Oregon Bach Festival
"I always get goosebumps at this part," I said to my companion at the first raising of the instruments, the first notes, the dozens of voices sliding and rising into one, into the beginning of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor, the first performance of the 2002 Oregon Bach Festival, my first time attending.
Since its informal start in 1970, the OBF is now a major event in Eugene. For 2 weeks in July (and a couple of days at the end of June), the OBF draws audiences, performers, composers and conductors from around the world. Some of the top names in modern classical music were coming, such as Chinese composer Tan Dun (whose credits include the Academy Award-winning soundtrack for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) and German bass-baritone singer Thomas Quasthoff.
However, in the weeks coming up to the opening night, and throughout the OBF, I kept wondering why I felt I should be writing about it for the Eugene Guide. It is a major event, to be sure, but when you’re backpacking around, why shell out cash to watch some tuxed-up ponces perform stuffy ol’ classical music? And what in blazes do a dead German composer, a Chinese former rice farmer, and a bunch of Eugene hippies have in common with travel, anyway?
I thought about this long and hard. Through each performance I attended, the question was always in my mind to one degree or another. But no answer followed. Travel. Bach. Classical music. Phillip Blazdell. Backpacks. Tubas. I’m reaching, I kept thinking. I’m reaching like a baritone trying to sing soprano. The questions kept occurring, at the Mass in B Minor, at
Tan Dun’s Water Passion after St. Matthew (the OBF was its U.S. debut) and the Crouching Tiger Concerto, after the Crouching Tigersoundtrack, both of which he composed and conducted.
But still. Bach composed over 1000 pieces of music. He fathered 20 children. Even 250 years after Bach’s death, his influence over music in Western and other cultures is strong, his music still in demand, current and relevant. Tan Dun grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution; he was "re-educated" in rice fields as a peasant, before being admitted to a newly reopened Chinese national conservatory. Now he is one of the most respected composers in modern music. And Eugene? In 1970 another German composer, Helmuth Rilling, came here for workshops and a concert â€“ and from there the OBF was born. Rilling continues today as its artistic director. Between its affiliations with the University of Oregon and the Hult Center for the Performing Arts (one of 26 world-class performance centers in the U.S.), the festival is one of the U.S.’ top celebrations not only of J.S. Bach, but of music itself.
Back at the Mass in B, and by the time the Crouching Tiger Concerto finished, answers started to come together. It only took the music.
The interesting thing about the OBF â€“ the worthwhile thing, whether you’re a music "aficionado" or just want to try something different and take in some tunes â€“ is that it is not a bunch of togged-out ponces out to harumph to some classics before breaking out the scotch and cigars. Is there some of that? Sure â€“ but just as one overly belligerent drunk shouldn’t ruin an Oktoberfest, a music snob or two shouldn’t tarnish the OBF into a thing to be avoided.
Something became clear. I’d been asking the wrong question.
I should’ve been asking, "What does the Oregon Bach Festival have in common with independent travel?"
The answer is simple: It brings together.
Cultures, ideas, people, good times â€“ the OBF helps bring them together. Flipping through the schedule for this year’s OBF, I kept thinking of how amazing it was, that the scratchings of a German 250 years dead, could bring together New Yorkers, Germans, Italians, Asians (perhaps the most striking example being Tan Dun himself) â€“ in a town in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. And why? To do something anyone with half an ear, from the pub to the car stereo to the concert hall can appreciate: listening to some bloody good music.
I was drawn to the 2002 Oregon Bach Festival not just because of my love of music, but also because of my love for travel. When you travel, you are presented less with differences and more with the commonalties we share, across continents and cultures, as human beings. And in every piece of music I have ever encountered, there is that humanity, that human spirit: what I share with other people, from the composer to the orchestra to the audience around me to someone on the street who has never heard of J.S. Bach or Tan Dun. What we know can often wind up irrelevant; what we are, across 6 continents and 6 billion minds and selves, is immutable.
The OBF isn’t just about music, isn’t just about notes and premieres, instruments and performers, anymore than a night in the pub â€“ an Irish trad session, let’s say â€“ is just about music. It’s about what music, like travel, does. Like travel, music makes you extend yourself. Like travel, music confronts you with foreign languages, surrounds you with instrument and voice, like being in the midst of throngs of people at a marketplace.
Through music, you can understand things better â€“ people, the world, yourself â€“ because music works on a visceral, humanly universal level. It is inspirational, emotional, painful, dreadful, delightful. It can drag on in places like a 12-hour Indian bus ride â€“ yet the show is always done too soon, or just at the right time, or you never want it to stop. Much like a trip (well, save for the Indian bus ride).
And it brings people together. I’ve made more than my share of friends over a few scoops at a music-minded pub, and the concert hall is more similar than I sometimes realize. Travel brings people together, forges unity and common bonds, and is a reminder of how powerful togetherness is, and how commonly, similarly we are in our shared humanity. So too with music â€“ and to see that bond and unity come to life, you need look no further than the performers themselves: dozens of people, in choirs and orchestras, singing and playing in unison, in harmony, together. I have found few more stirring examples of unity, than before the concert, when a violinist bows a "C" that soon is taken up by the entire orchestra.
The OBF is really a journey, a trip â€“ through one’s own self, through humanity as revealed and examined through music. I will say that this year I traveled to the OBF. And it has made me long for the road, to extend myself, to better understand myself and the world around me. Such is the effect of music, of the Oregon Bach Festival, on this writer; such is the desire to learn more, see more, do more, all over this wide world. It’s a great thing. Come by next year, and let’s chat it over after, down the pub. But I’ll warn you now: I’ll probably still have goosebumps.
The Oregon Bach Festival is held every year in Eugene, Oregon, during the first half of July. For more information on the OBF, go to: www.oregonbachfestival.com.