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Leavings and Legacies

Bach Festival continues gems small and large
Helmuth Rilling
Helmuth Rilling

This summer finds Oregon’s biggest classical music festival in transition. Oregon Bach Festival founding artistic director Helmuth Rilling retires after next summer’s festival, when incoming replacement Matthew Halls takes over the University of Oregon program. Halls is here this summer, soaking up the full festival experience and learning about the city, the audience, the venues, musicians and everything else he needs to inform his own vision of OBF 2.0. He’ll also have a chance to discuss that vision at length with fifth-year festival executive director John Evans.

Even as a potentially exciting OBF future takes shape, the present offers some highlights. A few concerts have already sold out, so it’s best to check the festival website (oregonbachfestival.com), which also lists a wide array of interesting films, talks, seminars and other programs not covered here.

Rilling’s greatest legacy may prove to be his masterful Discovery Series, a combination of workshops for rising young conductors, performances of core repertoire and explications of the music by a conductor who’s devoted half a century to it. This year, the series is devoted to one of J.S. Bach’s most powerful works, the St. Matthew Passion, and the adventure continues July 5 and July 10 at UO’s Beall Hall. That evening, pianist Ya-Fei Chuang’s piano recital features some of the most beautiful piano music ever written — preludes by Claude Debussy, plus compositions by George Gershwin, a Gershwin tribute by Earl Wild and a Chopin sonata.

Unfortunately, Angela Hewitt’s July 14 solo recital of the Goldberg Variations is sold out, though you can hear plenty of piano at OBF’s July 12 Hult Center concert featuring the Five Browns. The siblings will play show tunes and movie soundtrack gems, but also enough meaty music — by Scriabin, Milhaud, Stravinsky and more — to satisfy classical fans.

John Scott, one of the world’s most acclaimed organists, and the music director of New York’s St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, plays one of J.S. Bach’s grandest creations Friday, July 6: the 1739 collection of 27 major compositions for organ known as the Organ Mass, or Keyboard Practice (Clavier-Ubung) III. Local organist Julia Brown will play the music of Bach’s North German contemporaries at Central Lutheran Church at noon Friday, July 13.

Halls himself takes the solo keyboard spotlight in another OBF recital July 9 at Beall Hall, performing one of Bach’s masterpieces, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and other solo harpsichord works, along with two of the festival namesake’s great harpsichord concertos (both of which the composer arranged from earlier works) with players from the festival orchestra. That concert and the following night’s Debussy soiree are my top small-scale picks for this summer’s festival.

That latter show, at Beall Hall, combines Chuang and David Riley’s performances of the French composer’s piano works (including the inevitable Clair de Lune) as well as some of his gorgeous settings of poetry by Verlaine and other French symbolists, including the shimmering Songs of Bilitis, sung by soprano Tamara Wilson, alto Anita Krause and tenor Tom Randle.

Three large-scale choral programs — the festival’s hallmark over the years — remain at the Hult Center’s Silva Hall. Halls leads Saturday’s highly recommended production of one of Bach’s less often heard short masses along with a major 20th-century choral work — unaccountably never before performed in Oregon — the 1944 oratorio A Child of our Time, a poignant response to the devastation of World War II and Nazi pogroms.

The great British composer Michael Tippett reworked one of J.S. Bach’s mighty passions — but instead of using an 18th-century Lutheran chorale, Tippett employed American spirituals like “Deep River.”

On Sunday, July 8, the 85 young singers of the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy will celebrate the admirable institution’s 15th anniversary by singing a Bach motet, one of Handel’s stirring Coronation Anthems, works by Mendelssohn, Copland and other composers, including a new work commissioned from academy alum Stanford Scriven.

The festival closes Sunday, July 15, with Rilling leading a potent choral orchestral masterpiece, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.