McMINNVILLE – When I agreed this spring to come aboard as the Yamhill County correspondent for Oregon ArtsWatch, the first thing I did was to create a calendar. I’m a wordsmith by trade, but I like my information visualized so I can literally see the big picture. I wrote down every arts event I knew about, and then looked up ones I didn’t know about. Having lived out here in wine country since the mid-1990s, I have a good sense of the year’s cultural rhythms, so it came together quickly.
Then I got a note from Bob Hicks, one of ArtsWatch’s editors, referring me to possible “fodder” for my column, something called the Aquilon Music Festival.
He didn’t know anything about it; I’d never heard of it. I didn’t even look it up for a few days. How big a deal could it be?
Pretty freaking huge, it turns out. And I can be forgiven (this time) for not having heard about it, because it’s new. This summer’s Aquilon Music Festival is the brainchild of Linfield College music professor Dr. Anton Belov, and he’s swinging for the fences with an artistic project that, if successful, could join the ranks of Oregon’s finest cultural events.
Starting Sunday, July 1, dozens of young singers from around the world (organizers were reportedly worried about not getting enough; now there’s a waiting list) will descend on the cozy Linfield College campus in McMinnville an hour southwest of Portland for three full weeks to work with a distinguished lineup of professionals Belov has assembled from all over the United States. As of this writing, 15 events are scheduled, including lectures, concerts, recitals and fully staged operas, one of which hasn’t been seen for centuries. Most of these events are free; the ticketed events are, as opera tickets go, delightfully affordable and selling fast. Public events begin July 3, and the festival runs through July 22.
Aquilon’s faculty includes Daniel Helfgot, whose credits include more than 200 productions of 100+ operas, operettas and zarzuelas, from the Baroque to several world premieres. His work has been seen in Argentina, Albania, Austria, Canada, Costa Rica, Finland, Germany, Mexico, Panama, Sweden and all over the United States. There’s Maestra Barbara Day Turner, the founder and music director of the San Jose Chamber Orchestra; Portland’s Hannah Penn, a mezzo-soprano and faculty member of both Portland State University and Linfield who performs frequently with Portland Opera, among others; Seattle’s Bryon Schenkman, who teaches at Seattle University, is the founding co-director of the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, and has recorded more than thirty CDs of 17th- and 18th century repertoire; Richard Zeller, who made his debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 1989 and appeared there for 11 seasons; and dancer and choreographer Alexis Silver, of the New York Baroque Dance Company – to name just a few. Belov’s crew of professional teachers, conductors, singers, scholars, etc., numbers more than a dozen. Biographies for all are available at the website, and all are impressive.
But more about Belov. The New York Times calls his baritone voice “rich and mellifluous,” and having spoken with him by phone (which I’m sure doesn’t do his voice justice) and looked up “mellifluous” in my hulking American Heritage Dictionary, I can tell you that it surely is. A native of Moscow, Belov is an associate professor of music at Linfield College. He’s appeared on various stages as Don Giovanni, Count di Luna, Escamillo in Carmen, and Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro, among others. I talked to him for half an hour one afternoon early in June about this epic project. Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Belov: I grew up in Moscow. My dad was a poet and a Russian literature teacher, and that’s where my interest in culture and letters comes from. He was a brilliant, superbly educated man. We came (to the United States) when I was 16, and my dad died within two months. That’s how I came here. I did not know I would stay. My mom was an English teacher and also a puppeteer; she ran a children’s puppet theater. So I kind of grew up backstage. My interest in theater and literature comes from a very early age.
How did you come to opera?
Almost by accident. I met a Russian teacher who was living in a very small town in New Hampshire. He was 80 years old when I began studying with him, and I was 17. He’d say, “Hey, you have a good voice, you come to my studio five days a week, and I will not charge you. Just come and study!” So that’s what I did for years. I would come in, and he would teach me for free, and that’s how I discovered I had this voice, this baritone voice. He went to the Moscow Conservatory in the 1930s, he was born in 1912. So there’s this long, long tradition that I feel I’m a part of. I mean, his teacher was in his 80s when he was working with him, and he was 18. So my teacher’s teacher was active in the mid-19th century. Imagine that.
