Oregon Bach Festival 2011: New directions

The Oregon Bach Festival’s incoming artistic director is Matthew Halls/Courtesy OBF

Last week, Eugene’s Oregon Bach Festival announced the appointment of English conductor and organist Matthew Halls to succeed founding artistic director Helmuth Rilling in 2013. Though the timing came as a surprise — the festival earlier suggested that Rilling’s replacement wouldn’t be named till after next summer’s festival — the choice wasn’t. The 36-year-old conductor impressed everyone in his debut festival performance this summer, and the feeling was mutual. “I felt like I was walking into a giant family,” he told me in an interview the day after his appointment was announced. “I felt a great sense of warmth from the community as well as from the staff and musicians at the festival. I’m delighted to be becoming a part of the family as I embark on this exciting musical journey.”

Coupled with the 2007 appointment of former British Broadcasting Corporation executive John Evans, a former BBC executive who succeeded the much-admired founding executive director Royce Saltzman, who co-founded the University of Oregon program in 1970, the move completes the festival’s reinvention and sets the stage for new directions for the venerable Oregon classical music institution.

“Radical changes are coming,” Evans promised in an interview last year. Halls’ hiring is only the latest. Where will he and Evans take the Oregon Bach Festival?

After almost four decades under its founders, the festival needed an overhaul in its marketing/business practices, its programming, and its interpretive style. Enter Evans, who used the results of a recently concluded series of market research reports, funded by a three-year grant funded by the Paul G. Allen Foundation, to guide his vision for the festival’s next generation. Gradually, the OBF has been incorporating some of those recommendations and others, notching record box office receipts  (although expenses presumably increased as well) the past two years while trying to figure out its place in the 21st century classical music world.

Contending that the OBF schedule had too many “peaks and valleys,” with significant major events surrounded by too many stretches of ordinary material, Evans resolved to bring in better chamber music performances in the festival’s smaller venues, like the University of Oregon’s acoustically pristine Beall Concert Hall. Using the resident artists in several performances and other appearances during the 10-day span would help the bottom line, too, by maximizing their value.

As many arts festivals have long done, Evans is making the programming easier to market by introducing themes, and improving its visibility by scheduling and co-sponsoring a few concerts throughout the year, not just during June and July, with performances of Bach Festival repertoire following the appropriate dates on the religious calendar.

New Bach Festival leadership team: Halls (l) and Evans. Photo via OBF.

Portland Push

But the biggest opportunity Evans sought to exploit was geographical. Long confined to the small college town of Eugene, the festival had for years turned its back on the potential of performances two hours north in Oregon’s only urban center, Portland, teeming with tens of thousands of UO alumni and classical music fans.
“It struck me when I arrived here that it was called Oregon Bach Festival, yet it was confined to Eugene,” Evans recalls, “and since Portland is the cultural heart of the state, I felt we needed a presence there,” noting that a high proportion of UO alumni live in the Portland area.

An unsatisfactory 1977-79 experiment at that city’s cavernous, acoustically difficult Keller Auditorium, and an evident lack of interest in expansion had kept the festival away for years. Most puzzlingly, the OBF had failed to take advantage of the presence of one of the nation’s finest historically informed performance ensembles, the Portland Baroque Orchestra, led by one of the stalwarts of the period instrument movement, the dazzling violinist Monica Huggett.

Shortly before Evans’ arrival, the Bach Festival’s parent, the University of Oregon, had purchased a historic building in the city’s Old Town to serve as a headquarters for Portland programs in journalism, business, and architecture, and Evans resolved to look north for opportunities. Portland programming has become an increasingly important feature. Evans has opened an office for the festival there, and bought a condo in downtown Portland. Along with the usual large and impressive slate of Eugene productions, this summer’s festival boasted five public concerts in Portland and run-out concerts in Ashland, Bend and the Oregon coast.

The new frontier is fairly open: most of the city’s classical organizations, like those elsewhere, hibernate in the summer, with a few conspicuous exceptions: Chamber Music Northwest (born the same year as the Bach Festival, and facing similar challenges to modernize), Portland Piano International, and August’s annual William Byrd Festival. Other Portland-bound UO programs have met  resentment from existing Portland institutions, and the new dance could be a tense one, but the festival’s increasing Portland presence is exciting news for the city’s many classical music fans and for the festival itself.

