Two years ago, I participated in the Oregon Bach Festival conducting masterclass, and had a great experience. When it was announced that the 2012 masterclass would focus on Bach’s massive “St Matthew Passion,” I knew it was time to go back and do it again. This piece has a special place in my spirit, as it was the first non organ work of his that really struck me, and it is one of my absolute favorites. Members of the masterclass can go as auditors (observers), or as conductors. The competition to be accepted as a conductor is quite keen, with only 8-10 spots available out of fifty or more applicants. I opted to go again as an auditor, and looked forward to hearing again from Maestro Helmuth Rilling, the OBF artistic director and one of the world’s great Bach interpreters.
I love to take the Amtrak Coast Starlight to Eugene, and after having been regaled by my stories of the beautiful train journey, JoAnn decided she wanted to go as well. We managed to carve a week out of our busy schedules to take a trip to Eugene, the first trip we’ve taken together without children in at least six years. The northbound Coast Starlight has a reputation for being late, and this time it proved true. The train was scheduled to leave Sacramento at around midnight… we finally got on the train shortly after 2:00 am, and consequently were over two hours late getting into Eugene.
The heart of the masterclass are the “Discovery Series” concerts. The work is divided up into several sections (in this case, four). Maestro Rilling gives a talk with musical examples of the work, and then the student conductors take the podium, directing the fully professional soloists, choir, and orchestra. Though we were late getting into Eugene, I managed to make it just in time for the first Discovery concert. It was beautifully sung and played, and the student conductors did a very credible job.
The next day I settled into the routine of class sessions and rehearsals. Rilling really knows the Matthew Passion, and his insights into Bach’s thought process, theology, and his interpretation points are exceedingly valuable. No stone (or note or rest or word in this case) is left unturned. The standard expected of the student conductors is quite high, and there is no “just getting by” allowed here! My score is loaded with copious notes and markings, which hopefully, will come in handy some day.
Another great part of the OBF experience are the concerts. I was privileged to attend three very fine evening concerts during my week. The first was a organ recital by John Scott, organist & master of choristers at St Thomas Church, New York, and one of the finest recitalists in the world. His program consisted of Bach’s formidable “Clavierübung iii,” the only organ works of Bach published in his lifetime. The performance took place on the lovely Brombaugh organ at Central Lutheran Church, a organ modeled after the North German instruments of Bach’s time. Scott’s playing was flawless, colorful, and completely musical… a very satisfying performance, despite the fact that the church was hot and suffocatingly stuffy. My only other comment about this program is… this music is very complex at times, and to sit through the entire thing without a break of any kind was quite a mental challenge. I’m not sure that a complete performance of this set of pieces is very friendly for most audiences… and that is coming from an organist who has played many of them. But this is not to take anything away from his playing which was stellar.
The following evening was a major concert by the OBF orchestra, Berwick Festival Chorus, and distinguished soloists. Artistic director designate Matthew Halls conducted two works. The first, Bach of course… his short “Missa in G,” one of the so called “Lutheran Masses.” The mass was well executed and featured some outstanding singing from soloists Sophie Harmsen, Tom Randle, Tyler Duncan, and chorus. The real fireworks of the evening came in the form of “A Child of our Time” by British composer Sir Michael Tippett. This oratorio is around the events of the infamous “Kristallnacht” which marks the beginning of the Nazi Holocaust. In many ways this oratorio is modeled on the St Matthew Passion, complete with recitatives, and chorales (which in this case are African-American Spirituals). The performance was electrifying from beginning to end, with amazing performances from the orchestra, chorus, and soloists including Tamara Wilson, Tom Randle, and Markus Eiche. Halls and company enjoyed a long, sustained, and well deserved standing ovation.
One of the important components this festival for the last fifteen years has been the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy. This group of select high school students from across the country, is conducted by the great Anton Armstrong, director of choral activities at St Olaf College. The final evening concert I was able to attend was their concert on Sunday, and what a stunner it was. Repertoire ranged from Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn, to a rousing Gospel finish. Especially moving was “This house of peace” written especially for the choir in 2008 by Minnesota composer Ralph Johnson, for the dedication of the Sacred Heart Medical Center Peace Health residence.
Though our time in Eugene was mostly filled with music… classes, rehearsals, and concerts… we did manage to have some fun too. July 4th included a number of spectacular fireworks shows in Alton Baker Park.
All too soon, our time in Oregon was drawing to a close. We boarded the train back to Sacramento (which arrived and departed on time!), tired but happy with our week.
On the two occasions which I have participated in the OBF conducting masterclass, I have been an auditor… an observing member of the class. The “conducting” spots are limited to 8-10 participants, and the application/selections process is pretty rigorous. Toward the end of the festival, JoAnn encouraged me to apply to be a conductor for the 2013 masterclass. This will be the final masterclass for Maestro Rilling, and the focus will be the Saint John Passion. I have already ordered the score… and am thinking about the audition dvd I will have to put together with my application. Next year?? We’ll see!