That’s a fantastic lineage.
Yeah, it’s a fantastic lineage. Then I ended up going to state school for a year, then to New England Conservatory for three, then Julliard for four, then Boston University for another three, where I finished my doctorate degree.
How did you come to Linfield College?
I applied. I finished my doctorate degree at Boston University and began to look for a position. And this one was the one that came up. My wife and I looked at the map and said, you know, we don’t really want to go to the South, we don’t really want to go Midwest, and Oregon seems really romantic and interesting. I came for an interview and they gave me one glass of Pinot Grigio, and I said, “Okay, this is good.”
What was Linfield doing with opera before you arrived?
They had a strong program here, with Gwen Leonard. But the thing is, we (the Aquilon Music Festival) are not really affiliated with Linfield. This is something I have to explain to everyone. Yes, I am a college professor here, yes I teach at Linfield, [but] this is my festival. I’m starting it. We’re bringing students from all over the world for this. I’m proud to be part of Linfield, but we are our own 501c3.
How long have you been working on this?
The idea I had about five years ago. But implementation began in the fall. See, this is the thing. I taught at an organization called the Atlantic Music Festival for about eight years. The Atlantic Music Festival is something very, very similar to what we’re trying to do here. Except the focus there was less on opera and more on orchestral music, new compositions and so on. And they’re based out of Colby College in Maine. Small, private, formerly Baptist college, very similar to what Linfield is. And I said, “Why am I going to Maine every year when I can do something similar here?” Some of these people I’m bringing here were my colleagues there. So we know what we’re doing. We can replicate that program, and make it much better, in fact.
I looked at your website, at every single event and every person who is going to be there, and this just strikes me as huge.
Yeah! And nobody knows about us. But look, it’s huge in the amount of performances we’re doing. I don’t think we’re doing anything that enormous. We’re using Marshall Theater, which is very small, 125 seats. It’s not ideal, because it doesn’t have a pit, it doesn’t have an elevated stage. Our orchestration is going to be reduced. Mozart, you know, he requires about 35-40 players, and we’re probably going to have 17 to 20. For a Baroque piece, it has about the right amount of orchestration. It’s more of a chamber ensemble than an orchestra. It’s a very intimate atmosphere. For young singers, singing in a smaller space, it’s very satisfying. It’s very nice.
As an opportunity to introduce the general public to opera, this strikes me as ideal. Not very expensive, and multiple opportunities to see different kinds of things.
Our most expensive ticket is $25.
Which really isn’t bad at all, given ticket prices these days.
We are encouraging people to donate. I hope people will do that. And we are receiving donations so far, it’s very encouraging. We’ve raised about $8,000 from the public, which is very, very encouraging. But we do need help.
Now, performing operas at wineries, you’re outdoors? How do the acoustics work there?
Well, two things. The winery performances are actually indoors. The one at Youngberg Hill, they have a big barn, and it seats about 150 people. And that one is not going to be a full opera, it’s going to be an opera gala. Selections, it’s all the favorite numbers, all the chestnuts of the repertoire. And it’s mostly about wine. I mean, you probably recognize this: (Belov sings a few bars of “The Toreador Song” from Carmen.) Well, that’s a toast! So I figured, what’s better than performing that at a winery? Youngberg Hill has very good acoustics. The same thing with Black Walnut. You feel as if you’re in the Tuscan countryside. It is absolutely splendid. [Note: One of two events at this location is sold out.]
You’re doing two fully staged operas. The Marriage of Figaro everyone knows, but this other one …
Yes, that is a fascinating piece.
This will be the first performance since 1694?
Yes. So this is the story. My best friend’s wife, Natasha Roule, she’s a Harvard PhD, and part of her doctorate research was traveling around France and discovering new things about Baroque opera from the 17th century. And there’s this phenomenon, opera parody, where people make fun of a very serious French opera, this uptight royal, sophisticated opera. The story is that this opera house in Lyon, the Académie de Musique de Lyon, went out of business after two years. Some people cried about it, and others celebrated. This playwright, Marc-Antoine Le Grand, thought it was hilarious, and he wrote La Chûte de Phaëton, a commedie en musique. It’s never been resurrected, and that’s what we’re doing.
