world-class achievement the next. It wants to offer something for everyone, and risks an identity crisis in the process.

The non-Bach concert Wednesday night turned out to be a case in point. Rilling used it, with variable success, to sample the two other Bs, plus a novel P.

The other Bs were the inevitable Beethoven and Brahms. The big news involved the P.

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The festival, in financial conjunction with Security Pacific Bank Oregon, had commissioned a work from Stephen Paulus, currently composer-in-residence with the Atlanta Symphony. The resulting Symphony for Strings received its world premiere on this occasion.

At 40, Paulus is a master of his essentially conservative craft. His 22-minute symphony speaks a familiar Hindemithian language in well-modulated academic tones.

It is a polite if not cautious composition, deftly colored, cleverly structured, delicately paced. It resounds in contrapuntal vigor, and it makes canny use of its instrumental resources.

It will offend no one. It will excite few.

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Rilling led the pliant strings of his ad-hoc orchestra through the linear convolutions with equal concern for clarity and vigor. The audience in the in the slightly garish, acoustically flattering hall left a few of the 2,500 seats empty but compensated with generous applause. The push-button standing ovations were reserved, however, for the subsequent war-horses.

Kathleen Lenski, one of many Los Angeles musicians in the festival ensemble, served as appreciative soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Her rather small-scaled performance proved more notable for lyrical introspection than for dramatic bravura. Demonstrating rare democratic modesty, she returned after intermission to her accustomed chair as concertmaster for Brahms’ Second Symphony.

Rilling conducted both Bs with brisk, objective efficiency. He sustained taut momentum and, dubious timpani intonation and unreliable brass responses notwithstanding, pervasive high spirits.

Nevertheless, one missed the expressive conviction and intellectual probing that invariably mark his interpretations of the Baroque repertory. One wondered if it was a simple matter of musical miscasting, or just an off night at the Silva Concert Hall.

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