Festival Fever

The 49th Oregon Bach Festival has lately been looking like a bit of a Blah-ch Festival. If the venerable University of Oregon music institution is ever to regain the cultural primacy it once enjoyed in its glory days, I’m afraid we’ll need to wait for new artistic and executive leadership. Happily, that’s on the way.

My top recommendation for the entire festival: Portland composer and jazz pianist Darrell Grant’s The Territory, which we’ll tell you about next time. 

On Tuesday, July 2, at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall, one of America’s most acclaimed new music ensembles, Brooklyn Rider string quartet, plays one of the greatest of all chamber works, Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet, plus five new commissions on the subject of healing written by some of today’s leading composers (all of whom happen to be women): Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, Matana Roberts and recent Pulitzer Prize winners Caroline Shaw and Du Yun.

Portland Cello Project has been making a classical instrument hip for more than a decade. They also play Beethoven, but mostly new music, and it more often comes from hip hop, rock and other pop artists. Founded by UO alum Douglas Jenkins and a big draw wherever it goes in on its many tours, the ensemble returns to OBF June 29 with a program featuring music by Radiohead, John Coltrane and more — including, of course, J.S. Bach himself. 

Speaking of cellos, Bach’s sublime sextet of cello suites are pillars of Baroque music, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use a new coat of paint every now and then. Scottish composer and cellist Peter Gregson is bringing yet another cello ensemble and electronics to Soreng on Saturday, July 6, to play his updated version of Bach’s classics.

Genuine Bach pervades the biggest production of this festival, DanceAbility International’s Bach in Motion on Friday, July 5, at the Hult’s Silva Hall. DanceAbility’s Alito Alessi has amazed us for decades by demonstrating that everyone really can dance, and he’s joined with Bach conductor/researcher Koji Otsuki (who masterminded the project), a quartet of distinguished classical singers, the UO Chamber Choir and the festival orchestra led by early music specialist Jane Glover to set Bach’s music in motion.

There’s hip, and then there’s HIP. Glover has led two major historically informed performance (HIP) orchestras — London Mozart Players and Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, and worked with many others. The English conductor returns to Mozart Saturday, June 29, with a pair of musical bookends: Mozart’s orchestral breakthrough, written at age 18, Symphony No. 29, and his last work, the mighty Requiem, one of the most moving of all musical creations.

What’s making OBF special these days is its commitment to HIP performances. It might be making a virtue of necessity, but the festival’s downsizing has forced it to rely more on its parent institution, the UO School of Music and Dance, and especially its Berwick Academy, which was instituted by the forcibly departed director Halls.

For fans of historically informed performance practice — a fancy term for hearing the music as closely as possible to the way its composers intended — that’s a good thing. The academy’s free chamber music concerts on Saturday, June 29, and the afternoons of Friday and Saturday, July 5-6, at Berwick Hall (the July 5 show features the faculty and guest artists) are an easy way to get really close to 18th-century music the way it was meant to be heard. 

Best of all for period instrument fans: the June 30 All-Handel Concert (Water Music, an Italian cantata, and one of his famous concertos for two wind choirs) led by one of the great early music conductors, John Butt, and the Monday, July 1, Beall Hall performance featuring the amazing recorder virtuoso Matthias Maute.

The best place to really immerse yourself in the festival’s namesake is the legendary Discovery Series shows at Beall Hall created by founder Helmuth Rilling, where conductor Scott Allen Jarrett combines teaching and performance in a deep dive into what makes Bach great.

A broader music experience is the World Beat Festival June 28-30 at Salem’s gorgeous Riverfront Park. You can hear  everything from African dance, song and drumming to music from Bhutan, Hawaii, Vietnam and Pacific Islands, including the Philippines, Javanese gamelan and dance, Guam and Samoan fire shows. It’s almost overwhelming and always wonderful, plus you can enjoy food from many cultures and demonstrations of other art forms. It’s the richest weekend in Oregon performing arts.