“Music should startle people and reach deep down inside them forcing them to reflect. It should never be merely ‘comfortable,’ never fossilized, never soothing.” This is Helmuth Rilling’s “credo.” Born in 1933 in Stuttgart, Rilling is active as a conductor, pedagogue and an ambassador for the music of JS Bach worldwide.
In 1954, Helmuth Rilling founded the Gächinger Kantorei and in 1965, he founded the Bach Collegium Stuttgart as the choir’s regular orchestral partner. Ever since, Rilling has been intensely involved with the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and has felt a strong link to this composer’s works. In addition, he has been a fervent advocate of “neglected” Romantic choral music as well as commissioning and performing contemporary choral music. In 2000, he led the critically acclaimed premiere of Passions composed by Wolfgang Rihm, Sofia Gubaidulina, Osvaldo Golijov and Tan Dun.
Inspired by his devotion to Bach, Rilling founded the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart in 1981. It is dedicated to furthering the music of Bach through public concerts, master classes for singers and conductors, symposia and residencies all over the world, in addition to special annual projects such as the Bach Week Stuttgart and the European Music Festival Stuttgart. The encouragement of young musicians is of special importance to Rilling and in 2001, he founded the Festivalensemble Stuttgart. This ensemble, consisting of choir and orchestra, draws on the participation of talented young musicians from 25 different countries.
Combining the roles of pedagogue and conductor, Rilling has devised a system of “lecture concerts” in which he says he “peers over the composer’s shoulder.” He explains to the audience certain aspects of a composer’s work by means of musical examples. He recently led such concerts with the orchestras of the University of Miami, Dartmouth College and Yale University. He also continues to present workshops throughout the world.
Either together with his house ensembles in Stuttgart or as a guest conductor, Rilling is active on the international concert podium, performing regularly throughout Europe, US and Canada. 2011 included his first tour of China with the Gächinger Kantorei and the Bach Collegium Stuttgart. He has a special friendship dating back some 30 years with the Israel Philharmonic, and has been the artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival since 1970. Recent engagements in North America include the Dallas, Chicago and Nashville symphony orchestras; the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and the National Symphony. He lead the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in a performance of Haydn’s The Creation at Carnegie Hall and he appears annually as part of the Toronto International Bach Festival with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He continues to be a regular guest at the American Choral Directors’ Association’s conference.
As a testament to his inexhaustible activity are hundreds of CD, radio and TV recordings. From 1970 to 1984, Rilling was the first musician to record all of Bach’s Cantatas (Hänssler Classic). Furthermore, his was the guiding hand behind the Internationale Bachakademie’s critically-acclaimed project to record the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach (172 CDs) for Hänssler Classic, released in 2000 to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. Recent recordings include works of Haydn, Handel, and Gubaidulina (The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ according to St. John, “Echo Klassik” Award in 2008), as well as a live recording with the 2007 Festival Ensemble Stuttgart of Britten’s War Requiem (“Editor’s Choice Award” Gramophone magazine), Sven-David Sandström’s Messiah and Verdi’s Requiem.
Among the many prizes Helmuth Rilling has received are the UNESCO International Music Prize in 1994 and the Theodor Heuss Prize in 1995. In 2003, he became an Honorary Member of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences. He won a coveted Grammy® Award in 2000 for his recording of Krzystof Penderecki’s Credo and was again nominated in 2001, for his recording of Wolfgang Rihm’s Deus Passus. In 2008, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, he was awarded the Staufer Gold Medal, the highest award of the State of Baden-Württemberg. Most recently, he was awarded the prestigious Herbert von Karajan Music Prize from the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.