Looking for Leadership

Oregon Bach Festival artistic director finalists offer three dramatically different visions of the festival’s future

When Roger Saydack lived on a bare bones graduate student budget at the University of Oregon in the mid-1970s, the only way he could afford to hear classical music live was what’s now called the Oregon Bach Festival’s Discovery Series concerts. Following along in a score from Smith Family Bookstore, he’d catch a strong performance of a Bach cantata for $2, explicated by one of the world’s experts on Bach, festival director Helmuth Rilling. 

The festival maintained its attraction for Saydack, a longtime Eugene lawyer, who three decades ago served as president of its board of directors, and went on to be involved in other classical music institutions like the League of American Orchestras, working with about 35 orchestras, opera companies and classical music festivals around the US in artistic leadership searches in various ways. He led the Eugene Symphony’s searches that successively produced probably the strongest crop of young, rising music directors of any midsized American orchestra: Marin Alsop, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and Giancarlo Guerrero, who all won acclaim and moved on to positions with bigger orchestras.

Roger Saydack, leading Oregon Bach Festival's artistic director search.
Roger Saydack, leading Oregon Bach Festival’s artistic director search.

Now, Saydack is bringing those skills back to the Bach Festival he’s long cherished, leading the search committee charged with finding a successor to Matthew Halls, the talented young artistic director controversially ousted in 2017 by the festival’s then-executive director, who was herself dumped after a backlash against Halls’ never-explained departure. 

The episode tarnished the festival’s sterling international reputation as one of Oregon’s most important arts institutions, built assiduously over four decades by founders Rilling and Royce Saltzman, raising the stakes for this appointment. Assuming the festival proceeds as planned — at press time, the website still listed the full calendar of events set to begin June 26 — Oregon audiences will get to be involved during this summer’s 50th anniversary season, when the three finalists produced by Saydack’s committee will conduct what amounts to concert auditions for the job. They offer strikingly different qualifications for — and maybe visions of — the festival’s future direction at a critical turning point.

Looming Legacy

They have hard acts to follow in Rilling, an unparalleled explainer of Bach’s music and respected teacher and conductor, and in Halls, who led the festival’s long-overdue shift to historically informed performance practice on period instruments, founding its Berwick Academy for Historical Performance.

“I heard exactly that about Marin Alsop,” Saydack recalled when she left after seven years of leading Eugene Symphony to glory, eventually becoming the first woman to be named music director of a major American orchestra. “‘You’ll never see the likes of her again,’ they said. They were right: she was brilliant and irreplaceable, but Miguel did a magnificent job,” and his successors maintained and even raised the standards. “We have to move on.” 

That was the message Saydack delivered to this year’s OBF candidates: neither he nor the music school’s current leadership were involved in the Halls fiasco, and the UO is committed to moving on and to the festival’s future. “The festival has the support of the university, the audience, and a strong endowment,” he told them. “What it needs is direction, purpose, restored vision, renewed faith from the audience, and hope for the future.”

The new director’s task is much bigger than just conducting and programming an orchestra, extending to the festival’s entire artistic operations. 

A crucial criterion: “conversant, documented interest in both historically informed and contemporary performance practice.” Because the new AD would be conducting modern instrument orchestras in the Hult Center and period instrument ensembles at Beall Concert Hall, “we didn’t want someone who could see things only one way.” Saydack explains. 

The committee insisted on another key quality: “It’s a program of the University of Oregon, so the educational component is vitally important,” Saydack said, including teaching musicians, conductors, university students, even audience members. This also seems to signal a greater reintegration of the festival into the UO music school; for years, it seemed to operate as a separate fiefdom with its own power base, maybe because of its international reputation and earning power.

The position announcement also called for “thorough knowledge of choral-orchestral repertoire and styles, operas, and oratorios; comprehensive knowledge of scores forming the core literature of each historical period of choral and orchestral performance; experience in performance practice” and of course “significant understanding and evidenced performance of JS Bach’s music; commitment to JS Bach and the Bach-inspired, as well as OBF’s legacy; ability to connect with and inspire audiences through the public sharing of knowledge about Bach and Bach-inspired music.”

Those extensive criteria demonstrate the significance of the OBF leadership. Fortunately, the search committee’s own leader is similarly highly qualified and committed. Saydack literally wrote the book (a manual followed by other orchestras) on how to conduct symphony music director searches. Though neither he nor anyone else on the search committee appears to have extensive scholarly expertise in historically informed performance practice, “seven of our search committee members have substantial HIPP performance experience,” Saydack notes. “And our process provides that the committee will be informed by the impressions and opinions of the HIPP specialists who will be in residence during the Festival and will work with and observe the finalists closely.”

