Oregon Bach Festival: Glimpse of the future

Oregon Bach Festival’s ‘A Child of Our Time.’

With the temperatures in the mid-80s and stage lights illuminating several dozen musicians and choristers, the stage at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral was even hotter than the sweltering pews. But the heat didn’t faze the young conductor, attired in tie and tails, as he faced the shirtsleeved musicians, who’d doffed their coats in a concession to the conditions and the two-hour (with only one interruption) performance ahead.

By evening’s end, Matthew Halls’s face was red, his shirt soaked—but his audience was well pleased, for they had just seen the future of the Oregon Bach Festival, and it’s as hot as the performance Halls led in Portland and again two nights later at Eugene’s Hult Center. The very next night, Halls would be onstage again, leading a completely different program at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall in which he performed some of J.S. Bach’s greatest solo harpsichord works and also conducted from the keyboard a small orchestra in two of Bach’s finest harpsichord concertos.

The concerts marked a kind of introduction to Oregon for Halls, who takes over artistic leadership from founder Helmuth Rilling after next season. For the first time, he’s here for the entire three-week extravaganza, leading ambitious programs of his own devising, and taking advantage of the opportunity to learn about the people and institutions he’ll be working with as artistic leader of one of Oregon’s most important arts institutions. He has also been able to engage in extended planning sessions with John Evans, a fellow Brit who arrived in the summer of 2007 and took over as OBF executive director from venerated festival co-founder Royce Salzman.

Evans’s tenure has been a time of unprecedented transition for an institution that boasted the same leadership (save for an earlier Saltzman retirement that didn’t work out) since its founding in 1970. In a chat at a cafe in the building where he lives when he’s in Portland (where the festival maintains a small office in the UO’s White Stag building in Old Town) just before the festival got underway, Evans described the major assignments in his portfolio:

1. Managing the transition to Rilling’s successor. Of course, it’s too early to say for certain, as Halls hasn’t even started yet, but his relationship with Portland Baroque Orchestra leader Monica Huggett (a force in the historically informed performance movement), his reputation in British Baroque music circles as both keyboard player and band leader, and the quality of his performances here bode well. For a festival that had long been considered a little outdated, bringing in a young, up-to-date leader such as Halls counts as a likely win.

2. Expanding the festival’s geographical reach. Evans promised to make the OBF live up to its first name, and the recent string of run-out concerts in Portland, Ashland, Bend, Corvallis, and Astoria has certainly extended its reach and connection to the rest of the state beyond Eugene.

3. Embracing new media. Evans’s two decades at the BBC exposed him to new media, and the Festival’s Digital Bach project and expanded use of social media shows it trying — and, Evans says, succeeding — to reach new audiences via modern methods.

“[New media] is changing the nature of our audience,” he says. “We’re reaching out to those new listeners in different ways, bringing them into the fold.”

4. Diversifying programming. This one is a little trickier, because programming generally is the province of the artistic director (now Rilling, soon Halls), not the executive director. Evans has generally handled crossover programming (like the piano playing siblings the Five Browns, dancer Savion Glover, radio host Garrison Keillor) while leaving the core classical programming to Rilling, who has long tended to focus on a relatively narrow range of J.S. Bach’s music and that of his Romantic successors such as Brahms and Mendelssohn, whom Rilling admires. What’s next? This is the big question facing the festival going forward.

Oregon Bach Festival’s
Matthew Halls and John Evans

Of course, Evans also had to keep the festival in the black. “We’ve had five successful seasons through a recession and broken box office records,” he says. “The collaboration with Monica and Portland Baroque has worked well — the Bach overtures project, the Goldberg Variations for string orchestra,” and perhaps other ideas that Huggett has long wanted to realize.

Evans did score a major triumph (if one long overdue and obvious) by enlisting Huggett’s Portland Baroque Orchestra to bring authentic, spirited performances on period instruments to a festival that had long desperately needed both. It’s been a productive partnership for both institutions and, more important, for Oregon music fans and will likely expand even further, Evans says.

That decision will be up to Halls, of course.

“In 2013, Rilling will become director emeritus and artistic leadership will be handed over to Matthew,” Evans says. “Helmuth will come back and do teaching and the discovery series for as long as it’s worth making the long trip.”

The same may apply to the festival’s regular musicians, many of whom are old Rilling favorites from Germany and Los Angeles (though I noticed fewer of those in the program this year than in the past). In the past generation, the West Coast has seen a resurgence in early music performance, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle and Vancouver BC. Many of those musicians also perform in PBO, and it’s always seemed a little strange that more of them weren’t participating in the festival, which instead had to pay to fly in performers from Europe, not all of them the kind of period instrument specialists essential to today’s Baroque interpretation.

