Bach for more

Oregon's premier classical festival turns 30.

It's happened every summer since 1970, when the Oregon Bach Festival had the far more organic and modest moniker of the Summer Festival of Music. Droves of classical music fans—and droves of tourists perhaps looking for a bit of cultural uplift—descend upon Eugene for one of the top music festivals in the US. And at least in the 1990s, the festival has altered its focus on a biyearly basis, focusing one year on new music or new commissions, and the next year on the tried-and-true classical war horses, always performed with Stuttgart-born conductor Helmuth Rilling.

Oregon Bach Festival

Eugene, Oregon

June 25-July 11

Rilling, now artistic director as well as conductor, has strong roots in Bach and as an organist, which he first came to perform in the festival's unlikely inaugural year. Since then, he's become identified solidly enough with Bach that Hanssler, the small German label that releases virtually all the Oregon Bach Festival recordings, is devoting a massive CD set of the entire Bach canon to Rilling's interpretations.

As Rilling's stock has risen, so has the festival's. In the years after his debut at the Summer Festival of Music, the annual event was redubbed the Oregon Bach Festival to give it some geographic exactness and the added cache associated with the 18th-century composer. Eugene, which became a mecca for Grateful Dead fans during these years (thanks to the band's frequent stops in the city), might well have needed a bit of Bach to give the town and the University of Oregon's burgeoning School of Music some notches in its belt. And the town responded.

The newly minted OBF made its home in the modest Beall Hall on the UO campus for all of the 1970s, growing into its international stature around the early 1980s, when the Hult Center for Performing Arts opened. The large Silva Hall, with its 2,500-seat capacity, became the rule for the festival's larger events. What with all those seats to fill, the OBF also incorporated a strong PR mission, which it's adhered to and excelled in, drawing dozens of thousands every year—and increasing its appetite and ability to execute important commissions.

In the last few years, the Oregon Bach Festival has wowed crowds with a particularly fertile string of commissions. The OBF amazed audiences in 1994 with the premiere of Arvo P䲴's Litany, recorded with immeasurable success after its Eugene premiere for ECM Records. The festival's focus on the Americas in 1996 brought a wide array of vocal pieces inspired by Bach's cantatas—with Argentine Osvaldo Golijov (Oceana), Canadian Linda Bouchard (Songs for an Acrobat), and US composer Stephen Jaffe presenting new works. Last year's runaway creative apex was Krzysztof Penderecki's Credo, with the baritone role sung flawlessly by Thomas Quasthoff.

Of course, a steady diet of newly commissioned works—even from the likes of the commercially successful Arvo P䲴 or the once-maverick Penderecki—will earn critical praise and a far more likely waning crowd. So the OBF folks do a smart thing. They program works from the standard classical repertory every other year, always providing strong staples of Bach but bolstering their namesake with more mainstream works. But even the most cynical new-music aficionado will note the breadth of the OBF's offerings in 1999, the festival's 30th anniversary. With microphones catching it all, you'll get the Bach Double Harpsichord Concertos, not exactly everyday fare even for Bach fanatics. On the other hand, the festival opens June 25 with a splash: The festival chamber orchestra performs the Brandenburg Concertos, probably the best known of Bach's works. As usual with OBF, however, the Bach is but a small part of the story.

As ever, this year's festival is gleefully all over the map. There's a day for American works, when young conductor/pianist Jeffrey Kahane will present Samuel Barber's oft-programmed (but no less beautiful) Adagio for Strings alongside Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. Then there's the millennium-capping extravaganza: Rilling leading more than 100 musicians, a double chorus, and more in Mahler's Resurrection Symphony.

