Oregon Bach Festival’s Berwick Academy: Getting HIP to musical history

Festival's new educational program shows that historically informed performance style is anything but old-fashioned.

Over a decade ago, in a speech at the Oregon Bach Festival, esteemed former New York Times classical music critic John Rockwell suggested that OBF bring in historically informed ensembles for some concerts, so audiences could hear how contemporary authentic practice Baroque performances differed from then-OBF music director Helmuth Rilling’s “1950s and ‘60s interpretations.”

Rockwell merely pointed out what most Baroque music aficionados already knew: OBF had fallen woefully behind the times. After two generations of exciting discoveries by scholar-performers that radically changed our notion of how the music originally sounded, the University of Oregon-based festival still clung to anachronistic modern instruments, over-large orchestral and choral forces, and compromised modern tunings that too often made originally lithe, transparent music sound bland and bloated.

Times have changed. This year, the Oregon Bach Festival leaps from the rearguard to the vanguard of historically informed performance (HIP) with the advent of its Berwick Orchestral Academy, a new educational program for advanced students and young professional musicians from all over North America.

“The musicians who are selected to join the academy every year all specialize in the performance of music form the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods on old instruments, utilizing playing techniques and performance styles inspired by what we know of past traditions,” writes OBF artistic director Matthew Halls.

Oregon Bach Festival music director Matthew Halls leads the Berwick Academy in Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 in D Major. Photo by Jonathan Lange.

Oregon Bach Festival music director Matthew Halls leads the Berwick Academy in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major. Photo by Jonathan Lange.

After a three-day intensive course led by a faculty of renowned period-practice performers (including Masaaki Suzuki, founder/director of the internationally renowned Bach Collegium Japan, and Monica Huggett, who ran the Julliard Historical Performance program and leads Portland Baroque Orchestra and other major HIP ensembles), Berwick students perform 18th and 19th century music alongside the faculty (in Haydn’s Classical-era oratorio The Creation) and on their own, in a concerts of early Romantic music by Beethoven and Baroque music by Bach.

The new program broadens the festival’s existing educational efforts in choral conducting and, beginning last  year, organ. University of Oregon alums Andy and Phizz Berwick provided the funding for the new academy (including free tuition for participants), as well as the Festival’s (and the Academy’s) new headquarters building, which should be built on campus in time for next year’s festival.

Halls says the new program differs from those at a few other colleges scattered across the country in that it strives to “bring together musicians from all those centers who might not otherwise meet, centralize the study of music from Baroque and later periods, and cultivate a sense of networking,” Halls explains. “If you put like minded highly talented musicians in a room together long enough, their entrepreneurial spirit kicks in: they start making plans, generating new projects, forming groups… a lot of the European ensembles were formed under the European Union Baroque Orchestra,” which transformed Halls’s own career as a historically informed musician and provided him a model for the Berwick academy.

By cultivating an appreciation for historical styles and instruments in the next generations of classical musicians, Halls hopes the academy can ultimately help propagate in the US the wonderful profusion of early music ensembles that exist throughout Europe — and to influence even modern instrument performances. “What you find now if you walk in as guest conductor in Europe, at least half your orchestra have a sense of historical style,” Halls says, particularly younger players who grew up performing in those styles.

“How do you replicate that on modern instruments? It’s a much broader thing — it’s not just about the hardware,” he says. “When historical performance becomes more respected and valued, that has broader effects on the whole classical music scene.” It’s the reverse of the festival’s pre-Halls approach: historical styles positively informing modern performance, instead of the latter anachronistically affecting the former.

If he can do that in what used to be a bastion of musical conservatism in Eugene, who knows? Halls may succeed in making all of American classical music HIP.

A version of this story originally appeared in Eugene Weekly. You can hear the Berwick Academy performers, including Monica Huggett and led by Suzuki, playing music by J.S. Bach and Handel on Friday, July 3, at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall, and on Sunday, July 5 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall.

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