The Oregon Bach Festival: Eugene’s Branch to an International Community

When former University of Oregon music professor Royce Saltzman traveled to Stuttgart, Germany in 1968 to oversee UO students studying music abroad, he had no idea that he had just taken the first step of creating one of the most prestigious classical music festivals in North America. Throughout that year, Saltzman observed countless choral and orchestral performances and rehearsals. Helmuth Rilling, a German conductor for one such performance, extended an invitation to Saltzman to visit his home. While chatting about choral music over wine, the two formed a connection that would be the beginning to special friendship.

Upon returning to the United States the next year, Saltzman returned the gesture by inviting Rilling to visit the University of Oregon.

Founded in 1970 by Rilling and Saltzman, the Oregon Bach Festival has grown from a simple masterclass held in UO’s Beall Concert Hall to an internationally recognized music festival that annually draws an audience of tens of thousands to Eugene, with performances from esteemed musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma, the 5 Browns, Joshua Bell, Bobby McFerrin and Pink Martini.

“It all came about through Rilling extending his hand of friendship to me, a complete stranger,” Saltzman says. “That’s how the seed of the Oregon Bach Festival was planted.”

Saltzman compares the festival’s growth to that of a seed that has grown from a sapling to a tree with seeds spread around the world. According to Saltzman, following the Oregon festival’s success, many smaller Bach “academies” and festivals have taken root and sprouted up around the globe.

Despite these strong and well-established roots, the Oregon Bach Festival is getting ready for a big change. After 2013, Helmuth Rilling who has been artistic director for 42 years will retire, his place to be taken by British conductor Matthew Halls. Despite the drawing end of an era, those involved in past festivals say there is only room to move forward.

Amy Adams, a music teacher at O’Hara Catholic School in Eugene, has been a member of the chorus in the OBF for over a decade. As a member of the committee that selected Halls as the new director, Adams says that appointing Halls is not a risk, but rather an investment for future development of the festival.

“I think that the festival is bound to change,” Adams says. “But it will remain rooted in the heart of the festival: music education. Matthew Halls will really take us forward.”

Saltzman says that the “heartbeat” of the festival has always been this emphasis on music education. From the very first masterclasses in the ’70s, Saltzman and Rilling worked to educate conductors, musicians, and audiences about the classic works of Bach.

Much has been added to the festival beyond traditional music, and Saltzman says that the festival remains a platform for both music experts and appreciators to learn something new about conducting, composition, or simply what feeling a piece is trying to convey. Saltzman and many others say that Matthew Halls is prepared to carry on this educational core by adding a new touch to the festival.

Marcia James Gluz, manager at the Holt Center ticket office, worked for a number of years as a ticket seller for the OBF. With the growth of interest in the festival, James has witnessed firsthand audience interaction with the festival. She says that Rilling is seen almost as an icon, and that a transition to a younger conductor may change the dynamic between performers and audience, bringing about more contemporary methods of involving audience members.

“Halls may be able to engage the audience differently,” says James, “He’s maybe a little more approachable.”

Sara Rilling, daughter of current artistic director Helmuth Rilling, has been a witness to such festival growth and change from a very young age. Although she was too young to remember the very first years of the festival, Sara’s childhood and the lives of her family were greatly affected by her father’s involvement with the Bach Festival in Eugene. Even though she moved frequently between her family’s home in Germany and her father’s summer residence in Eugene, she remembers her time in Eugene as some of the best moments of her life. For her, musicians, audience members, and organizers of the OBF were and still are extensions of her family.

“There is very big connection between musicians and listeners, they are friends,” Sara says. “To me it’s very much like a home that I come back to each year.”

Both Rilling and Adams say that this feeling of familiarity and closeness is the secret behind the festival’s success. Adams describes the festival as a kind of “adult summer camp” where old friends reunite each summer to build bonds through music.

Guy Few, principle trumpet player for the OBF since the mid ’90s, is a well-known Canadian pianist and trumpet player accustomed to traveling around the world to perform at music festivals. He says that that the OBF is unusual in the sense that it keeps him coming back each year.

“This festival is a family,” Few says. “It’s truly a collection of people who care about each other more than one would see elsewhere.”

Few says that one of his biggest problems with the festival is having too many good friends to catch up with. Upon arrival to Oregon each summer, he says he has to make sure he leaves enough time outside of socializing to practice.