The Mahler might well be programmed as a closer to complement Dvo(breve)r᫧s Stabat Mater and the Mozart Requiem, left unfinished at the composer's death and presented by the OBF as part of its "Discovery Series," where works and lectures go hand in hand in an effort to illuminate key aspects of the works and their performances. The biggest surprise in this vein is the Russian folk group Trio Vornezh. Brought to the festival to entertain in impromptu settings, the group's mixture of traditional folk repertoire and "folked up" renditions of chamber works has taken it from quiet little gigs to this year's extravaganza in Silva Hall.

Aside from all the music, which could be detailed to granular levels (we've not even mentioned Robert Kapilow's polystylistic rendition of Green Eggs and Ham), the OBF is an ideal train trip; hop Amtrak, disembark in cozy Eugene, then concert-hop your way to bliss.

Other events

Summer classical programming works best when it's lighter or weirder than usual. What would lure audiences, especially sun-starved Seattleites, into a concert hall? Novelty helps, or the promise of ear candy—Beethoven's Ninth wouldn't quite do it, but his Wellington's Victory or some contredanses might. In the following listings, I'm concentrating on those categories, and I'm not censoring my pro-contemporary-music bias either. As for the rest, expect Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Dvo(breve)r᫠by the barrelful. Most of these festivals have Web sites where you can check out every last detail.—Gavin Borchert

Seattle Symphony—It's busy all summer, with hardly an off-season to speak of. Still to come are Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, the k.d. lang of the violin, playing Bruch (6/3-6); Marvin Hamlisch doing it to Marvin Hamlisch (6/11-13); musicomedian Victor Borge (6/19); and Verdi's Requiem (6/17-20). $10-$75. Then the Symphony is anchoring Classical Action, a gala fund raiser for Chicken Soup Brigade and the Northwest AIDS Foundation with special guests, from Lily Tomlin to violinist Joshua Bell ($35-$500, 6/29). Independence Day weekend appearances include a concert of Copland and Bernstein at Lake Meridian Park in Kent (free, 7/1) and at Summer Nights on the Pier ($36, 7/2). Jane Eaglen, Brnnhilde-to-be for the Seattle Opera's 2001 Ring cycle, joins Gerard Schwarz and the SSO for an all-Wagner concert to benefit the Seattle Opera on 8/14. $30-$75. Call 215-4747.

Bellevue Philharmonic—Two events in its summer season. One is the traditional Fourth of July concert with fireworks and, I'm just guessing, the 1812 Overture, at Chateau Ste. Michelle. $10. 7/4 at 7:30. As part of the Seattle International Film Festival, it's playing a live score, arranged from Shostakovich's symphonies, to Eisenstein's 1925 silent classic The Battleship Potemkin. That's at the Paramount Theater, 911 Pine, as a late SIFF treat. 6/5 at 8, 6/6 at 7. $20-$50. Call 425-455-4171.

Centrum—A summer full of all sorts of eclectic offerings at Fort Worden State Park, 2 miles from downtown Port Townsend. 6/25-26: the Port Townsend Country Blues Festival, featuring guitarist John Jackson and gospel vocalist Sherri Orr, among others. 7/2-3: the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, showcasing regional styles from Quebec to Mexico, Athabaska to Louisiana. 7/22-25: AirTouch Jazz Port Townsend, with pianist Jessica Williams, the Bud Shank Quartet, and the Central Avenue Reunion Quintet. Then the Seattle Youth Symphony plays the Marrowstone Music Festival (see below). Centrum, Box 1158, Port Townsend, 360-385-5320. Single tickets run about $10-$20.

Northwest Mahler Festival—Why should the Seattle Symphony have all the fun? Community orchestra players band together several times each summer for just-for-the-heck-of-it read-throughs of some of the big labor-intensive late romantic symphonic works, conducted by local maestros. The lineup for their fifth season: 6/14: Charles Bontrager leads Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra. 6/16: Anthony Spain, Mahler's Symphony no. 5. 6/22: Gregory Isaacs, Strauss' Prelude to Guntram and Death and Transfiguration. 6/24: George Shangrow, Brahms' German Requiem with chorus. 6/27: Alexei Girsh, Shostakovich's Symphony no. 15. All readings at Holy Rosary Church, 4139 42nd SW, 7-10pm. To sign up, call indefatigable festival factotum Dan Weiss, 667-6567. The NWMF also plans a grand-finale public concert, with Geoffrey Simon leading Mahler's Symphony no. 7. UW campus, Meany Hall. 7/18 at 3.