Getting HIP

Updating the programming isn’t as easy as making those logistical changes, because such decisions involve both the artistic and executive directors. But changes were surely needed. Based in Stuttgart, where he leads the International Bach Academy, Rilling, who founded the festival in 1970, is justly admired in Eugene for putting the city on the international musical map and for his rigorous performance standards, scrupulously detailed performances, enlightening Discovery Series, and mentoring of legions of young conductors who studied with him.

Artistic Director Helmuth Rilling backstage at 2011 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo via OBF.

But with some wonderful exceptions, Rilling’s latter-day OBF programming too often seemed repetitive and predictable: one of J.S. Bach’s magnificent passions or the immortal B minor Mass, a cantata or other sacred vocal music, the Brandenburg Concertos or some of a couple dozen most familiar concert works (out of hundreds the composer wrote), a few other smaller scale works, and the occasional wild card, like the DJ remix concert with Bach’s music.

In the past, the festival earned artistic credibility and enthusiastic audiences (and even a Grammy) by commissioning or premiering a new work every other year (often shared with Rilling’s Stuttgart Bach Academy), such as Krzyzstof Penderecki’s Grammy-winning Credo, Arvo Pärt’s Litany and the American premieres of new passions by Tan Dun and Osvaldo Golijov.

But that initiative seems to have fallen by the wayside, and otherwise, new music has been relegated to an intrepid but underfunded biennial Composers Symposium run by UO composition professor Robert Kyr. The workshop often presented some excellent composers (George Crumb, Lou Harrison) and thrilling music, but has simply lacked the resources to commission major new works.

The most obvious need for modernizing is, paradoxically, de-modernizing the instruments and performance styles Rilling, now 78, has used in his interpretations of Baroque music. After two generations of exciting discoveries by scholar-performers that radically changed our notion of how the music originally sounded, the major OBF performances still maintain the outdated modern tunings, anachronistic instruments, and over-large orchestral and choral forces that crept into performance styles since the 18th century.

Though Rilling’s performances have evolved somewhat (including greater transparency and quicker tempos), compared to the fleet, lithe, incomparably richer sound of the music of Bach and his contemporaries when performed in the tunings, manner and on the instruments they expected, recent OBF performances too often sounded bland and bloated, despite the presence of world-class musicians like oboist Alan Vogel, trumpeter Guy Few and others, and one of the world’s finest choruses ably led by Rilling.

But although he resisted the ultimately triumphant Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement, there’s no doubt that for many years, the Oregon Bach Festival drew artistic integrity from being entirely based on the ambitious ideas of two genuine visionaries, who transformed it from a small summer music workshop into a world class event that offered some of the finest music the Northwest has ever heard. Evans and now Halls have a hard act to follow.

2011 Festival Moves Forward

In his four years as director, Evans has moved to address some of the OBF’s recent programming shortcomings. He continued and expanded the kind of “crossover” programming that many festivals and orchestras resort to in order to draw broader audiences: the piano-playing siblings the 5 Browns, a taiko fusion show, the tap dancer Savion Glover, the Portland retro-pop band Pink Martini, public radio fixture Garrison Keillor. This year, Jamie Bernstein (daughter of Leonard) led children’s and cabaret concerts.

The biggest news from this year’s festival, as is the case any time he appears in concert anywhere, was Yo Yo Ma, the ever-adventurous cellist, who, eschewing the usual warhorses purveyed by most star soloists, performed a contemporary work — Golijov’s 2007 Azul. OBF’s 2005 American premiere performance of Golijov’s magnificent Pasión según San Marcos (The Passion According to St. Mark – one of four modern passions Rilling commissioned in Europe) was one of the festival’s greatest moments, maybe even its zenith. That performance featured Guinand’s Schola Cantorum, and Saltzman and Rilling also deserve credit for having sponsored one of the colorfully expressive choir’s first US appearances, and for giving Golijov one of his earliest important commissions — 1997’s Oceana.

This summer’s festival also brought one of the world’s best known conductors to town — maybe the most famous classical musician ever to come out of Oregon. Marin Alsop, of course, conducted the Eugene Symphony for seven glorious years (1989 – 1996), and the city’s orchestra was a major entrance ramp to a career that’s made her the first woman appointed music director of a major American orchestra (Baltimore) and a regular guest conductor of the world’s greatest orchestras.