From the perspective of an outsider, the Oregon Bach Festival may appear as a stickly traditional celebration of classical music. However, the festival goes beyond tradition to appeal to a wider audience. In 2007, former BBC Radio 3 producer, John Evans, took over Royce Saltzman’s role as executive director of the OBF. Saltzman says that since then, Evans has worked tirelessly to further expand musical variety to include more contemporary and alternative performances alongside the classics.

As the festival has expanded in musical variety, it has also increased in quality. Musicians from around the world, selected because of superior musical ability, are invited to participate. Conductors wanting to participate and take the festival masterclass must apply and be screened by a committee. Sara Rilling and Adams say musical quality is important to a festival of this caliber, both saying that the festival has improved greatly since it first began.

However, Fred Crafts, former arts journalist and festival host for the “Let’s Talk” series, says that such expansion and improvement comes at a price.

“When the festival started, the participants were all local. It’s grown from a local to international level,” Crafts says. “I could see some danger in fractionalizing local artists.”

Even if some local artists are losing opportunities to foreign musicians, the local economy is to gain. According to OBF director of communications George Evano, a total of 41,000 people attended the events during the 2011 festival. A number of attendees from outside Eugene stay in hotels while observing the festival, spending an average of $175 a day on food, shopping and lodging.

About one-fourth of attendees come from around Oregon, the United States and the world to see the festival. The little sapling that Saltzman and Rilling planted 42 years ago while chatting over wine has grown into a tree with roots and branches connecting Eugene to an international community.

Whether it’s people who come to see famous musicians like Yo-Yo Ma or people who want to learn about music, the group that attends the festival is truly diverse. The Oregon Bach Festival stands as one of the most critically acclaimed music festivals in the country. This beacon of the arts in the Northwest stemmed completely from an invitation of friendship from one stranger to another, blooming into a celebration that people around the world can share.

Sidebar #1: Guy Few

Trumpet in one hand and piano keys dancing beneath the other, musician Guy Few plays both instruments simultaneously with apparent ease. The crisp notes ring throughout the concert hall, bringing the audience members to their feet.

With a shaved head, shiny tailcoat and unique instrumental technique, Few is far from the traditional image of a classical trumpet and piano performer. Despite his rather unorthodox appearance and style, his added flare to old classics appeals to a wide audience.

Joining the Oregon Bach Festival as principle trumpet player in the mid ‘90s, Few performs each year, his audiences ranging from young children to seasoned musicians and classical music buffs.

“The performance itself is just about having a good time,” Few says. “I try to involve the audience to make them feel included and that they’re learning something.”

Few engages the audience by telling them what a piece means and what to listen for, allowing for audience interaction with the music. Few says that such involvement is one of the best ways to share the joy of music.

“I really believe that recitals are no longer a stiff formal affair,” Few says. “I don’t want it to feel like a boring classroom. I want us to find the joy together.”

Few brings this joy through music to many places beyond the Northwest. This summer alone, Few will be performing a total of about 20 concerts at five different festivals around the country.

Few looks forward to visiting Oregon in July, excited to see his many friends, both audience members and musicians alike. He says these people keep him coming back year after year.

As Few finishes his piece and the audience applauds, he stands up and bows graciously. With a wide smile and cordial wave to the crowd of friends, he exits the stage.

Guy Few’s official website:

Video of Guy Few and Bassoonist Nadina Mackie Jackson (video belongs to uploader ).

Sidebar #2: OBF 2012 Events Schedule
For a full description of events, visit the OBF calendar (All information courtesy of George Evano and the Oregon Bach Festival).

OBF 2012 Schedule
*Helmuth Rilling, artistic director and conductor.
All information subject to change.

Wednesday June 27
6 pm    Light the Torch fundraiser (Valley River Inn)
6:30 pm    Live broadcast: Tango Harmonica (KLCC 89.7 FM)

Friday June 29
6:30 pm    Inside Line: Linda Hathaway Bunza (Soreng)
6:45 pm    Opening Ceremonies: PICCFEST Choirs (Hult Center Lobby)
7:30 pm    Joshua Bell plays Mendelssohn—Eugene * (Silva Concert Hall)

Saturday June 30
1 pm    On the House: PICCFEST Choirs Guest choirs Youth Choir Merituuli (Finland) and St. John’s Boy Choir (Minnesota) (Hult Lobby)
7:30 pm    Joshua Bell plays Mendelssohn-Portland* (Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall)
7:30 pm    The Goldbergs on Strings—Astoria Portland Baroque Orchestra; Monica Huggett, director (Liberty Theater)
9 pm    OBF Cinema: We Grew Wings (McDonald Theatre)