Unless the Eye Catch Fire—Here's a surprising sort of multimedia event up in Victoria: a live concert being filmed as the opening scene in Russian-Canadian director Anna Tchernakova's Unless the Eye Catch Fire. The film's based on the writings of Canadian poet doyenne P.K. Page; she'll be reading from her work, followed by chamber performances of music by Gavin Bryars, who's scored the film. The label "minimalist" is grossly inadequate for Englishman Bryars, but it's a start; he's best known over here for ethereal, introspective, ritualistic works like The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Alix Goolden Performance Hall, 907 Pandora, Victoria, BC, 250-380-6656. $12-$20. 6/19.

Olympic Music Festival—Music in a barn on the Olympic Peninsula: Pull up a hay bale or spread a blanket on the lawn. Performers include the New Zealand String Quartet, the Swensen-Hersh Piano Trio, and the Bridge Ensemble (playing Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, and Richard Strauss on 9/11-12). There's Bart� solo violin sonata on 7/10-11, Clara Schumann's piano trio on a "Romantic Weekend" 8/14-15, and four nicknamed piano sonatas on an all-Beethoven recital 8/28-29. Box 45776, 527-8839. $10-$22. Weekends 6/19-9/12.

Chamber Music Northwest—Twenty-five concerts at two Portland venues (Reed College and the Catlin Gabel School) bring lots of New York musicians—this is practically the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's summer home (clarinetist David Shifrin runs both organizations). The contemporary-music lineup includes works by Ezra Laderman, Nicholas Maw, Alvin Singleton, and Toru Takemitsu, plus Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale. There's also some vocal works by Mozart and Schumann (with soprano Ying Huang), an all-baroque evening on 7/3, and the Violin Sonata no. 4 by American cult figure George Antheil on 7/15-16. Performers of note include Mark Kaplan, Ani and Ida Kavafian, Barry Lieberman, and Cho-Liang Lin. 522 SW Fifth, Suite 725, Portland, 503-223-3202. $16-$29. Weekends 6/21-7/24.

Icicle Creek Chamber Music Festival—Two jazz and eight classical concerts just outside Leavenworth in the Cascade foothills. Don Lanphere and the Turtle Island String Quartet play the first weekend. In residence are the Kairos Quartet and composer Maria Newman, whose new score for the 1910 Mary Pickford silent classic What the Daisy Said will get its premiere. There'll be vocal chamber music by Barber, Brahms, and Ravel; and for the finale, a Collage, the festival's popular and innovative multimedia music-circus. PO Box 2071, Leavenworth, 509-548-6347. $14-$20. Weekends 7/2-8/1.

Seattle Chamber Music Festival—The true strength of this festival is the performers that director Toby Saks engages—her specialty is discovering young, eager, curious players on the verge of brilliant careers and teaming them up with established chamber music experts. Musicians include Toby Hoffman, Mark Kaplan, Maria Larionoff, Anton Nel, Jon Kimura Parker, Cynthia Phelps, Thomas Sauer, Jody Schwarz, Craig Sheppard, and Bion Tsang. New works include Joel Hoffman's Krakow Variations for Viola, Donald Sur's Berceuse for Violin and Piano, and Mirror and Fugue by festival pianist Adam Neiman. Shostakovich is well-represented by his Cello Sonata, Violin Sonata, and a violin duo. Novelties include chamber music by Vivaldi, Weber, Menotti, Sviridov, Milhaud's Cr顴ion du monde, and the festival's spiritual high point, Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. 10 Harrison, Suite 306, 283-8808. $15-$30. Mon, Wed, Fri 7/5-30.

