Oregon Bach Festival airs greatest hits during pandemic pause

Helmuth Rilling conducting 'Messiah' in 2009

Even though the Oregon Bach Festival has been postponed, audiences will still get the chance to hear some of the most memorable music from its 50-year history thanks to a collaboration with KWAX-FM Classical Oregon.

The UO-based classical radio station will air a special series of live radio shows and internet broadcasts in place of the storied music festival, which is on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Even though we couldn’t come together in person, we wanted our audience to be able to experience some of the magic and joy that the Oregon Bach Festival has brought to our community over the last half-century,” said Sabrina Madison-Cannon, the Phyllis and Andrew Berwick Dean at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance.

The radio series includes 11 curated programs that will be broadcast every weekday from June 26 to July 10. The series launches with a performance of the “St. Matthew Passion” conducted by festival co-founder Helmuth Rilling and featuring internationally acclaimed bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff.

“We chose to begin with the ‘Saint Matthew Passion’ because it’s Bach’s largest composition, both in length and the size of its performing forces, and because it showcases our wonderful chorus, vocal soloists, orchestra and founding conductor,” said Michael Anderson, director of artistic administration at the Oregon Bach Festival.

Bach’s “St. John Passion” will air the following Friday on July 3, with performances from tenor James Taylor and soprano Maria Jette, and the series will conclude with a version of the B Minor Mass performed on period instruments on Friday, July 10.

“We decided to end with the B Minor Mass because it is considered by many to be his magnum opus,” Anderson said.

In addition to Bach’s choral orchestral masterworks, the series also features Handel’s “The Messiah,” Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Verdi’s “Requiem,” performances from the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy and Berwick Academy Orchestra, as well as four world premieres from some of the greatest modern composers, including a Grammy Award-winning recording of “Credo” from Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who passed away earlier this year.

The complete schedule is currently available on the KWAX website, and a listening guide with program notes will be posted on the Oregon Bach Festival website when the series goes to air.

KWAX host Peter van de Graaff described the lineup as “must-listen radio” for classical music fans.

“There are going to be some exceptional concerts,” he said.

Van de Graaff will share hosting duties with KWAX’s Rocky Lamanna, with van de Graaff presenting at 10 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and Lamanna taking the afternoon slot at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The shows will not be archived, so the broadcasts will be a one-time-only chance to hear many of these recordings. National and international audiences can listen live on the KWAX website.

“Don’t miss it, because this is the only opportunity,” van de Graaff said. “Take the time during this festival to tune in and enjoy those wonderful moments.”

He said he was particularly excited to hear performances from Quasthoff, who appears in the “St. Matthew Passion,” “St. John Passion,” Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy in C minor and Handel’s “The Messiah,” as well as a lieder recital that includes works from Schumann, Liszt and Brahms, and a popular rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

Quasthoff was just one of the significant soloists whose careers were launched to greater heights following performances at the Oregon Bach Festival. He struggled throughout his career to overcome severe birth defects caused by the drug thalidomide, which was prescribed at the time as a treatment for morning sickness.

He only grew to a height of around 4 feet, 5 inches and was denied entry into music school in Germany because he could not play the piano with hands that grew directly out of his shoulders.

But after making his U.S. debut at the Oregon Bach Festival, Quasthoff went on to be recognized as one of the best bass-baritone singers of his generation.

“He may not be a tall person, but he is truly a giant in the world of classical music,” Anderson said.

American soprano Arleen Augér was another singer who rose to prominence after breakout performances at the Oregon Bach Festival.

Audiences can tune in at 10 a.m. on Monday, June 29 to hear Augér sing Mozart’s Mass in C minor and Bach’s Cantata 202, which were recorded in 1979.

Many of these historic recordings have not been heard in decades, with some sitting in storage for as long as 40 years.

“When you’re dealing with reel-to-reel tapes, there’s a lot of issues,” said Lance Miller, senior recording engineer at the School of Music and Dance. “The oxide on the tape, on the acetate, will actually absorb moisture from the air … (and) when the tape hits a point that has moisture, it’ll start squeaking.”

Miller spent months painstakingly restoring more than 12 hours’ worth of old recordings with a technique known as “baking the tapes,” where moisture is extracted using a food dehydrator.

“You bake them at between 125 and 135 degrees,” Miller said. “An oven doesn’t work, because an oven doesn’t go that low.”

The tapes are then left to cool for 24 hours, before being re-recorded to create a pristine digital copy. Miller said he was impressed by the quality of the final recordings.

“The Oregon Bach Festival audio engineers were really skilled technicians who knew what they were doing, and you can hear it in the quality of the music,” he said. “The music’s beautiful. It’s really fantastic.”

Festival co-founder Royce Saltzman said he hoped that the radio series would give everyone who had participated in the festival over the years the chance to relive memories of life-changing moments that personally touched them.

“The music stands alone and is something really great in itself, but to be able to hear it and listen to these works that were performed at the Oregon Bach Festival with sterling casts of soloists, instrumentalists and a superb choir, that’s very gratifying,” Saltzman said. “It’s a wonderful way to celebrate the festival. The festival has affected so many lives, not only singers and conductors and instrumentalists but audiences who have said over and over again, ‘My life has been changed because of the music.’ It will give them an opportunity to relive some of those moments.”

–By Steve Fyffe, School of Music and Dance