Eugene Weekly : Oregon Bach Festival : 6.17.2010


The Secret Lives of Musicians
The UO’s Barnhart Residence Hall houses hundreds of bach fest folks 
by Suzi Steffen

They descend from all over the country, hauling luggage, returning to their bikes, desk lamps, blankets and best friends. They rush into each other’s arms, laughing and happy. They take over Barnhart Residence Hall, eating three meals a day in its cafeteria, sometimes getting busted by 21-year-old R.A.s for being too loud after quiet hours begin.

That’s right: The Oregon Bach Festival chorus and orchestra are here, and don’t you forget it.


“I think the local businesses really benefit from our presence,” says Helen Van Wyck, an alto and music professor at Trinity College in Illinois. She’s lived the OBF dorm life for 25 years and knows how to get around downtown Eugene. “A lot of people buy or rent bikes from Blue Heron, and Full City definitely knows when we’re in town.” 

Van Wyck gives up the pet names: The dorm residents call the 7-11 “the Siebenhaus,” a jokey name “because of its authentic German atmosphere” and because the chorus and orchestra both have a mix of German and U.S. members. The OBFers occupy three floors of the residence hall, located on Patterson between Franklin and 11th Ave. 

Guest musicians like Guy Few and the Portland Baroque Orchestra also take advantage of the dorms instead of staying with OBF fans. Some musicians rent houses and bring their families for a month in Eugene.

Dave Goudy, OBF artistic administrator, gets to help the adults understand that no air conditioning in Oregon summers maybe isn’t as bad as it would be in their home states, among other details, for the more than 200 OBF-associated people staying in 160-180 rooms of the residence hall.

Some of those people are the teens of the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy, but they don’t come into much contact with the adults. Van Wyck says, “They’re not supposed to use the elevators, and they don’t come onto our floors.” The teens, about whom you can read an OBF ’07 story at (PDF), stay busy almost all of the time anyway, as do the musicians. 

Sure, the adults gather and talk late into the night (occasionally, as with last year, so loudly that they have to be busted by R.A.s), but they also take care of their voices. “We eat well — we eat too much!” in the cafeteria, Van Wyck says, but the musicians also exercise in groups. She says a lot of people run in the mornings along the river, or ride the bikes they rent (or keep in town over the winter; Van Wyck’s bike goes home with a chorus member friend from Portland, along with her desk lamp), and of course unless they’re in concert dress, they walk a lot.

“It’s really close walking to the Hult Center; our farthest walk is to Beall Hall,” says soprano Jessica Rossi, who’s been singing with the chorus for the past half-decade. In addition, the Downtown Athletic Club gives the musicians a discount for the three weeks they’re in town, and Rossi (who lived in Eugene for five years and is now a grad student at the Longy School of Music in Boston) takes advantage of the offer.

Goudy, who started dealing with the housing for the musicians last year, says that “old-timers have their strategies, whether they want the east side or the west side, where the train sounds are, other things you don’t think about until you suddenly awaken with the sun pouring in at 5 am, and the room heats up 10 degrees in five minutes.”

Rossi’s strategy for dealing with the hot days and cooler nights means bringing some fans and blankets from her parents’ house to the dorm. So why doesn’t she stay with her parents? “The dorm life is a different experience, and it’s more inclusive. The focus is more on music.”

Though she says the singers don’t sing together at night after rehearsing and performing all day, they also don’t stop discussing the reason they’re all in Eugene. “We do sometimes stay up late talking about what awesome, funny things Mr. Rilling did that day,” Rossi says. “I’m thrilled, shocked and honored every year I get to come back because I learn so much from him.” 

Barnhart weaves its way into the tales of the OBF. “This is what people talk about when they’re waxing nostalgic for the Bach Fest,” Goudy says. “They’re talking about going into the dining room, sitting down next to people from all over the country and from different fields.”

Van Wyck agrees. “The best thing is that we’re all together,” she says. “I was describing the festival to someone who had never heard of it, and they said it sounds like the best possible version of summer camp. You live with people you really love, and you make high-quality music together. These are like soulmates, lifelong friends.”