Alsop is a guaranteed draw in Eugene or anywhere else, allowing for interesting programming without risk of too many empty seats. Like Ma, avoiding the usual fare, Alsop staged a well-reviewed version of Arthur Honegger’s rarely performed 1938 oratorio, Joan of Arc at the Stake, which she’s taking to the East Coast and Britain this fall. The Eugene performance was one of the festival’s milestones. And with three female conductors — Alsop, Huggett, and Guinand, plus UO choral teacher Sharon Paul (a fine conductor herself) and chorus master Kathy Saltzman Romey — this festival lived up to its “Year of the Woman” theme.

This summer’s edition brought back still another conductor with Eugene ties, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who was Alsop’s successor at the ESO. Along with conducting a reduced version of a Mahler symphony, the Peruvian native led his intriguing Caminos del Inka ensemble, which plays classical and folk music from the Inca Trail. It also included visual projections, another vehicle for drawing a new generation of fans who have grown up in a visual culture. Bringing in two former ESO conductors may help OBF reach that orchestra’s audience, which hasn’t always crossed over to the summer festival.

Rilling led another rendition of warhorses (Brahms’s consoling German Requiem, Beethoven’s mega-statement Symphony #9) and more. Worthy festival perennials such as the Discovery Series and Youth Choral Academy also returned, along with significant visitors such as pianist Shai Wosner (already venerated in Oregon for previous performances at Chamber Music Northwest and the Bach Festival) and cellist Alban Gerhardt. National Public Radio classical music critic Tom Manoff wrote a characteristically insightful wrap up of the Eugene performances on his blog.

“Brilliantly executed, the recital showed the qualities that make Wosner’s artistry so extraordinary,” Manoff wrote. “There was a fluid excitement in every note, every phrase and every silence….Wosner moves through difficult passages with ease, in musical context and without calling attention to the moment. His gaze into the music structure and “meaning” is all-inclusive.…Listening to Wosner, I hear musical forms coming alive and revealing themselves anew. The pianist, himself, slips beyond my awareness as the composer’s music emerges as pure creative energy. I can’t ask more from any performer.”

He was less impressed by Gerhardt’s “indulgent and even incomprehensible” performances of Bach cello suites, though he found the cellist’s performance of one of Benjamin Britten’s solo suites “impressive at every level.”

Manoff’s extended accolades to Matthew Halls, making his OBF debut. “Hall’s Purcell showed that the conductor is an exceptional interpreter of the composer’s music,” Manoff wrote. “Halls found the wispy but earthy magic in the music: Lightness was matched with solid structure, poetry with the sound from instruments and voices alike.”

He also praised the 36-year-old conductor’s work in another Baroque masterpiece, Handel’s mighty Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day, and, surprisingly, 20th century music by Benjamin Britten (“OBF has long lacked a choral conductor at this level, a conductor with a masterful choral technique and profound understanding of a cappella vocal sound”). Manoff also lauded Hall’s appearance in the festival’s much-lauded Discovery Series of lecture demonstrations, a Rilling hallmark. “I found Halls quite brilliant, a worthy bearer of Rilling’s legacy, but even more important, a reliable and steady beacon for Bach’s music,” he wrote.

There was a lot more to this summer’s festival, as always — children’s choirs, chamber music performances, talks, films, and much more. This summer’s five Portland concerts, at Schnitzer Concert Hall, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and First United Methodist Church, included a youth choral concert, an organ recital, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, and a concert version of Henry Purcell’s splendid opera Dido and Aeneas. Rilling’s Beethoven received mixed reviews, but the two other concerts I saw were superb, easily two of the year’s highlights in Portland classical music. Despite the swelter of Trinity Cathedral, a 27-member contingent from the Schola Cantorum, directed by Maria Guinand, kept the audience awake and engaged thanks to their fresh, contemporary repertoire from across the Americas, expressive faces and voices resembling a gospel choir more than a traditional classical chorus, colorful costumes, theatrical touches, brisk tempos and tight articulation.

Led by violinist Huggett, Portland Baroque Orchestra’s performance of Purcell’s great Baroque opera moved some audience members to tears, with last minute substitute soprano Leah Wool delivering a rich if somewhat cool Dido, complemented by the powerfully expressive Robin Johannsen. The festival took the show on the road to Ashland and Bend, pushing further beyond the Eugene bubble.

