Oregon Bach Festival review: vision vacuum

Lacking a coherent artistic vision, venerable festival flounders

By TOM MANOFF

You can’t really assess what was at this season’s Oregon Bach Festival without acknowledging what wasn’t: erstwhile artistic director Matthew Halls, the multi-talented conductor whose questionable dismissal last year was widely covered throughout the arts world. Would this new season put an end to the shocking (for many) episode? Would this year’s music reassure audiences and musicians that OBF will continue at the highest levels of artistry? Most crucial, could the festival of founding artistic director Helmuth Rilling and Matthew Halls remain world class — without a music director?

Baroque on Steroids

OBF 2018 started June 29 at Silva Hall with audience favorite Monica Huggett leading the Festival’s 30-member Baroque Orchestra in four of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. In first half lineup of Brandenburgs 2, 4, and 5, No.4 was best performed, with Huggett’s virtuosic violin passages shimmering through Bach’s delightfully dense harmony and counterpoint.

The other two Brandenburgs fared less well with poor ensemble playing. The tempos were quite brisk and not all sections kept up with the pace.

Monica Huggett conducted Bach’s music at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Athena Delene.

The OBF Berwick Academy — the festival’s workshop orchestra of 30 young period instrumentalists — joined the OBF pros to make an unusually large orchestra for Bach, but suitable for Silva’s large space. Perhaps in keeping with this “Baroque-on-steroids” ensemble, Huggett led an irreverent (but somewhat charming) interpretation of Brandenburg One. The longtime Portland Baroque Orchestra leader and renowned Baroque violinist asked the audience to imagine that the two horn players in the ensemble were drunk, low-born musicians who had crashed a royal musical occasion. Whenever they played, Huggett pointed her bow to them, exhorting a loud, over the top effect. At other times Huggett stomped her feet with the music. Not your standard Bach, but the audience loved it. I remain on the fence. Since the concert I’ve listened to the work several times on CD with the score to restore the music to a more pristine version in my mind.

The concert ended with a tidy performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4, led from the keyboard by visiting conductor Alexander Weimann, but, following the “Bach Bacchanale” that was the Brandenburg One, the Suite came off as too straight-laced.

Silva’s acoustic was problematic. The sound was unfocused and without warmth. But last year, in the same hall, a splendid OBF performance of Handel’s Hercules proved that some Baroque fare sounds fine in Silva space. But Handel’s textures are generally less dense than Bach’s, especially the Brandenburgs. How to use Silva (and its electronic enhancement system) is an ongoing issue for OBF, ideally addressed by a future artistic director.

Berwick Academy

My favorite performance of the festival was by the Berwick Academy. The first half of their July 3 concert featured Telemann’s Overture in E minor, Händel’s Concerto Grosso in A major Op.6, No.11, and the suite from his 1706 opera Rodrigo in B flat.

This performance featured what every good Baroque outing must have: a decisive, forward moving bass line from the continuo instruments. In too many performances, the bass line plods along with no regard for the melodic richness. But here, the energized and nuanced phrasing by the cello and double bass Berwick players enlivened the lower part of the musical structure.

Phrasing from the entire ensemble was wonderful. Renowned Dutch harpsichordist Jacques Ogg directed from the keyboard. Concertmaster Chloe Fedor was particularly elegant leading the string section, and moving with the phrasing almost like a dancer.

Berwick’s next outing on July 9 was blemished by a substandard performance of Mozart’s Serenade No. 12 in C minor for winds. It’s a difficult piece, especially for younger players, and this work was beyond their current abilities and should not have been programmed. A long-time OBF fan at the concert told me, “this was the worst performance I’ve seen at the festival.” Although the ticket prices for Berwick concerts are lower than the main events (student $10, normal $20-30), OBF presents Berwick as full-fledged artistic outings.

Matthew Halls conducted James MacMillan’s ‘A European Requiem’ at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Athena Delene.

The Berwick Academy was created by Matthew Halls. Having seen the level of artistry they are capable of under his leadership, I’m certain this misstep would not have occurred were he still at the helm.

Discovery Series

There is no more iconic event in an OBF season than the Discovery Series. Created by Helmuth Rilling and successfully continued by Matthew Halls, the lecture/performance series explores a particular work by Bach.

