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Amid Bach and Boito, a Quest for Identity : At 20, Oregon festival faces the problems of growth

Eugene is an interesting place, a paradoxical place. It is, depending on one’s perspective, a very big town or a rather little city.

The area proudly produces, among other important commodities, lumber, wine, fish, rain and runners. It harbors an excellent university, the greenest greenery in the great outdoors and a population of 107,485 dominated by ruggedly enthusiastic individualists.

At the annual County Fair, Eugene becomes a delirious mecca for the flower children of yore. Here, nostalgia is alive and well.

The biggest hotel in the second-largest city in the Beaver State proudly stocks out-of-town journals. Unfortunately, the gift shop orders only two copies of the New York Times. The early bird gets the paper.

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It is possible that the early bird is the official state bird. The chamber of commerce isn’t quite clear about that.

But, we are assured, there is a state flower: the Oregon grape. The state tree is the Douglas fir. The state fish is--what else?--the Chinook salmon. The state insect is the swallowtail butterfly. Officialdom even touts a state rock: the noble thunderegg.

Ah. Symbolism.

For a few weeks every summer, the state of the thunderegg happens to boast, and host, a music festival. It has been doing so for 20 increasingly ambitious years.

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This is no everyday garden-variety festival. It is, on its best days, a sophisticated project that can withstand comparison with the finest in this country and in Europe.

On its worst days, it flirts a bit with local boosterism and tends to confuse artistic endeavor with education. Perhaps the discrepancies don’t matter. The large and faithful audiences always respond with standing ovations.

The festive mirage began in 1970 with a modest choral workshop sponsored by the university music school plus an organ recital held in a nearby church. The impresario was a faculty visionary named Royce Saltzman. The inspired protagonist was an inspiring visitor from Stuttgart: the celebrated conductor and Baroque specialist, Helmuth Rilling.

Bolstered by considerable community and academic support, Saltzman and Rilling are still going strong. So is their vastly enlarged Oregon Bach Festival. All three words of the title, however, have become somewhat misleading.

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Oregon provides housing, money and a personnel nucleus. Many of the participants come from other locales, however, most notably Southern California. A few jaunt here from Germany.

Bach is always part of the agenda, but not necessarily the central force. This year, Rilling had his reasonably enlightened way with three other Bs: Beethoven, Brahms and, of all composers, Boito. The maestro also conducted the world premiere of a conservative commission from Stephen Paulus.

Otherwise, the schedule turned eclectically from jazz to choral to chamber-music to gospel to bluegrass to symphony to pop-Americana concerts. In between, one could frequent lectures, picnics, children’s programs and mime shows, not to mention star turns by such disparate luminaries as Kammersanger Garrison Keillor and Met mezzo-diva Frederica von Stade.

The festival label usually connotes extraordinary quality as well as extraordinary quantity. Nevertheless, Eugene sometimes has to encourage the home team while hoping for the best. In the process, standards can get compromised by sentimentality.

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Moreover, the sheer quantity of unrelated events threatens to obscure the aesthetic focus in this context. For all its obvious success, this festival may be facing an identity crisis.

Saltzman is aware of the problems.

“It would be nice if we could do more Bach,” he admits in a casual chat between concerts. “But we don’t want this to be a cloistered festival. I’m not sure we can afford the luxury of doing that. Bach remains the thread that connects.”

It is no coincidence that the biggest box-office attraction this summer was not a concert devoted to good old Johann Sebastian but a concert dominated by the beloved bard of Lake Wobegon. Saltzman has a lot of tickets to sell.

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In 1982, the festival moved many of its activities from its intimate university quarters to the new Hult Center downtown. The move made the festival look glamorous, but it created a different sort of housing problem.

Everyone soon got used to the stylistic and architectural contradictions of the glass-beam-and-concrete complex. It looked stark, modern and majestic on the outside, fussy, old and mock-operatic on the inside.

Keillor reportedly stepped on stage and gazed first at the ornate boxes. Then he gazed at the green-and-beige walls decorated with simulated deck-chair webbing. He sighed and said he thought the theater looked just like a bible-school emporium. He felt right at home. That got a big laugh from a full house.

The dilemma facing Eugene on most nights involves the challenge of filling all 2,500 seats in the acoustically uneven Silva Concert Hall. It is too small for lucrative rock concerts, and too big for most of the so-called classical concerts. And its vast, luxurious, open spaces make the house seem formal and forbidding even when it happens to be sold out.

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Under the circumstances, Saltzman has to play to the masses. He can continue to use the stately, 500-seat Beall Hall on campus for chamber events. He can use the gaudy 500-seat Soreng Theatre in the Hult Center, microphones and all, for special small-scale events. He can use the multi-leveled lobby for free noon-time serenades, and a subterranean studio-gallery for cabarets. What he needs, and doesn’t have, is a 1,000-seat hall for standard musical fare.

“Sometimes,” he says, “we play to 1,500 people. That is plenty. That number would fill most European halls. But an audience of that size looks small at the Hult. It creates a psychological disadvantage.