Seattle Symphony Chorale—"Summer Sings" is another do-it-yourself music festival, readings of choral masterworks sung by whoever shows up. The repertory's TBA, but the dates have been set: five Wednesdays, 7/14, 21, 28; 8/11, 18. All readings are at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 1245 10th E, 7-9. $7 each, $30 for series. Call 215-4752.

Vancouver Chamber Music Festival—Six concerts at the Crofton House School, with a really young crowd of performers: the Borromeo String Quartet, pianist Anton Nel, violinist Scott St. John, violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama, and clarinetist Todd Palmer among them. Shostakovich is the featured composer, with a work of his on five of the six concerts—the Piano Quintet, the two Piano Trios, the Cello Sonata, and the Quartet no. 12. From acclaimed young composer Melissa Hui, the VCMF commissioned Rush for Chinese pi-pa and string quartet; other program highlights include Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time and Weber's Clarinet Quintet. Vancouver Recital Society, 304-873 Beatty, Vancouver, BC, 604-602-0363. $22-$36. Mon, Wed, Fri 7/26-8/6.

Beethoven in Bellingham—Chamber and orchestral music (the American Sinfonietta is the orchestra-in-residence) and some big classical names. Cellist Janos Starker plays concertos by Boccherini, Haydn, and Vivaldi and takes the spotlight for a recital of unaccompanied works (two by Bach, one by Gaspar Cassado). Pianist Garrick Ohlsson plays Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, and Pepe Romero plays a Giuliani concerto. Chamber offerings include Ligeti's M鴡morphoses nocturnes for string quartet and Mozart's Gran partita; composer-in-residence Eric Ewazen is on hand for the premiere of his Oboe Concerto; and as for Beethoven, the festival's climax is a concert performance of Fidelio. 1300 N State, Suite 202, Bellingham, 360-676-5997. $9-$21. 7/30-8/14.

Seattle Opera—Next up on its schedule is my all-time favorite opera, Weber's Der Freischtz. This 1821 setting of a German folktale helped give the decisive blow to the gods-and-goddesses opera plots of the 18th century; from then on, local color and gothic thrills and chills became the rage in German opera. Without Weber, no Wagner, it's that simple. Seattle Opera, of course, is known for its Wagner, so this should be right up its alley. Gary Lakes sings Max, a huntsman who needs to win the hand of his beloved in a shooting contest, so he makes a deal with the devil to get seven magic bullets that never miss their marks (hence Seattle Opera's chosen English rendering of the title, The Devil's Bullet). Deborah Voigt plays his girlfriend, Agathe, and Gerard Schwarz conducts. 389-7676. $33-$99. 8/5-21.

Marrowstone Music Festival—The summer home of the Seattle Youth Symphony brings kids and guest faculty together for a busy lineup of concerts. The two youth orchestras, led by Jonathan Shames and Huw Edwards, play on Sundays at 2; their repertory includes decidedly adult music like Bart� Viola Concerto and Elgar's Enigma Variations. The faculty includes New York Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow; Alex Klein and Dale Clevenger, principal oboe and horn of the Chicago Symphony; and Seattle Symphony trumpeter Charles Butler. Faculty chamber music concerts are Thursdays at 8 and Saturdays at 2. All this takes place at Fort Worden State Park near Port Townsend. 11065 Fifth, Suite E, 362-2300. $10-$14. 8/5-22.

Methow Music Festival—This is its fourth season, and it's scheduled six recitals, plus open rehearsals and lectures for you to sample. There's an American Night, with Gershwin, Copland, and Bernstein; a Baroque Night with Bach, Monteverdi, and Michael Haydn; and lots of 19th-century favorites. 16 Lost River Rd, Mazama, 509-996-3251. $7-$15. Weekends 8/6-15.

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