Halls won accolades for his performances at the 2011 Bach Festival. Photo via OBF.

New Directions

Halls’ appearance amounted to an audition to succeed Rilling, who will continue at the OBF in a guest role after he retires at age 80 in 2013. Last fall, Evans identified Halls as a principal candidate on a short list of contenders, along with longtime OBF piano stalwart, former Colorado Symphony conductor and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra leader Jeffrey Kahane, and veteran early music conductor Nicholas McGegan (who’s led San Francisco’s Phiharmonia Baroque orchestra for years), scheduled to appear at the festival next year. But Hall’s stirring performances apparently inspired the selection committee to tap him now.

In my interview with him last fall, Evans’s enthusiasm for Halls was already evident. He’s appeared with many modern and period European orchestras, choirs and opera companies as conductor and organist or harpsichordist, took over England’s celebrated King’s Consort during its founder’s enforced absence, and now leads a spin-off, the Retrospect Ensemble.  He’s also worked with PBO’s Huggett.

Of course, Halls won’t take over for two years (though he’ll conduct a concert next summer), so it’s too early to precisely define his vision. In our conversation last week, though, Halls did give some clues.

“The first priority is to preserve everything good about the festival,” he said. “What’s the beating heart that it can’t live without?” The answer, he said, is “the extraordinary forces of orchestra and choir that give it the ability to perform significant choral orchestral works,” such as Bach’s passions and Verdi’s Requiem. “That’s what really distinguishes the OBF from the others.”

If those performances are in the Hult Center and similarly scaled venues, that means modern instruments will be required, but that doesn’t trouble Halls. “The great activity in period performance of the last 40 years is now really showing its colors in modern orchestral playing as well,” he explains, with modern orchestras employing techniques pioneered by the historically informed pioneers and the latter (like Huggett’s PBO) beginning to explore later repertoire, including the early Romantic composers.

“I want to see a festival that combines cutting edge period performance with stylish modern playing,” he says. “There will be more period instruments involved at the festival around the main events, as naturally one would expect with my background, but there’s also a place for modern orchestra. We’re going to end up with all sorts of different ensembles playing.”

Halls plans to put Bach “at the center of the proceedings,” but also will look toward composers who built on Bach’s legacy in later centuries — including our own. “This was discussed at great length in our meetings,” Halls said. “It’s very important to build on the Composers Symposium and for the festival to reach out into the world of music making today.”

Halls also praised the PBO’s new partnership with the Bach festival as “one of the exciting developments of the last few years. I want to preserve and nurture that relationship, making sure that PBO is featured and contributing to the development of the Discovery Series and the rest of the festival.” Genuine excitement enters his voice when he talks about expanding that series and other education programs — a hallmark of the festival from the outset.

Although Halls has impeccable HIP cred, “I actually came to early music quite late,” he notes. “I come from a broad musical background and have very eclectic tastes,” including sharing Rilling’s devotion to 19th century Germanic symphonic repertoire. Having taken the well-worn English path of cathedral organist to conductor, he also admires French organ music by composers such as Durufle and Messiaen, and has studied the bel canto repertoire of opera composers such as Puccini and Verdi. His visits to the U.S. have inspired interest in American music that he didn’t hear growing up in England.

But no composer, besides J.S. Bach, appears to excite Halls as much as Benjamin Britten, whose music was featured several times this summer. Members of the conductor’s family farmed close to Aldeburgh, where Britten lived, and Halls visited often as a child, “completely succumbing to its extraordinary beauty and austerity. The landscape is like the end of the world, grey and barren. It shaped Britten’s persona and musical character. ”

He also cherishes the composer’s music. “His musical language is one of the most unique and powerful voices of the 20th century musical landscape. It has extraordinary resonances, all the things I love about Purcell’s music — the connections with the text, the exceedingly direct form of word painting, the powerful expression.” Now run by a pair of Brits, the festival will likely be playing a lot more British music than before.

It’s clear, then, that under Halls and Evans, the Oregon Bach Festival won’t become narrowly focused on authentically scaled performances of core Baroque repertoire, limited to Beall Hall and other relatively small venues. Their vision embraces music from many eras, performers of various approaches, and venues in several cities and of varied sizes.

