The Prophet Returns
Thomas Quasthoff takes up residence, again, in Eugene
by Suzi Steffen
The Bach Festival has many things to celebrate on its 40th anniversary, but one is the massive boost Maestro Helmuth Rilling gave to bass/baritone Thomas Quasthoff’s career.
When the OBF brought Quasthoff, he of the richly complex voice, to Eugene in 1995, Quasthoff hadn’t quite hit international stardom. Now, he’s achieved that goal and more, with three Grammy-winning recordings under his belt and prizes from all over Europe adorning his name — but he never forgets Eugene. He returns to the OBF after an absence of a few years, and he’ll perform several times in this year’s festival in what should be some of the festival’s hottest tickets.
“It’s a little bit of coming home,” Quasthoff said on the phone from Berlin. A rather 1950s-bad phone line didn’t quash his legendary graciousness as he discussed his plans for his Oregon stay.
The first event with Quasthoff fires up the synapses of music-lovers: Die Schöne Müllerin, a song cycle by Schubert for a voice (usually tenor) and piano, which in this case will shine under the fingers of Jeffrey Kahane. I asked Quasthoff to describe what he tries to do when he sings the part of the young man who falls for a woman above his class. The young man loses her to an assertive, more well-off hunter and eventually drowns his sorrows in a brook.
“You have to create a kind of tension from the first song to the end,” Quasthoff said. “The music seems to be very simple harmonically, but this is what makes the music so difficult: The music is giving the beauty, but not really the dramatic attachment.”
That means the singer has to shade the music, Quasthoff said, and to decide what tone to project in the crucial middle songs, as the tide turns against the lovelorn man. Is he in despair? Sarcastic? Furious? “That’s my challenge; that’s what Jeff and I have to decide,” he said. But he said he loves singing Schubert. “These composers, who never really touched with their foot the Earth — they’re flying in a league which does not really exist,” he said.
In contrast to the serious, intense, challenging work, Quasthoff performs later in the week with Bobby McFerrin at the 40th Anniversary Gala, jamming and improvising (though not without practice) as they did in the Vienna Jazz Festival a couple of years ago.
Trying to picture that was a bit of a challenge, and not only to this writer. “To describe this, to be very honest, I cannot,” Quasthoff said. “It’s very exciting, and we had a lot of fun that evening [in Vienna], so that much I can tell you about what’s really going to happen. Be surprised!”
And then there’s Elijah. The towering Mendelssohn work, in which Quasthoff plays the dramatically volatile Old Testament prophet, comes as nothing new to the singer, who has performed it often and recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon. One of those performances was, you guessed it, the OBF in 2000. The Register-Guard’s Bill Smith wrote of that performance, “Thomas Quasthoff was born to sing the role, and he did so with an uncanny arsenal of technique and emotion.” This year, Quasthoff and the OBF Orchestra and Chorus perform the work twice: In Portland on July 9, and in Eugene on July 11, ending the festival.
“It’s one of my absolute favorite pieces,” Quasthoff said. “What makes music making with Helmuth always special is that we’re very good friends, we know each other so well. We have artistry and friendship, and Helmuth is happy that I will go to Eugene again.”
Even though he’s performed Elijah many times, Quasthoff said, it’s always a slightly different, new experience, depending on the orchestra, the other soloists and the conductor. And, Quasthoff said, “If it would always be the same, that would be the most boring experience on Earth.” That’s because Elijah has a tough job and must alter throughout the oratorio. “The main character is really changing during the piece, immensely. First, he is sarcastic, really angry, a bitter guy, changing to a very devoted prophet,” Quasthoff said.
Quasthoff said that he’d like to see Crater Lake while he’s in Oregon, though of course he’ll watch many of the other performances (he’s legendary for attending many OBF concerts while he’s in town). “I’m still very good friends with many of the musicians” from his early days at the OBF, he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing my friends.”
But that’s not all that appeals about Eugene, he said: “Every interview I give, I could never say my career started in N.Y. because the door which opened for me was in Eugene. I have to thank Helmuth more than a thousand times that he believed in me.”
Let’s Talk: Meet Thomas Quasthoff, noon Wednesday, June 30 (Hult Lobby)
Quasthoff and Kahane, Die Schöne Müllerin, 7:30 pm Thursday, July 1 (Silva Concert Hall, Hult Center)
40th Anniversary Gala Concert, 8 pm Saturday, July 3 (Silva)
Elijah — Portland, 7:30 pm Friday, July 9 (Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall)
Elijah — Eugene, 3 pm Sunday, July 11 (Silva)