From the Eugene Register Guard:
The passion of Rilling
Bach Festival co-founder is approaching the end of his long run
Published: (Thursday, Jul 12, 2012 01:06PM) Midnight, July 12
As he prepared last week for Sunday’s upcoming performance of the St. Matthew Passion, Helmuth Rilling grilled his conducting students behind the scenes at the Oregon Bach Festival, making sure that they were tuned into even the tiniest details in the sprawling choral work by Johann Sebastian Bach.
As he has done here each summer for more than four decades, the 79-year-old festival founder and artistic director from Stuttgart, Germany, demanded that his students — who come here from around the world to work with him — study the music’s text as thoroughly as a good film director might explore the motivations of a movie’s characters.
“These are texts that have a deep meaning,” Rilling explains later that afternoon, relaxing with his wife, Martina, at a borrowed home overlooking Eugene. “I always have to challenge them to understand this.”
Rilling — and the Oregon Bach Festival itself — are at a turning point.
The co-founder, along with University of Oregon music professor Royce Saltzman, of a little summer music festival that grew to international prominence, Rilling is stepping down from his post here after next year’s festival, turning the title of artistic director over to Matthew Halls.
In a wide-ranging interview, Rilling talked about everything from the St. Matthew — Bach’s longest work — to American speed limits (he prefers the anarchy of the German autobahns, which have no limits) and the little cigars that keep him going through long hours of musical study.
First, St. Matthew.
As with most of Bach’s work, it is music that is grounded in a particular faith, the European Christianity of the 18th century. Bach himself was an organist and choirmaster, and Rilling insists there is no way to take the Christianity out of Bach’s music.
“Bach regarded himself as a musical theologian,” Rilling says. “He had to do the same thing with his music that the minister did with his sermons.”
And yet the conductor doesn’t think it’s essential for the audience to share Bach’s Christian faith (although Rilling himself does) to appreciate the music.
“That’s because of (Bach’s) ability to speak to many human problems in the St. Matthew,” he says.
“Love. Hatred. He speaks about disappointment. He speaks about betraying someone.”
And so, Rilling has been able to conduct the St. Matthew to appreciative audiences in places such as Taiwan.
“Of course there are some Christians there, but most of them are not,” he says. “And yet they are deeply interested in the piece.”
Complexities present challenges
The St. Matthew requires enormous forces to perform. It’s written for two orchestras and two choruses, as well as a number of vocal soloists.
Rilling, who prides himself on conducting without a score in front of him on the podium, admits that the St. Matthew was one of the harder works to get control of by memory.
“It took me a long time to get that piece in my head,” he says. “The most dangerous is the recitatives (words spoken without a musical structure). It is easy to learn a fugue. It’s logical.
“But the recitatives ...”
Rilling, like Bach, was an organist early in his career, although he says he hasn’t touched the pipe organ at his home in Stuttgart for 10 or 15 years. He also is a quiet perfectionist, demanding a high level of preparation and understanding from his musicians.
And he is harder on himself than he is on anyone else.
“That comes from responsibility to the music,” he says. “I am responsible for the quality of the performance, and that is a challenge.
“If I am well-prepared, I know that I can get the music ready for performance in the quickest possible way.”
Despite the fact he is known primarily as a conductor of Bach, Rilling also has been a champion of contemporary music at the festival, which has commissioned or premiered works from such leading composers as Krzyztof Penderecki, Osvaldo Golijov and Sven-David Sandström.
Rilling’s approach to new music is fairly simple. He doesn’t care about styles of composition. What
he does care about is engagement.
“There is one thing that is important,” he says. “Does it have the quality of speaking to the audience?”
Fesitival is part of his life
In person, Rilling is charming, cordial and reserved. He is not given to small talk, and he gives the impression of being a man who lives very much inside his own head.
Rilling pulls out a tin of small cigars, imported from the Dominican Republic, and lights one up. He explains the tobacco habit in terms of his work.
“I just started smoking 10 years ago,” he says. “It’s because I sit there with my score. You can’t imagine how many hours every year I sit there in a chair, studying my scores.
“And together with that, I puff! I am working, and while working, I smoke.”
It’s clear that it is difficult for Rilling to contemplate stepping down from his post with the Oregon Bach Festival. He and his wife have spent a large part of their lives here.
In fact, he interjects, when you add it all up they have lived in Eugene for more than two years. Their two daughters, Sara and Rahel, have grown up as part of the festival; both have performed here.
“I think it would be great for the festival to have a hall the size of, say, 1,200 (seats),” he says. “The (Hult’s) Soreng is too small. Beall Hall is too small.”
But the Hult’s Silva Concert Hall is so large, at 2,500 seats, that many concerts can’t fill the space. And the acoustics in the Silva are middling at best.
“We could do a Bach cantata, and you have 1,200 people and it’s sold out,” he says.
A commitment to education
Rilling has no special post-Bach plans.
“I very much like being at home,” he says. “We have a beautiful house. I enjoy reading some beautiful books. And sometimes my wife takes me on a walk.”
He and Martina also have their first grandchild, Rahel’s 3-month-old son, Joseph, to entertain them.
There is one thing Rilling insists is important that the festival never change, and that is the focus on education.
Rilling would like to see a youth orchestra alongside the youth chorus, for example. He would like to add voice classes and instrument classes to the conducting master class he has taught.
“You can buy important names anywhere and have them perform,” he says, referring to importing big-name stars such as violinist Joshua Bell, who played at the festival’s opening night on June 29.
“But this festival is unique. Why would you even do it without the education?”