Back to Bach
Renown festival enters the 21st century
by Brett Campbell
Things have been changing at the Bach Festival since new director John Evans took over a couple years back, and the Feb. 10 performance of J.S. Bachs St. John Passion illustrates the magnitude of the ongoing transformation. At first glance, yet another performance of one of Bachs mighty passions seems like old hat; long-time OBF music director Helmuth Rilling has programmed them often. But this isnt your grandfathers St. John ã add a few more greats before the grand and you're getting close.
First, the festival is in March, not June, part of a new series of non-summer concerts. Second, its in the superior acoustics and intimate atmosphere of UOs Beall Hall. Finally, instead of the bloated choruses and modern instruments and tunings used in Rillings accomplished but anachronistic readings, this one features the splendid Portland Baroque Orchestra led by violin virtuosa Monica Huggett, the Montreal-based chorus Les Voix Baroques, and Portlands superb Cappella Romana choir ã all using some of the latest scholarly research that tells us what forces (oboes or violins instead of flutes, for example), tunings and styles the composer intended when he wrote the piece for a church performance in 1724. This St. John will sound radically different ã much leaner, more transparent, more intimate and musically and historically superior. It heralds a new era for one of Oregons most important musical institutions.
The Bach Festival has also taken over programming of another venerable institution, the 34-year-old Chamber Music series, now dubbed Chamber Music@Beall. The little "at” symbol common in cyber communications not so subtly suggests a 21st-century orientation for a form thats often associated with aging audiences. The series highly recommended March 6 performance at Beall by Illinoiss award-winning Pacifica Quartet and clarinetist Jrg Widmann features a recent work by Widmann, one of Haydns superb quartets, Brahmss sublime Clarinet Quintet, and Stravinskys little pieces for clarinet. On March 11, Beall hosts a couple of Portland-based Celtic musicians: Kevin Burke, whos among the worlds finest Celtic fiddlers, and Trail Band leader and guitarist Cal Scott.
The UO also hosts a slew of term-ending student performances, including March 4s chamber music show featuring a fine program of music by Ravel, Schubert, George Crumb and more at Aasen-Hull Hall; an impressive choral program later that night at Beall featuring five UO choirs singing music by American composers (including a world premiere), Benjamin Britten, and much more; the March 6 Oregon Wind Ensemble Beall concert with two world premieres (one by a UO alum and one by University of Texas composer Dan Welcher) and more; the Oregon and University Percussion Ensembles in striking music by Milhaud, Xenakis and others; a free concert of music by UO composers at Beall on March 9; and two always popular concerts on March 13: the Gospel Ensembles concert at Beall and the East European Folk Ensemble, featuring dances from Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria, with music by Eugenes Kef.
Its not a symphony, not a concerto, not a quintet or quartet, not an opera, so maybe not as renowned as it should be, but Mozarts big, seven movement Serenade #10 for wind instruments and bass approaches symphonic scale in length (nearly an hour) and musical ambition. On March 5 at the Hult Centers Soreng Theater, the resurgent Oregon Mozart Players will perform that underrated, so-called Grand Partita along with Tchaikovskys sticky sweet Serenade for Strings. On March 7, the Eugene Symphonic Band and Thurston High School Band play a free concert at Thurstons auditorium, featuring Tchaikovsky, Schuman, J.S. Bach and more.
You dont hear too much classical vocal chamber music in concert halls, perhaps because of the pretentious term "art song” applied to it. All the more reason to check out the Shedd on March 15, when singers Maria Jette and Siri Vik, accompanied by pianist Sonja Thompson, perform some of the loveliest songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, composed by Frenchman Gabriel Faure, best known for his Requiem. The Shedd also hosts one of the great songwriters of our own time, Iris Dement, on March 10. On Wednesday, March 16, another rootsy yet progressive band, Punch Brothers, who are as comfortable playing Bach as bluegrass and even verge into postclassical, will play original tunes from last years Antifogmatic CD, featuring the groups leader and extraordinary mandolinist Chris Thile, whos gone way beyond his Nickel Creekery.
World music fans have a couple of treats coming up at Cozmic Pizza, where Zimbabwes Kura Mubaiwa joins Mounfafanyi and Boka Boys in music from Southern Africa on March 11, and again the following evening when Samba Ja, Calango and other Brazilian inflected musicians play a fundraiser for Students Helping Street Kids.