In the past, the event included participants from the festival’s training program for conductors, but the conducting program wasn’t offered this year. The event has been a primary component of the festival’s contribution to efforts to keep Bach relevant in the modern world.

The Discovery Series this year was led by Scott Jarrett, who has been involved with the OBF as the head of its Vocal Fellows Program (which was also suspended for this season.) Currently Director of Music at Boston University Marsh Chapel, Jarrett is a conductor, pianist and vocalist.

Scott Jarrett led the OBF’s Discovery Series this year.

Jarrett presented Bach Cantatas 77 and 105 on two evenings. The chorus on both nights sang flawlessly, keeping OBF’s high choral standards intact. While Jarrett led his singers with nuance and precision, he had considerably less control of the OBF Baroque Orchestra. The result was often an uncertain ensemble. Focused phrasing from the chorus was laden with emotion; minimal phrasing from the instrumentalists was bland. Jarrett seems more comfortable conducting singers than instrumentalists.

Jarrett’s comments about the cantatas were sometimes interesting, but his delivery of the information was rather dull. Remembering the series under Rilling or Halls, it was clear that the series requires a personality able to make the complexities of Bach’s structure fathomable, while speaking to audiences with equal amounts of scholarship and charm. Jarrett was not at that level for me.

Jarrett is not listed as the permanent head of the Discovery Series. This is another problem for OBF in sorting out artistic leadership.

The Passion of Yeshua

The Passion of Yeshua premiered on Sunday, July 8 at Silva Hall. American composer Richard Danielpour’s new two-hour OBF commission for chorus, soloists and orchestra explores the last day of the life of Jesus from both Christian and Jewish traditions. The text is set in both English and Hebrew. Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta, who conducts the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra, led the well-prepared, polished performance.

Danielpour and Falletta at OBF ‘Yeshua’ rehearsal.

Danielpour writes in a solidly tonal idiom: major, minor and modal harmonies are often enhanced with not-too-heavy dissonances. Danielpour’s idiom is rarely contrapuntal. The sound is thick and rich, which furthers an overall muscular effect. The form is occasionally punctuated with sudden, Stravinsky-like chords, with higher levels of dissonance. At first these gestures have considerable dramatic effect, but as they repeat throughout the work, they start to seem too familiar.

Six excellent singers delivered the solo sections of the religious drama: soprano Sarah Shafer, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, tenor Timothy Fallon, baritone Matthew Worth, bass-baritone Kenneth Overton, and bass Edmund Milly. The soloists’ melodies generally proceeded step-by-step along the musical scale, which, to some extent, brought a sameness to the overall effect.

Some of the composer’s best music was the choral writing, consistently providing its most interesting harmonies and textures, and accordingly, the standout in this performance was the chorus. They delivered their parts with the assurance of focused musical intent.

Towards the end of the work, there was a lovely duet between Bridges and Shafer, made up of interesting, somewhat striking intervals. At that moment, I wondered why Danielpour hadn’t further explored this harmonic material throughout. The impact would have been more effective.

Following the complicated drama proved difficult. The festival provided no text in the program or as an insert. Audiences had to rely on supertitles. It was hard to keep track of where each section began and ended, much less the relationships among them. At one moment, I think I heard the chorus singing a Hebrew song “Heneh Ma Tov.” Why? Surely a complete text would have provided some context. At the very least, the program should have had a synopsis of the various sections. I think one of the work’s richest qualities was missed without a text. (Bruce Browne pointed to similar deficiencies in his ArtsWatch review of last year’s festival.)

JoAnn Falletta conducts the world premiere of Richard Danielpour’s ‘The Passion of Yeshua’ at the 2018 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Athena Delene.

A performance of Danielpour’s Passion is scheduled for next year in Buffalo. I encourage the presenters to provide a text or synopsis.

Overall, the work didn’t impress me, primarily because I found his harmonic language too static to sustain the text. Still, Danielpour’s Passion was enthusiastically received by the audience. From that viewpoint, it was a success for OBF.

Shining Glass

In addition to the Danielpour Passion, OBF offered another premiere. Written for pianist Simone Dinnerstein, Philip Glass’ Piano Concerto No. 3. is a “rolling commission,” with local “premieres” across the US and Canada, since its actual debut in Boston in September 2017.

