In the fertile soil of Oregon, the natives obsessively proclaim, everything grows better than anywhere else: tomatoes, strawberries, tall corn and music. Nothing better confirms the thesis than the Oregon Bach Festival, whose 31st season concludes this weekend [July 9] after three weeks, 55 events, joyously devoted to the music of  Bach and far beyond. From its modest beginnings – in 1970, when University of Oregon educator and enthusiast Royce Saltzman persuaded the then-little-known German conductor Helmuth Rilling to join him in building a festival from scratch in the idyllic college town of Eugene – the Festival has flourished mightily.
Rilling, 67, has been from the beginning the Festival’s benevolent spirit; Oregon has been as good to him as he to it. The growing fame of the Bach Festival has sparked Eugene’s year-round musical awareness, including the building of the 2430-seat Hult Center to house the city’s fast-growing symphony and opera company. Stuttgart remains Rilling’s “other” home, where he now heads the International Bachakademie and is currently masterminding (and, for the most part, conducting) a 170-disc Haenssler release of Bach compleat. For previous Bach Festivals at Eugene Rilling has also commissioned and performed major new scores by Krzysztof Penderecki and Arvo Part.
Bach maintains his summertime centrality at Eugene, especially so in this 250th-anniversary year when the agenda included both of the great Passions plus the B-minor Mass. But the festival bore the subtitle “Music Beyond Boundaries,” and that regard, too, became a driving force. Visiting choruses brought in music from the pre-Bach centuries; a new-music group down from Portland played works with their ink still wet. And while the “Saint Matthew Passion” received the full treatment in a stunning, harrowing reading under Rilling, the “Saint John” was also at hand, given over as the project for a young conductors’ master class and then performed piecemeal over four “Discovery” afternoons. 
The phenomenal bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff first came to the U.S. at Rilling’s behest for the 1995 Festival, and has been a regular performer there ever since as his worldwide fame has grown. His body drastically foreshortened by his mother’s pre-natal use of Thalidomide, he rises to full stature in every sung phrase, his voice both powerful and velvety. In the “Saint Matthew” he wrapped the bass arias in a mantle of heartbreak, then found an entirely different voice for the bitter words of Pontius Pilate. Something of a workaholic, in weeks at Eugene Quasthoff also sang the bass solos in Bach’s B-minor Mass, shared a song program with the splendid German soprano Juliane Banse, took on the title role in Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” and also delighted another sell-out audience in an evening of Sinatra songs and some strong and heartfelt American jazz.
An all-day “Composer’s Symposium” gathered young composers to  sit at the feet of much-loved innovator Lou Harrison and to hear their music played by Portland’s adept ensemble “Third Angle.” Visiting choruses from Cuba, Uganda, Israel and Sweden serenaded audiences in Eugene and surrounding small towns, and joined forces with Eugene Symphony Orchestra conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya in the inaugural Beethoven Ninth (again with Quasthoff among the soloists).
The Festival’s origins comprise one of music’s great right-thing/right-time/right-place phenomena, tucked from the start under the supporting aegis of the University of Oregon’s enterprising School of Music. Early concerts drew upon nearby talent, as Rilling managed with sublime insinuation to convince local forces to play and sing far over their heads in what were virtually sightreading performances of Bach cantatas and major choral works. Major soloists came, including the late, great American soprano Arleen Auger who – like Quasthoff in later years – earned her first American plaudits in Eugene after a European beginning. The excellent chorus and orchestra, many rungs up from the tentative forces of 31 years ago, draws professional performers from all over, including a large contingent from the splendid Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. As one violinist of 20 years’ experience at Eugene noted, over a plateful of Oregon’s matchless veggies, “It’s like summer camp. Only better.”

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