EUGENE -- As the country's top cowboys are converging for a really
big Fourth of July rodeo here, another gathering took place, including
the Suwon Civic Chorale of South Korea, Stuttgart's maestro
Helmut Rilling and soprano Sibylla Rubens, and from Hannover,
bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff.
Tonight, these exotic forces (minus the cowboys) combined for
one of the most grounded, all-of-one-piece and sublime Brahms `German
Requiem' performances in my memory.
The Oregon Bach Festival has done it again. Just like its
older (and smaller) counterpart in Carmel, this festival is producing
great music in an incongruous setting. Amidst the cowboys and blueberry
patches, between a rugged coastline and beautiful mountains, plaid shirts
and lots of utility vehicles, somehow Brahms got his due and then some.
The standing ovation went on for 10 minutes, every second of it well
Cavernous, all-wood Silva Concert Hall of the Hult Center packed
in some 2,500 people for the concert, part of of two-week celebration
of `Bach and the Romantics.' Already gone: the `Missa Solemnis';
coming up: the St. Matthew Passion, Schubert's `Rosamunde,' the
Magnificat, and -- so far from December -- the Handel `Messiah.'
Those are the biggies. Otherwise, it's lots of chamber and
choral music, art exhibits, and a Fourth of July softball game at
the University of Oregon: orchestra vs. chorus. With the South Koreans
making up the bulk of the chorus this year, the orchestra doesn't
have a chance.
But tonight, the German-American orchestra and the Korean-Oregonian
chorus got along famously under Rilling's impressive direction.
The Requiem took off slowly and cautiously, then it built and built,
steadily, comprehensively, magnificently, sweeping the audience along
the deeply spiritual flow of this most un-religious and non-death-oriented
This was not a powerful `German Requiem,' but a masterfully shaped,
Rilling is an outstanding, rare conductor, equally good with
chorus and orchestra -- that's something that just doesn't happen often.
Most `choral conductors' are fair-to-middling with an orchestra and
most orchestra conductors try to deal with the chorus separately.
Rilling integrates his forces easily, obviously, irresistibly.
He does not dance, does not conduct with his
hands, but his arms and elbows. His attention is completely on the
music and the musicians; I can't think of another major conductor
who is less of a showman (Herbert Blomstedt comes close). But the results:
now there is a really big show.
The opening `Selig sind, die da Leid tragen' and closing
`Selig sind die Toten' served as repetition, reinforcement and yet
as question-and-answer -- they enfolded everything in-between.
The Korean approach to the German Romantic masterpiece
to sing quietly, accurately and together. It doesn't sound right,
but it works. With just a little overstatement, this is a chorus
that has no great voices but they all sing very well.
No such considerations for the two soloists. They would be
difficult to match in any concert hall. Rubens is a soprano with a
clear, smallish voice, perfect musical delivery; a German edition of
Heidi Grant Murphy.
Quasthoff, for whom I drove the 1,000-mile roundtrip from
San Francisco, is not yet as well known as the others, but he is a
valid member of the amazing bass-baritone class of the 'Nineties:
Terfel, Hampson, Hvorostovky.
Quasthoff's `Herr, lehre doch mich' impressed not only with
a big, perfectly placed, warm and beautiful voice, but with a clearly,
obviously brilliant understanding and communication of the text
and music. Listening to Quasthoff is thrilling because you just *know*
that you're in the presence of a perfect interpretation. His projection,
the effortless shaping of notes and phrases, his direct, unaffected
communication already rank with the great ones -- and he is still
under 40 in a voice category which can easily give him another
two decades of peak performance.
Paul Moor, one of Quasthoff's most forceful and effective
champions, wrote with appreciation about European reviews that simply
ignored the singer's appearance. Once he becomes well-known, that may
be the right thing to do. But for now, as a journalist, I don't see
the viability of ignoring what is making such a powerful impact on
Severely deformed as one of the thalidomide babies of the late
'Fifties, the singer stands about four feet tall, with a `normal' (and
handsome) face and torso, but only fragmentary arms and legs.
Quasthoff sings from a three-foot high platform, so that he actually
he stands above everybody else. I don't know the reason for this,
but I found the strange `staging' even more distracting than the
initial impact of Quasthoff's appearance.
Still, just as with Itzhak Perlman, Jeffrey Tate, and other
artists with disabilities, Quasthoff's artistry renders every other
consideration moot in just a few minutes -- even the thought of what
enormous challenges he had to face (physical, social, psychological)
to be where he is today. What's important is that he singing for
us, so wonderfully well. `Herr, lehre doch mich,' the aria he sings
in the `German Requiem' ends with: `no torment shall touch... the
souls of the righteous.' When you hear and see Quasthoff, you
*know* that is one of the righteous.
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