Simone Dinnerstein performed Philip Glass’s new Piano Concerto #3. Photo: Athena Delene.

The music has many stylistic traits associated with Glass — pulsating chords, repeated arpeggios, for example. The most telling features were melodic/harmonic fragments that repeated incessantly — and quite delightfully. The musical substance of these motives — if taken out of context — was utterly 19th century romantic. But within Glass’s whirling, shifting kaleidoscope textures, they became hauntingly post-modern.

The three-movement work, set for piano and strings, was flawlessly performed with a smallish string orchestra. Dinnerstein conducted from the piano. The audience offered a standing ovation for composer and performers.

OBF’s Uncertain Future

I’ve been attending and reviewing OBF off and on since 1982. Having lived also in Stuttgart, I’m very familiar with Helmuth Rilling’s artistry. I found Matthew Halls an extraordinary successor to Rilling, and a musician who immediately brought a new life to the festival when many thought it would die without its founding artistic director.

Judging from the seven events I saw this year, OBF 2018 was below the standards of years past. Nothing distinguished it from an ordinary lineup of classical fare. No artistic vision unified the schedule or oversaw the standards of performance. Engaging with how a particular conductor thinks about music was no longer possible for devoted audience members. Following that conductor’s musical talent (first Rilling, then Halls) from year to year and piece to piece has been the most important feature of OBF. With the absence of a world-class musician heading the festival, I felt a profound artistic void.

Oregon Bach Festival executive director Janelle McCoy.

After the festival, McCoy said that one reason for OBF 2018’s success was the use of “more conductors.” These words indicate that McCoy will advocate multiple conductors for OBF instead of a single music director in the future. Moving ahead without an artistic director makes McCoy the de facto music director. Those in power should re-examine her qualifications to take over those duties.

Wherever you look across the world arts culture, performing organizations are searching for and signing conductors to lend new levels of excitement and interest for their audiences. Would you advocate multiple conductors without a single artistic director for a symphony orchestra? The Eugene Symphony, for example? Meantime, the Eugene Symphony is attracting audiences and press coverage for its new charismatic conductor, Francesco Lecce-Chong. OBF, once the most prestigious arts organization in Eugene, has decidedly given up that position.

OBF should immediately undertake a search for a new artistic director and bring candidates — one a year — in coming seasons. Audiences will be intrigued and will buy tickets. Without such a plan, I think the festival will fade away, note by note.

Composer, author and music critic Tom Manoff was the classical music reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered from 1986-2012. He has also written for the New York Times and Eugene Register Guard.

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20 Responses.

  1. Amy Adams says:

    Tom, you’re right…the festival should undertake a search for a new artistic director.
    How on earth that could happen with the current executive director in place baffles me.
    Knowing that they’d be working for with no protection at all from someone who actively looks for and collects their every misstep in order to fire them…who would apply for the job of artistic director? How qualified could that person be?

  2. Scott says:

    There are many ways and styles of criticizing or defending an administration, but using a student interpretation to attack third parties is cruel, biased and totally unfair. It shows low professional judgment. The opinion of a “fan” without musical arguments or specific explanations, reveals the interest to destroy and de-characterize the festival just for the fun of it. Shame.

    • Tom Manoff says:

      The focus of this review was to assess the artistic level of the Oregon Bach Festival in the aftermath of the firing of Matthew Halls. Given that the Berwick Academy was created by Halls, it seemed appropriate and necessary to review its concerts. OBF charges $20-30 for these concerts, certainly more than one would expect to pay for a “student performance.” If Berwick is to be a marquee OBF evening, the concerts should be open for review.

      Berwick aside, what do you think about OBF searching for a new artistic director?

    • Manoff’s criticism specifically applied not to the students themselves, but to those in charge of the academy who evidently misguidedly threw them into a situation that was unfair to them — a too-difficult piece — and then failed to prepare them properly. As the story suggests, any blame goes to the administration, not the students. I hope festival defenders don’t use the straw man “poor students” argument to deflect attention from those actually responsible. Journalists’ job is to represent the audience perspective, and from that point of view, charging money for what sounds like a dreadful performance deserves being called out.