Looking Forward, Looking Backward

Evans’ and Halls’ expansive vision certainly is exciting, but some worry that more growth will reduce the festival’s ability to take risks. Even the move from the UO’s Beall Hall into Eugene’s capacious Hult Center in the early 1980s may have forced the festival to program safer fare, because the big concerts had to fill as many of the nearly 2,500 seats as possible. It also necessitated the use of louder, though anachronistic modern instruments; the sound of gut strings and wooden flutes would be lost in the Hult’s cavernous Silva Hall.

Still, plenty of other opportunities for artistic development exist. An obvious direction is to fully embrace the potential of the still dynamic early music movement. Halls will have a wide range of HIP talent to draw from. Besides PBO and other Portland early music groups, Europe teems with superb ensembles (many of them quite youthful and including expatriate Americans), who are taking advantage of recent and ongoing scholarly discoveries of “new” old repertoire and how to interpret it as the composers intended. And there are resources even closer at hand: the University of Oregon School of Music boasts several faculty members, such as Marc Vanscheeuwijck, Nicholas Isherwood and Eric Mentzel, who are hip to what’s happening on the scholarly/performance forefront.

Manoff has suggested that the festival embrace the music of pre-Bach composers of the Renaissance and early Baroque — a laudable goal, because some of humanity’s most glorious music is too little heard these days. Halls says that he plans to perform music of Bach’s Renaissance and Baroque predecessors as well as 19th century composers he influenced — “a look at where Bach came from as well as what he inspired.” The presence in Portland of early music singers Cappella Romana, Cantores in Ecclesia, and In Mulieribus, plus instrumentalists in the Oregon Renaissance Band, the Wildwood Consort and PBO could provide an easy way into that repertoire.

The festival would certainly draw attention by reviving rare or lost repertoire, and, given Halls’s interest in opera, perhaps creating new stagings — maybe in partnership with Portland Opera, whose associate conductor Robert Ainsley has experience in English early music circles, or other area early music and theater groups.

There were, alas, no new commissions or premieres this year — a major disappointment — but playing contemporary music by today’s greatest composers could do a lot to make the festival a more attractive destination. Evans says a new OBF commission is also in the works, sometime in the next few years. Kyr’s biennial Composers Symposium, which could provide a good model for the future, is scheduled to return in 2012.

How does new music connect with a festival focused on Bach? Many contemporary composers and performers — including the UO’s own Kyr, the Boston-based vocal ensemble Tapestry, Arvo Pärt, Seattle opera composer Garrett Fisher, and others — draw directly on Renaissance, Baroque, and medieval sources for their innovative 21st century sounds. A Rilling protege, Austin conductor Craig Hella Johnson, recently staged just such an ambitious series with his Conspirare chorus, featuring music of Bach, Renaissance composers — and contemporary responses to them by the UO’s Kyr. That could provide a model for an annual commissioning series featuring other composers’ responses to Bach and Baroque music.

An annual commissioning project featuring not just big European names but also rising American composers, with slots reserved for Northwest composers, could attract new audiences, leverage Oregon’s reputation as a progressive, forward-gazing land and put the Oregon Bach Festival back on the international map as a beacon of new as well as old music.  Portland boasts two veteran new music instrumental ensembles — Third Angle and FearNoMusic — and several vocal groups (Portland Vocal Consort, Resonance Ensemble and others) that specialize in contemporary sounds.

Building on a Legacy

Those, like me, who cherish the festival’s significant achievements and care about its future hope it will maintain the admirably high musical standards Rilling set for it and extend his and Saltzman’s considerable legacy. But I also hope it will recharge and even reboot to make it an artistically significant 21st century institution, like the Santa Fe Opera, Cabrillo Festival or the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

What makes a world class festival isn’t just big names or top notch performances. Plenty of those exist already. To attract national and international attention, a festival also includes vision — adding something to the art form, giving people who care about music a reason to be excited about something more than just another good, or even great, performance of Bach’s music. That can include new ideas about staging, connections with other art forms, a significant educational component, new ideas about interpreting old music, finding ways to reach new audiences, and most important, nurturing the future of choral orchestral music in Bach’s tradition by participating in the creation of new works.

Transformational moments like this one don’t come often; let’s hope the Festival, under energetic and ambitious new leadership, will make good on this one.

An earlier version of this story appeared on tommanoff.com.

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