“Matthew will have his own ideas about players,” Evans explains. “I suspect some of [the veterans] will think about retiring because their continued loyalty has been much to do with Helmuth, especially the people who play at Stuttgart whom he trusts and who understand him. So there will be changes. Some of this will be the artists’ choices and some will be Matthew’s personal tastes. I suspect there will be a greater variety of soloists from different countries.”

Oregon Bach Festival
Executive Director John Evans

But Evans did promise that the festival going forward would live up to its original mission to perform not just Bach’s music but also that of his predecessors, contemporaries and successors, which have hitherto unaccountably received short shrift, and to showcase Bach’s continuing legacy in contemporary music. That means more music not just by fellow high Baroque composers such as Telemann, Handel and so on but also Renaissance and early Baroque masters whose music is increasingly being rediscovered and performed everywhere else in the world besides Eugene. If he’s willing, Halls may find more willing partners in Portland — such as the Cantores in Ecclesia, Cappella Romana and In Mulieribus choirs — and on the UO faculty (which boasts two renowned specialists in early music performance) to help in that area.

All this is quite welcome for any fan of Baroque music in particular and small-c classical music in general. But the most pressing programming question that Halls must address is how the festival includes contemporary music. Rilling was able to score some major premieres and commissions through his Stuttgart Academy, including major works by Osvaldo Golijov, Arvo Part, and Krzysztof Penderecki. But they had little to do with Bach’s legacy in the US (Golijov is now a US resident but hails from Argentina and channels eastern European music) or Oregon. The festival has sponsored a biennial Composers Symposium run by UO composition professor Robert Kyr, but it’s never had the resources to offer a major commission to American composers.

This lack of attention to American composers is more than a little ironic because Kyr himself is one of the country’s finest composers working in direct line from Bach; he recently composed new works, inspired by Bach and his predecessors, that seem to perfectly embody the festival’s promise to extend Bach’s legacy — but he did it in Austin, Texas with the superb choir Conspirare.

Evans said the symposium (which normally would have been held this year but was postponed because Kyr was busy presiding over the University Senate at a tumultuous time when the university had fired its president and was dealing with a faculty unionization effort, among other challenges) will return next year. And he said next year’s festival will include a work by a major international composer who cannot yet be publicly revealed.

That’s a good sign. But it’s hardly sufficient. An institution that receives as much public support as the Oregon Bach Festival and that aspires to continuing musical relevance ought to be commissioning and performing new Oregon works inspired by its namesake, perhaps offering an annual commission to one Northwest and one other composer, and including far more contemporary music in its programming. That’s one of many opportunities — and, of course challenges, because commissions must be funded — Matthew Halls will face when he takes over the Oregon Bach Festival next  year.

For now, we can simply enjoy the fruits of what’s still an impressive Oregon institution. If Halls’s powerful performance last weekend with the OBF orchestra and chorus in Portland is any indication, he’s certainly got the chops and the energy for the task. Their performance of one of Bach’s Lutheran masses sparkled, with strong turns by vocal soloists Tom Randle and Hanna Elisabeth Muller and the veteran OBF oboe master Alan Vogel.

But the big piece on the program — and the whole festival, along with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, presented this weekend — was one of those modern works that demonstrates Bach’s legacy. In our conversation, Evans said both he and Halls wanted to bring Michael Tippett’s 20th century classic to Oregon for the first time. (He also said he’d someday love to program another obvious candidate, Stravinsky’s gorgeous Symphony of Psalms.)

Modeled on Bach’s mighty passions and Handel’s oratorios (such as Messiah), Tippett’s World War II masterpiece resonates with the terror and anger provoked by the atrocities of Kristallnacht and the Nazi invasion of Germany’s European neighbors. When the gay composer was writing it between 1938 and 1941, he couldn’t have been sure that he wouldn’t have been rounded up if the Germans had invaded Britain. Long before Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, Tippett used African American spirituals to powerful effect, and they emerged smoothly from the “classical” setting. Similarly, the vocal solos blended beautifully with the choral parts, which was also a tribute to the musicians’ (and Halls’) ability to balance the various forces. The last few movements maintained a too-similar solemn mood and pace, which makes the piece drag a bit; but that’s a problem with the score, not the performance, which was first rate despite the heat. Randle shone in all his tenor arias, as did the more operatic soprano Tamara Wilson and bass Markus Eiche; I had trouble hearing mezzo Anita Krause, which may have been due to the scoring or Trinity’s acoustic. After the last notes died away, the audience responded with a rapturous ovation; my neighbor was literally in tears, overcome by the emotions Tippett’s music and the OBF’s performance evoked.

Overall, A Child of Our Time showed the Oregon Bach Festival at its best: bringing Oregon potent performances of choral orchestral classics, including those we haven’t heard a dozen times before. That’s a legacy worth celebrating — and perpetuating. With the youthful, energetic Halls on the scene, this essential Oregon arts institution has a chance for renewed vigor — to become not just a weary relic of the 1700s, or the 1970s, but truly a child of our time.

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