      • Scott says:

        Oh please. Tom, you can do better than this, don’t you? In this same concert we listened to the Adagio and fugue for strings, and Mozart’s Symphony 40: was this repertoire also “beyond their current abilities”? Why you did not mention anything about the rest of the repertoire for this same concert? Because clearly, you have your own agenda. The serenade was a difficult piece, yes, but you don’t need to attack a student performance to make your point. Indeed, the festival needs a new direction but let the academy away from “political issues”. Plus, the serenade was generously applauded as I remember.

        • Joann says:

          By definition, “student” performances are in a process of improvement. We cover students and protect them just as we shield a Chelsea Clinton or Baron Trump from the limelight. Students are “musical children”. Holding them up to straight professional standards is unfair and a gross miscalculation in any review. This is particularly true for early music instruments. Have you seen those horns, and oboes? It takes years to master them. If we are going to treat them as professionals right off the bat, then we might as well demand trigonometry be added to every elementary school’s curriculum. Its that inappropriate. The Oregon Bach Festival went through a controversial change of leadership that raised eyebrows all the way to England. It is easy to raise issues with that, but using students to do so is below the belt.

  3. Amy Adams says:

    Scott and Joann…your instinct to shield students from the full impact of artistic criticism is laudable but misplaced here, as is any naive explanation about the difficulty of playing horns and oboes (good Lord!)

    The Berwick Academy musicians are on a different level than, say, the singers of the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy. Tom Manoff’s central point (“It’s a difficult piece, especially for younger players, and this work was beyond their current abilities and should not have been programmed) is not below the belt – it goes straight to the heart of the festival’s artistic floundering.

    Matthew Halls founded the Berwick Academy. Under his direction, programming was oriented to artistic success for both musicians and audience, as a recognition of all that is invested in the concert experience.

    Without one experienced, capable director at the helm, the ensemble may well continue to flounder, as the entire festival is – notwithstanding some beautiful music making here and there, artists being who they are.

    • Scott says:

      Dear Amy, Tom wrote: A long-time OBF fan at the concert told me, “this was the worst performance I’ve seen at the festival.”
      Sorry, but this is not artistic criticism. This is totally mean and unfair. This sentence can destroy students’ self-steem. And again, let’s imagine one thing: if the “Serenade” was perfectly played, or if the Serenade wasn’t programmed at all, what would be Manoff’s next argument to support his prejudiced views?

      • Tom Manoff says:

        Let me point out that I also cite the first concert by the Berwick Academy as my favorite in the festival. They can be very good.

        Are they “students” in the way you suggest? OBF describes Berwick qualifications thus: “Participation is limited to musicians who actively study and perform in period practice on appropriate instruments.”

        Perhaps better to call them “emerging professionals.”

        I think your real objection is my call for an artistic director.

      • Amy Adams says:

        The “prejudiced” views you’re referring to are those of a critic. This is what he does, and well.

        It is not actually mean to say that a performance was weak. It is honest. This is, remember, a ticketed event which audiences had become (briefly) accustomed to experiencing at a high level of artistry, even for students.

        Now, if it’s *unfair* to point that out, would that perhaps be because you agree that the Serenade should not have been programmed?

        It’s clear that you resent criticism of the ensemble – perhaps you have friends or colleagues who played on the stage?

        If you want to know what Tom Manoff’s “next argument would be to support his prejudiced views” (sorry, I don’t quite follow this question)…why not ask him?

        At any rate, it is all right to evaluate and assess the performances at a festival, and to single one out as the weakest, and even to dig into why that may be so. This is part of what criticism is all about.

  4. Amy Adams says:

    You know…it’s interesting, Tom. Last year, your article “The Shrinking Oregon Bach Festival” generated some comments that bore close scrutiny, particularly since they occurred *before* Janelle McCoy fired Matthew Halls. (Or had him fired, whichever you prefer.)

    The commenter, OBF fan, said a great deal about a successor to Matthew Halls – and this was two months BEFORE he had been fired. The commenter seems very eager to build a case for what the public was not yet aware of. That timing is interesting, in my opinion. Remember, the university had just renewed Hall’s contract…yet here is “OBF Fan” hoping they’re working on his successor.
    http://www.orartswatch.org/the-shrinking-oregon-bach-festival/

    Here, it’s notable that two commenters on this thread coincidentally share first names of the only two conductors who are mentioned in the above review.

