Helmuth Rilling retires from position with Oregon Bach Festival

The Oregon Bach Festival, based in Eugene, Oregon, and presented in conjunction with the University of Oregon, recently completed its 44th season-- its final season under founder and artistic director Helmuth Rilling.  Mr. Rilling’s partner in this amazing undertaking, executive director Royce Saltzman, retired a few years ago, and the Festival has already begun to shift focus and vision under current executive director, John Evans; but this summer marks, effectively, the retirement of their joint stewardship, and the beginning of a new era and direction.

I have participated in the Festival semi-regularly, as a singer, since 1995.  Mr. Rilling’s focus on the choral works of J.S. Bach, large and small, was the original impetus for my participation; and I have gained immeasurably through studying and performing these works, some of them repeatedly, over these eighteen years.  Helmuth is the real thing:  a German Lutheran Kapellmeister, working in a tradition which he inherits from preceding generations, and within which he operates knowledgeably, confidently and imaginatively.  On every level, Bach’s church music is Rilling’s native language.  English-speaking American musicians, in the thousands, have learned texts, and Bach’s manner of setting them and explicating them, from a man who knows them intimately, and who has deepened his understanding of Bach’s procedures, and genius, through constant study.  We learn vocal technique, musicianship, basic performance skills, elsewhere; we learned to put these aspects of our craft at the disposal of Bach’s music, from Helmuth Rilling.

Many of the musicians I know through the festival regularly find themselves in an awkward middle ground with their non-festival colleagues:  we are a little too interested in musicology, in why things happen, for our performer colleagues; and we are a little too concerned with practical performance matters, for our musicologist friends.  This festival has seemed tailor-made for us. I have been particularly interested in the festival’s pedagogical basis. Originally founded as a series of master classes, organized by Mr. Saltzman and taught by Mr. Rilling, for music students at the University of Oregon, the festival has grown to be far larger than this, with a multitude of concerts and programs running simultaneously; but it has continued to revolve around these master classes, attended by an international group of conductors of many levels and backgrounds.  The classes have continued, up to this summer, to be the philosophical core of the festival.  Conducting students study works in depth, and conduct them repeatedly, with professional instrumentalists, choristers, and soloists-- and the performers have the opportunity to watch them work, come to understand the issues they confront, and learn the works in greater depth, ourselves.  These master classes have unquestionably been the center of the festival for me, and I have volunteered to participate in them at every possible opportunity, at all levels. I feel that we saw Mr. Rilling at his very finest, in this more intimate forum.  The major, public concerts were very important, of course, bringing in audiences and participants to experience the large, concerted works; but I lived for the master classes.

Royce Saltzman had the vision, the energy, the administrative ability, the local connections, to found this festival in an out-of–the-way place, and make it thrive, against all logic; Helmuth had the personal charisma, the ingratiating personality, the talent, and the unflagging will, to occupy the space Royce created for him, and to fill it completely.  Both men have my undying admiration and gratitude.   The festival’s new artistic director, Matthew Halls, along with executive director John Evans, are well on their way to building a new and very valuable program on this original basis, and I look forward to seeing what they do in the future; but I regard myself as very fortunate to have participated so fully in the Rilling/Saltzman creation.