Opening Night at the Oregon Bach Festival: Pretty Music, Then A Half-Wild Yawp

The Oregon Bach Festival usually kicks off with a great deal of excitement and buzz, at least for aficionados: Helmuth Rilling is back! Look, there’s our favorite OBF oboist! And oh, what a superb chorus!

The Bach Festival this year started not with a bang, but with a soft ramp up, an easy path that became more varied and interesting as the evening went on. But if not for a post-intermission piece of rather surprising programming, the entire thing could have been a particularly decent night at a (top) city symphony.

The kick-off concert both in Eugene last night and in Portland tonight consists of Mendelssohn – 100 percent Mendelssohn. Last night was a sell-out concert, probably not for the music itself but because Joshua Bell was here. Bell, who’s an attractive man (a friend of ours who was at Juilliard a few years before CORRECTION: is a few years older than Bell lamented, “How is it that he still has hair? And so much of it?”), has his fervent detractors, but mostly music audiences enjoy him and are happy to hear him playing something familiar like the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Much of the audience was primed for pleasure.

Organizers hit a glitch at the opening this year, letting the PICCFest children’s intro run far too long, which then caused an uncomfortable, half-hour-long crush of people in the Hult Center lobby – I found it surprising that only one of the OBF’s (demographically on the upper end of the age range) audience members fainted while waiting for the doors to open.

Perhaps because of the crush in the lobby and the late start (abetted by painfully money-focused curtain speeches), artistic director Helmuth Rilling emerged to a slightly less-than-usual fervor of applause, and he began conducting Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony with little fanfare. His Oregon Bach Festival orchestra, which is filled with talented musicians, headed into the piece with an odd sloppiness in the first, ultra-familiar movement. (Listen to it below. I guarantee you have heard it before.)

The orchestra jelled as the piece went on, but no matter what they did, the music is neither demanding nor particularly celebratory or glorious – which is how the OBF usually begins. Still, it was pleasant, and familiar, and not particularly demanding of anyone tired from the week.

For the second half of the first portion, Joshua Bell came onstage to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, which he did, beautifully (Bob Keefer of the Eugene Register-Guard described in a feature on Thursday what Bell was planning to do with this piece.

Joshua Bell rehearsing with the Oregon Bach Festival orchestra. Photo by Mike Goris for the OBF

So he did, and he was wonderful, and he’s quite cute, and the orchestra played the piece well. Fine. All very nice, and all somewhat like when the Eugene Symphony has guest soloists (including Bell, who was here a few years ago, or Midori, or Sarah Chang, or any of the numerous violin stars the ESO brings in). The OBF Orchestra is, of course, of a higher overall quality than the Eugene Symphony, which was clear from the sound.

The weird thing for OBF regulars was watching Rilling stand much more still than he usually does, arms sometimes even down, while Bell played his solos and interacted like a conducting soloist with the orchestra.

A sustained standing ovation greeted Bell, Rilling, and the orchestra at the finale. The enthusiastic standers received no encore, for Bell had to sign CDs in the lobby during intermission.

The Oregon Bach Festival chorus and Joshua Bell. Photo by Mike Goris for the OBF

Still, everything felt just a little … odd. Many people (including our seat neighbors) left at intermission. After all, what was left? Only more Mendelssohn, this something called Die erste Walpurgisnacht (Roughly, The First Witches’ Sabbath) – a work written from a poem by Goethe for chorus and alto, tenor, and bass.

Those who left made a mistake. Perhaps because the musicians aren’t over-used to playing this music, or perhaps because Rilling loves conducting the chorus – and they adore him, or at least those chorus members I’ve interviewed do – the energy in the hall palpably changed.

The program notes (hey! Programs are $5 this year – who knew?) call one of the pieces in this work “one of the wildest things Mendessohn ever wrote,” and that is no doubt accurate. But from beginning to end – from the overture to tenor Nicholas Phan’s “Es lacht der Mai,” from bass Markus Eiche’s fully engaged body language and laser-focused voice to the chorus, everything was replete with joy and the kind of forward momentum that usually marks the opening concert. Alto Sophie Harmsen has a warm voice, and Phan – filling in for the ill Dominik Wortig – seemed to float effortlessly through his parts.

The chorus performed gorgeously and with a lightness of touch in this piece, which pits Christians and pagans against each other at Beltane (EDIT: That’s May 1, aka May Day, for you non-pagans out there), but despite the wildness of the music never gets overly dramatic.

The pagans were saved by dressing like witches and scaring off the Christians – and those witches saved the opening too. Well, and so did Goethe and Mendelssohn, and a piece that hasn’t been done to death, at least in the United States.

Away we really go now, toward 16 more days of music and knowledge and goodwill and joy – and, let’s hope, innovation and intensity and intelligence.

The same program takes place tonight at 7:30 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland. Tix, if any are left, available at the hall itself.


  1. Yo Suzi, FYI, Josh NEVER went to Juilliard. He studied exclusively with Josef Gingold at Indiana University. Also, the “Italian” Symphony is a bitch to play for strings and woodwinds. It’s probably poor planning to program a piece like that for the very first concert since the OBF peeps are playing together for the first time in a year. I don’t care how professional they are…it takes time to sound cohesive. Love the blog! Cheers, Syl.

    • D’oh! I would blame said “friend” but it’s clearly my fact-checking skills that are at fault. Will correct! Re Italian – I believe you, but it still sounded sloppy.

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