The Oregon Bach Festival

In days of violent acts and words, we all need times to center ourselves again in beauty that orders a world, in memories that give it meaning, and grandeur that frames our brief lives in the work of all creation. We have just returned from a trip that has helped us repair in such a way.

We went to Oregon, where Sylvia grew up, first to spend a week at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene, Oregon, home of the University of Oregon, where Sylvia studied music over fifty years ago. I’ve decided to share some of this trip with you as a way of reflecting on beauty, memory, and grandeur, capped off with a reflection on rugged craft. Here’s the first installment.

Conductor directing musicians on stage

The Oregon Bach Festival arose in 1970 from the inspiration of Helmut Rilling and Royce Saltzman to promote not only the legacy of Bach, but of music that embodies the values of the musical tradition which he played such a large role in.

It brings young musicians together with seasoned players, conductors and composers under the auspices of the School of Music and other arts organizations. Walking around the campus under the giant spruces, firs, maples, and redwoods, I became aware that the campus itself is an arboretum, reflecting the university’s long interest in environmental studies.

We were indeed in the groves of academe, a grove filled more with the sounds of music then the laughter and calls of young students. We only had a chance for a slice of the twenty-day festival, bringing us to rehearsals in the very hall where Sylvia gave recitals during her studies.

The Berwick Academy, one of the Festival’s key components, fosters performance that seeks to reproduce the instruments, styles, sounds of the period in which a work was written. The music of Bach, Boccherini and Mozart gains a new crispness, clarity, and intimacy that is often lost in the lush and loud styles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

As we listened through oratorios, concerts, recitals, and chamber music, I always had a sense that music is not just a sound of the moment but an expression of a long history woven of many traditions, each forming as well as informing our sensibilities. Matthew Halls, the Artistic Director, shared insights at several points into the theology of Bach’s work, without which the music becomes a harmonious but meaningless sound.

And there were contemporary works like those of James MacMillan, the renowned Scottish composer and conductor. While some of his work sounded like a train wreck to us, other work had a haunting immediacy, evoking a sense of loss or hope. We had to miss the premier of his European Requiem, which stands in a long history of Requiems but which had a poignant edge in the age of Brexit, the collapse of Middle Eastern societies, and the rise of our own reactionary movements.

Music like this makes us aware of inner harmonies that constitute us as well as of the brittle edge between our personal lives and the events that often seem to overwhelm the world around us. It opens us to the depths of that world even as it reminds us of the singing atoms, molecules, and organs that constitute us. It compels us to weep as well as to remember and to hope. In my own case, the Festival’s setting, indeed, its very buildings, helped weave together our memories with this larger heritage.

We left the Festival and Eugene to visit Crater Lake, where grandeur speaks of music as well as devastation. That’s the next installment.

1 thought on “The Oregon Bach Festival”

  1. What a delicious time. It reminds me of our first Christmas in San Diego, listening to Bach concertos. I guess your visit was a kind of pilgrimage. What a wonderful trip!

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