I knew that Friday, June 27th would be a good night at the Schnitz when the line was stretched all the way down the block in front of the Heathman hotel just five minutes before the concert was set to start. The reason for this excitement was that Eugene's world-renowned Oregon Bach Festival was about to give its first Portland performance since 1981, and was in fact launching this year's festival here in the Rose City. And what a way to return: the stage was set for J.S. Bach's colossal Mass in B-minor under the baton of Grammy-winning Bach scholar Helmuth Rilling. Fortunately I had gotten my tickets the first day they went on sale, so I didn't need to stand in that long line in the sweltering summer heat. Another reason the line was so promising was that, in order to draw a performance of this caliber to Portland again next year, the PDX arts community would need to deliver a strong show of support for this enterprise. It was heartening to see that support materialize as if before my very eyes. We did our part, and during the pre-concert hoopla, OBF Executive Director John Evans assured the enthusiastic, near-sellout crowd that the OBF would most definitely be returning to Portland next year.
This was my first time witnessing Rilling at work, and from the solemn intonation of the opening Kyrie on, I was struck by the methodical precision with which the maestro drew music from his group. There was no excessive movement or showy gesticulation; like clockwork and with serious intent, he brought forth a stupendous, seamless wall of sound. What struck me immediately was the almost uncanny blend: with the entire chorus singing the Kyrie, they were yet at balance with the mournful obbligato of one single oboe.
After the long, contemplative meditation of the Kyrie, the exuberant Gloria shone forth like brilliant rays of sun from behind a wall of dark clouds. The diction was superb throughout, and this was noticeable from the first lines of the Gloria. While all of the soloists were wonderful to hear, contralto Ingeborg Danz, affiliated with Rilling's Internationale Bachakademie of Stuttgart, was simply magnificent. During the Qui sedes I felt completely entranced, and could have gone on listening to her all night long. She possesses a richness of tone coupled with a supple timbre and unimstakeable power. I could definitely hear the qualities in her voice that make her so sought after as a lieder singer. For the final Cum Sanco Spiritu Rilling employed a sort of mezzo-staccato on the melismatic sections that made the work crisp and bright.
There was no intermission as such; just a brief respite during which Rilling sat down for five minutes or so, only to rise and launch right into the Symbolum Nicenum that formed the second half. While the performance as a whole was magnificent, I noticed a certain 'politeness' in the many of the choral movements of the first half that seemed to somehow mute the overall power of the work. The accuracy was perfect, all the notes were there; it was more of an emotional fire that was sometimes absent.
This problem was non-existent in the second half; it seemed as though the choir began to infuse their singing with the meaning behind the text, thus lending the Symbolum more emotional heft than was present during the first part. That's not to say the first half was not enjoyable in any way, only that when the choir seemed to suddenly spark during the second half, I felt drawn into the mysteries about which they were singing more fully. This was especially noticeable during the Resurrexit and later in the Osanna. By the time the serene Dona Nobis Pacem closed the work out, I felt that I had gone on a powerful journey indeed. It was a joy to hear Rilling and this magnificent ensemble perform such a towering work here in Portland, and it will be a great pleasure to have them back next year.