“We have to do a lot of educating. That dimension is terribly important to the festival. I’m not just talking about the master classes. I’m talking about the noon concerts. People bring their children. We’ve started a series called ‘Let’s Talk,’ in which the audience can ask the artists questions. It’s great.

“We’re trying supertitles for a concert performance of ‘Mefistofele.’ If they work well, who knows, we might use them for a Bach Passion next time.

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“We have to make people want to come. There is a sense of community here, of territory. We have to take advantage of that. There is a lot of partying. The musicians like coming here.

“The balancing act is hard. This can’t be a totally imported festival. We must use faculty players, even our own students in the last rows. But we can’t sacrifice quality.”

Saltzman concedes no delusions of festival grandeur.

“I know we shouldn’t try to do too much. We still have to upgrade the orchestra. We’re thinking of getting a second conductor. Last year Penderecki came. It was wonderful. Rilling is talking to Christoph von Dohnanyi about the future. . . . “

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Saltzman isn’t sure he knows how to get the word out about his festival.

“Fifty-six percent of the audience comes from this area. The rest come from outside, half of them from outside the state. Even now, after 20 years, it still is hard to persuade people to come to Eugene for music.

“We are constantly doing outreach experiments. After the B-Minor Mass on opening night (June 24), we had a big party on the mall outside the theater. I was afraid some people would be offended by jazz right after the ‘Agnus dei.’ Rilling surprised us. He said he loved it. He wouldn’t leave.”

The problem for Saltzman & Company isn’t pleasing the crowd. The problem is attracting the crowd.

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“My happiest moment of the summer,” recalls Saltzman, “came after the Monteverdi Vespers. When it was all over, the first person in the audience to rise was a man wearing a big white cowboy hat. I had noticed him earlier, and hoped the hat wasn’t obstructing the view for the person behind him.

“The man didn’t get up to leave. He actually got up to cheer Monteverdi. That is what we’re about.”

The festival seemed to be about a lot of things--perhaps too many things--during the last five days of performances this year. Still, spirits remained high, regardless of artistic vicissitudes.

The orchestral concert on July 5 proved notable for the world premiere of Stephen Paulus’ Symphony for Strings, a pleasant, often vigorous, 22-minute essay in contrapuntal conservatism. The audience obviously respected the not-so-novel novelty. It loved the Brahms Second Symphony and the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which followed.

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The timid soloist in the Beethoven--a possible case of wishful casting--was the able concertmaster, Kathleen Lenski. Rilling conducted with the clarity and propulsion of a fine Bach specialist, if without much romantic expansion. The ad hoc orchestra followed him with ragged enthusiasm.

An informal late-afternoon concert in the Soreng Theatre the next day focused on Rilling as teacher. He offered telling introductory remarks and musical illustrations concerning a Bach motet and a Brandenburg concerto. Then he turned the baton over to various conducting students who beat time with varying degrees of efficiency. The chorus and orchestra followed the students with surprising finesse.

That night, back on campus, a small ensemble led by the German oboist Ingo Goritzki played rarities of Franz Krommer (1759-1831), Bohuslav Martinu and Mozart with bravura charm. This “Woodwind Revelry” offered heavyweight performances of lightweight pieces.

For the Friday night revelry, Saltzman turned to Chanticleer, a slick and dazzling male octet from San Francisco. The vocal menu spanned the esoteric Renaissance and the pop present, with some beguiling detours in between. After the concert, Bob Berky clowned virtuosically and most expressively with, among other accouterments, the delicate instrument that hunters use to call innocent ducks to dinner.

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On Saturday, the pianist Victor Steinhardt joined the Angeles Quartet (Roger Wilkie, Kathleen Lenski, Brian Dembow, Stephen Erdody) in a sensitively gauged Haydn-Mendelssohn-Schumann survey. Southern California could be proud.

Finally, for the zonking piece de resistance on Sunday, came Boito’s mighty “Mefistofele.” With no drama on the stage, the supertitles for once proved more helpful than distracting.

Rilling may have slighted the ultimate flourishes of italianita , but he conducted--from memory--with splendid force, tension and momentum. He also sustained cohesion amid a massive performing apparatus that included choirs stationed in side boxes and brass banished to the top of the uppermost balcony.

The cast was dominated by Pamela Coburn, much celebrated in Strauss and Mozart at the Munich Opera, as an exquisitely poignant Margherita as well as a properly sensuous Elena. James Wagner, who left Los Angeles a few years ago as a promising lyric tenor, returned from Germany to sing Faust’s music with a nice spinto ring and deft lyrical accents.

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The performance contended with a crucial weak link, unfortunately, in the title role. For a ferocious challenge that has brought out the snarling, bellowing, insinuating, roaring best in such lowly singing actors as Norman Treigle, Giulio Neri, Cesare Siepi and Boris Christoff, Eugene chose Herbert Eckhoff.

A practiced concert singer, a veteran of minor assignments in several major opera houses and now a member of the U of O faculty, he could muster little beyond pallid competence. In this role one wants--no, needs--blazing virtuosity.

It was an unfortunate compromise for the home team.


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