What makes the Mt Angel Abbey Bach Festival so special? After all, Oregon sports plenty of summer classical music festivals, including another, much grander Bach Festival a few miles south at the University of Oregon.
Location, location, location. Bestriding a verdant hilltop, the historic Benedictine Abbey (founded in 1882) offers a matchless view across the Willamette Valley. Its idyllic setting, where patrons munch meals from a buffet table and quaff wine and monk-brewed beer, exudes a calm, pastoral vibe. Plus, for early arrivals, there’s the Abbey’s renowned Aalto Library, one of the most beautiful buildings in Oregon — or anywhere else.
The music. Even though its namesake’s music will always be on the menu, as it has since the festival’s founding more than half a century ago, this summer’s July 27-29 program also offers a diverse fare of non-Bach classical treats performed by well-regarded musicians, including a French Baroque set and a night of Romantic era sounds.
“The people.” That’s the explanation from artistic director Alon Goldstein, who’s led the festival since 2019. Although an award winning Israeli classical pianist might initially seem to have little in common with the Benedictine monks who run the abbey, Goldstein hit it off with the friars from his first appearance at Mt Angel, a 2005 solo piano recital.
“I did feel very connected to the community, the people,” he remembered. “The whole atmosphere was so special.”
In subsequent appearances, Goldstein enjoyed “fascinating discussions” with the monks, which included his ideas for other possible guest artists. He had frequented many of the world’s top festivals and had already been programming smaller festivals while serving as a young faculty member at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
But even more than the valuable connections he’d forged with other touring classical musicians, what led the Abbey to offer him the Artistic Director position “was his love for the place,” Fr. Teresio remembers. “He loves being here. His energy and excitement toward the festival makes the audience and the musicians he brings in feel very welcome coming here.”
Goldstein expanded the festival’s reach beyond the Abbey concerts to incorporate performances, talks and master classes at schools and other community spaces, including a juvenile detention facility, where he was able to interact with the kids. A month later, Goldstein received a note from the warden containing a card written by one of the young prisoners who’d remained isolated and uncommunicative throughout his stay. The teen’s card read: “Music = Love.”
The second festival under Goldstein’s leadership coincided with the pandemic, so he created a virtual festival in which patrons could view online performances that could never have happened at Mt. Angel, such as a solo cello recital played in front of different sculptures, and his own performance of a Beethoven piano concerto with a period-instrument orchestra. It proved financially successful, as did his earlier live festival, he says. This year marks the festival’s return to live performances, at both the church’s sanctuary (6 pm) and Damian Center (8 pm).
Baroque to Romantic
The July 27 early show in the church features a trombone choir from Florida playing music by J.S. Bach, Anton Bruckner, and George Gershwin, followed by an 8 pm performance at the Damian Center with violinist Ilya Kaler and pianist Patti Wolf in music by J.S. Bach, Beethoven, and a set of turn-of-the-20th century Viennese tunes by the famed violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962).
On July 28, award-winning cellist Amit Peled plays one of J.S. Bach’s magnificent solo cello suites at 6 pm in the church; then, at 8 pm in the Damian Center, joins Goldstein and violinist Ilya Kaler. Their Tempest Trio program combines music and story in works by the famed love triangle of German Romantic musicians Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann, and Clara Wieck, who became Schumann’s wife, and then widow. Excerpts from their impassioned letters, read aloud by Mt. Angel monks, will be interpolated with Brahms and Schumann’s music to create a kind of musical narrative.
On July 29, Portland organist Bruce Neswick plays a 6 pm organ recital of J.S. Bach’s music on the Abbey’s renowned instrument. “It’s a special aspect of a live concert you don’t feel coming out of a speaker,” in a streamed performance, explained Fr. Teresio, an organist himself. “The pipes are speaking when you’re in the space. You can feel the whole place vibrate and that’s when you know you’re experiencing that real dynamic between musician and listener.”
That night at 8 pm, the entertaining recorder virtuoso Matthias Maute leads the festival’s brightest stars, the terrific European early music Ensemble Caprice, in tasty music by J.S. Bach and contemporaneous French Baroque composers.
That show has a chocolate theme (related to the sweet’s introduction to Europe in Bach’s time), a reminder that music isn’t the festival’s only repast. Between each evening’s church and Damian Center performances, Mt. Abbey monks will serve a picnic supper buffet on the lawn, with food and wine from local farmers and vineyards — including, yes, dessert. Audience members are even invited to join the monks in vespers prayers before the festivities.
“We believe the beauty of music brings us closer to God, but a person who comes to the festival doesn’t have to profess a particular faith,” explains Fr. Teresio. “We want to let people of any belief enjoy the music, meet the monks, experience our hospitality, and be a part of our festival. We want to make them feel like this is their home too.” Maybe that’s what really makes the Mt. Angel Abbey Bach Festival really special.
Mt. Angel Abbey Bach Festival, July 27-29.
A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/OregonLive.