I haven’t asked about the name, the Aquilon Music Festival. What does that mean?
It’s a beautiful name, isn’t it? It’s the God of Northern Wind. It’s a prosaic story. I wanted something to do with the north, and the west, and also we’re starting this first season with Baroque, so I’m thinking it has to be something classical. My best friend (French Baroque scholar Ian Pomerantz, who delivers the opening lecture with his wife Natasha) and I went through all the geographical Latinizations, and finally stumbled upon “aquilon” and I thought, I know this word! There’s this poem by Alexander Pushkin called “My Sister’s Vineyard,” a poetic translation of a verse from the Song of Songs, from Solomon. And the last verse is, “As soon as Aquilon blows, it brings with it the aromas of spices and exotic perfumes.” And I thought, that’s a beautiful thing! It’s a beautiful word, and it’s a beautiful connection, in my Russian mind, to a vineyard, so why not? Aquilon it is!
So much opera, so little time …
- Public events to the inaugural Aquilon Music Festival kick off at 10:30 a.m. July 3 with a free lecture in the Vivian Bull Music Center’s Delkin Hall by Dr. Roule from Harvard and Pomerantz of the Hartt School of Music on “Deconstructing Baroque Opera.” Masterclasses on various topics, including the birth of conducting and historical performance, will be taught every few days by Belov, Helfgot, Day Turner, Schenkman, Zeller and Penn — and they’re all free and open to the public.
- One of the concerts at Black Walnut Inn near Dundee about 15 minutes northeast of McMinnville on Highway 99W, which Belov mentions above, has already sold out, but another hasn’t. An Evening of Lute Songs will be held at 7:30 p.m. July 15 with Hideki Yamaya on lute and the Aquilon Young Artists. Tickets, $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors, may be purchased online.
- The Aquilon singers will be featured at a Young Artists’ Showcase at the Richard and Lucille Ice Auditorium in Melrose Hall on the Linfield campus at 7 p.m. Friday, July 6. Also at the Ice on July 7 at 7 p.m. is a faculty recital featuring arias, art songs and ensembles performed by Zeller, Penn, Belov and others. Both are free. The action returns to wine country on July 8 with “The Banquet of Bacchus,” a selection of beloved staples from the repertoire, at Youngberg Hill Winery at 5 p.m. This is a ticketed event.
- “Liederabend” will be on stage at the Delkin Recital Hall on July 10 at 7 p.m., with Schenkman and the Aquilon singers presenting a free but limited-seating program that includes works by Bach, Zelter, Reichardt, Schubert, Loewe and Beethoven.
- Finally, the two fully-staged operas: The premiere of La Chûte de Phaëton, a commedie en musique, from 1694, plus a program of baroque opera scenes, will be at 7 p.m. July 13 at Marshall Theater on the south side of the campus (it shares a sprawling parking lot with the music building) and repeated on July 14. And Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro will be performed in the Marshall on July 20-21 at 7 p.m. in Italian with English supertitles. All performances in the Marshall are ticketed events.
As long as this article – my own inaugural appearance at Oregon ArtsWatch – is, it’s only a snapshot of three extraordinary weeks of music planned for McMinnville. You can find plenty more information at the website, AquilonMusicFestival.org, where you can also buy tickets or make a donation. As I said, I’ve lived here since the 1990s, and in terms of the number of participants, events and the duration, this will be the biggest artistic event Yamhill County has seen. Let’s make sure it succeeds.
This column is the inaugural piece from David Bates, Oregon ArtsWatch’s new Yamhill County correspondent. He’ll be filing stories regularly focusing on arts and culture in the county and occasionally elsewhere.
Bates is an award-winning Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and is currently a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the McMinnville News-Register, Oregon Wine Press, and Indulge, a food-oriented publication. He has a B.S. degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a long history of involvement in the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players of Oregon and other theaters in Oregon.