Sunday July 1
3 pm    The Goldbergs on Strings—Corvallis (LaSells Stewart Center)
7:30 pm    PICCFEST Gala (First Baptist)
8 pm    Pink Martini with Storm Large (Cuthbert Amphitheatre, Eugene)

Monday July 2
12 pm    Organ Interludes: EIRay Stewart-Cook (Central Lutheran)
4:30 pm    Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy free concert (Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend)
7:30 pm    The Goldbergs on Strings—Eugene (Beall Concert Hall)

Tuesday July 3
12 pm    Let’s Talk: Matthew Halls (The Studio)
4:30 pm    Discovery Series: Bach St. Matthew Passion Part 1* (Soreng Theater)
7:30 pm    The Goldbergs on Strings—Lincoln City (Lincoln City Cultural Center)
7:30 pm    Guy and Nadina Carnets de Voyage (Beall Concert Hall)

Wednesday July 4
No Concerts

Thursday July 5
12 pm    Let’s Talk: John Scott (The Studio)
4:30 pm    Discovery Series: Bach St. Matthew Passion Part 2* (Soreng Theater)
7:30 pm    Ya-Fei Chuang piano recital (Beall)

Friday July 6
1 pm    On the House: SFYCA Soloists (Hult Lobby)
7:30 pm    John Scott: Bach organ recital—Eugene (Central Lutheran Church)
7:30 pm    A Child of Our Time—Portland Matthew Halls, conductor (Trinity Episcopal Cathedral)

Saturday July 7
10 am  OBF Kids: Buzz and Crow (The Studio)
4 pm    OBF Cinema: Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould;  Genius Within-The Inner Life of Glenn Gould. Both films daily at 4 pm    though 7/13. (Bijou Art Cinema)
6:30 pm    Inside Line: Linda Hathaway Bunza (Soreng)
7:30 pm    A Child of Our Time—Eugene (Silva Concert Hall)

Sunday July 8
7:30 pm    Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy Anton Armstrong, Helmuth Rilling, conductors (Silva Concert Hall)

Monday July 9
12 pm    Let’s Talk: Anton Armstrong (The Studio)
7:30 pm    Matthew Halls: Bach keyboard concerti (Beall Concert Hall)
7:30 pm    John Scott: Bach organ recital—Portland (Trinity Episcopal Cathedral)

Tuesday July 10
1 pm    On The House: Boeckman/Linsenberg Duo (Hult Lobby)
4:30 pm    Discovery Series: Bach St. Matthew Passion Part 3* (Soreng Theater)
6:30 pm     Inside Line: Stephen Rodgers (SOMD 163)
7:30 pm    Debussy Soiree (Beall Concert Hall)

Wednesday July 11
12 pm    Let’s Talk: The 5 Browns (The Studio)
6:30 pm    Inside Line: Marc Vanscheeuwijck (SOMD 163)
7:30 pm    Helmuth Rilling: Bach Motets and Concerti (Beall Concert Hall)
7:30 pm    Tango Harmonica—Portland Joe Powers and Tango Quintet (Lincoln Performance Hall)

Thursday July 12
1 pm    On the House: Young Chamber Players (Hult Lobby)
4:30 pm    Discovery Series: Bach St. Matthew Passion Part 4* (Soreng Theater)
7:30 pm    Tango Harmonica—Bend (Tower Theater)
7:30 pm    The 5 Browns (Silva Concert Hall)

Friday July 13
12 pm    Organ Interludes: Julia Brown (Central Lutheran)
7:30 pm    Tango Harmonica—Eugene (Beall Concert Hall)

Saturday July 14
10 am OBF Kids: Peter and the Wolf Dance Theater Oregon (Soreng Theater)
12 pm    Hinkle Distinguished Seminar: The Goldberg Variations (The Studio)
7:30 pm    Tango Harmonica—Ashland (SOU Recital Hall)
7:30 pm    Angela Hewitt in recital: The Goldberg Variations (Beall Concert Hall)

Sunday July 15
3 pm    Bach St. Matthew Passion* (Silva Concert Hall)

About Galen Ettlin

I am a student at the University of Oregon studying Mandarin Chinese and journalism. I aspire to go into broadcast in China, Taiwan, or Singapore
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