    Now, perhaps someone named “Scott” and someone named “Joann” are indeed real people concerned about the feelings of Berwick Academy musicians and their ability to withstand a negative review of one performance. (That could well be… I don’t know why someone wouldn’t use their first and last names when commenting, as Brett Campbell did, and as I always do.)

    Another possibility is that one particular stakeholder at the Oregon Bach Festival, someone high up in management, is deeply resentful of negative press, and her efforts to combat it actually reveal more about the nature of vindictiveness. This is truly sad.

    The festival has a shot at a future, under different, capable leadership.
    Without that, not so much.

    • A friend says:

      The Manoff’s review is weak in several places, not only regarding the Berwick Academy. With more time available, I could point out the inconsistency of his arguments and opinions one by one. But, sometimes he made me laugh. Do what you need to do to get a new director, but next time don’t use young players to make your point. You don’t need that, it’s a poor strategy. It is like using divorce kids again their own parents. These young players did well, and they don’t need to deal with all the power game inside the music festival industry.

      • Barry Johnson says:

        So now you’re responding to the article under a different name? That’s ridiculous. You’ve had plenty of time to come up with a reasonable response to the review.

        • Amy Adams says:

          I know, right?
          There’s a pattern of mentioning “laughing” in a couple of these comments which hints at a bit of emotional instability.

          Perhaps “A friend” has had time to point out the “weak” places in “the Manoff’s” review. I look forward to her thoughts.

  5. Bob Hicks says:

    The word “student,” which so often makes us think of eager pre-teens and high schoolers learning their chops, might be causing some confusion in people’s reactions to Tom Manoff’s comments. Every good artist remains a student throughout her life. The Berwick musicians are younger, but they’re adults. I checked ArtsWatch’s back stories, and found a couple of references. One refers to them as “advanced students and young professional musicians from all over North America”; another refers to the Academy as a “highly focused program designed to pair leading festival participants with musicians ages 21 to 35 who are specializing in performing on period instruments.” In other words: young, but hardly children.

  6. Amy Adams says:

    In August 2017, the Oregon Bach Festival issued a news release that contained a clear statement about the artistic vision of the festival. There are no references to Bach in it anywhere.

    “There’s an emerging trend,” explains OBF executive director Janelle McCoy, “to plan a season from the perspective of a guest curator from a different field or genre and then invite conductors to participate, rather than programming from a single artistic voice. More and more organizations around the country, such as Ojai Music Festival, are using this model to expand the choices available to their audiences and participants. These choices may include disparate visions from a choreographer, stage director, or jazz musician, for example. We are eager to bring this approach to university students and faculty, as well as our patrons, musicians, and education program participants.”

    The change also comes as part of the ongoing process to integrate OBF more deeply into the UO community and align itself more strategically with the university’s goals. “We look forward to a wider range of programmatic choices, community events, and cross-departmental relationships with UO faculty, staff, and students – from the UNESCO Crossings Institute, the Department of Equity and Inclusion, and the UO museums, to traditional academic units such as the School of Music and Dance, food studies, classics, humanities, history, and planning, public policy and management. These partnerships,” says McCoy, “might include lectures, public seminars, classes, publications, interactive programming, and so on.”

    Here is a link to the entire release:
    https://around.uoregon.edu/content/oregon-bach-festival-looks-future

    • Amy Adams says:

      In a pointed editorial response, the artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival took issue quite strongly with Janelle McCoy’s mischaracterization of the Ojai model:

      “This is not an “emerging trend” at Ojai but one that was baked into the very founding culture of the organization seventy-two years ago. While I wish I could say the model is increasingly followed elsewhere, I find little evidence that this is so.

      Most importantly, the key to this model is in fact having both changing curators each year AND a multi-year strong artistic director to choose those different curators each year, and then to work in partnership with them to fashion a festival that is both consistent with the artistic ideals and standards of the festival but also reflects the widely divergent artistic personalities of the different music directors. Your proposed model apparently does not anticipate having that central role so in no way are you following the Ojai model.”

      https://web.archive.org/web/20170905190427/http://eugeneweekly.com:80/blog/ojai-music-fest-oregon-bach-fest-thats-not-how-its-done

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