After announcing the position in various forums for conductors and artistic leaders, the committee (composed mostly of UO faculty members and administrators and OBF board members) received 85 applications from around the world. 

Formidable Finalists

Of the three candidates the committee chose as finalists, all of whom Saydack calls “superb performers,” Julian Wachner seems to most apparently fit the announced criteria. Born the year before the festival itself, the California born composer, conductor and keyboardist has served for nearly a decade as director of Music and the Arts at New York’s prestigious Trinity Wall Street, where he directs the church’s baroque orchestra. He’s also taught at Boston and McGill Universities, founded the period instrument Boston Bach Ensemble and the contemporary music ensemble NOVUS NY, and directed operas and other stage works.

Composer/conductor Julian Wachner, one of three finalists in OBF's ad search. Photo courtesy of the conductor.
Composer/conductor Julian Wachner, one of three finalists in OBF’s ad search. Photo courtesy of the conductor.

Cellist/conductor Eric Jacobsen is well known to contemporary classical music fans as founder of New York’s Brooklyn Rider string quartet and The Knights chamber orchestra, both of which boast substantially younger (and hipper) audiences than most classical ensembles. Like Wachner, he’s also conducted various orchestras, as well as Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. “He has exciting ideas about what the concert can become and how to make the experience more complete, experimental, and engaging,” Saydack says.  

The third finalist is Harth-Bedoya himself, familiar to Eugene classical music fans for his successful seven year tenure at the helm of Eugene Symphony. Now finishing up his 20 year tenure with the Fort Worth Symphony, he’s ready to turn to teaching the next generation about conducting. In August, he begins a new position as Director of Orchestral Studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. 

Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Photo by Michal Novak.
Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Photo by Michal Novak.

While he’s conducted much of the standard repertoire, Harth-Bedoya’s special superpower lies in his world music background. His Caminos del Inca project specializes in music by Latin American composers. Saydack counted works he’s conducted by 85 composers from outside the usual European/North American axis. “He has a wonderful ability to manage forces of large expression and make it appealing to large audiences,” Saydack says, “and he’d bring the music of the world to the festival in a way few people can.”

Each candidate’s background seems to foreshadow very different areas of emphasis, at least: new music, chamber music and innovative audience engagement approaches from Jacobsen; global music influences, mentorship, orchestral experience and Eugene connections from Harth-Bedoya; academic roots and Bach/Baroque and choral chops from Wachner. But the last also has new music experience as a composer and contemporary ensemble leader, while Saydack says both Jacobsen and Harth-Bedoya have strong interest in Bach and historically informed performance, even if their resumés don’t appear to fulfill the announced requirements in those areas. 

Cellist/conductor Eric Jacobsen, founder of Brooklyn Rider and The Knights. Photo by Dario Acosta.
Cellist/conductor Eric Jacobsen, founder of Brooklyn Rider and The Knights. Photo by Dario Acosta.

Summer Auditions

Saydak’s untroubled by two of the finalists’ apparent un-HIPness. First, it’s likely that — like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — the Bach festival’s namesake will in future serve as more foundation than focus. “This isn’t going to be a festival that’s 90 percent Bach,” Saydack says, “so while we’re looking for someone who has knowledge of Bach and interest in historical performance, it’s going to be much broader than that” going forward. But even if such breadth may be needed to maintain the festival’s appeal beyond the dwindling base of Bachophiles, HIPsters, and even classical music traditionalists, might it come at the expense of its identity?

“It would be an historic misstep for the festival to abandon its dedication to historically informed performance and understanding of Bach,” says former National Public Radio classical music critic and longtime Eugene resident Tom Manoff, who’s attended the Bach Festival from the beginning and decried its absence of vision in ArtsWatch last year.

Saydack says the proof is going to be in the pudding. No matter what the resumes and interviews suggest, the best way to find out how a would-be artistic leader delivers Bach, Baroque, and other music is to see and hear them in action. And that’s exactly what’ll happen in June. Each will be in Eugene for almost a week and one of JS Bach’s three surviving choral-orchestral masterworks (Mass in b Minor and the St. John and St. Matthew Passions), a period instrument performance using Baroque instruments and tunings, and a modern chamber orchestra.

“The reason to bring them here, and not just select them on basis of what we know today, is to experience their music making, with our musicians, and see how our entire audience, including students, responds to them,” Saydack explains. “Is there the chemistry, is he that person who can act as a catalyst? We specifically asked them to design repertoire to tell us something about them as artists. And while here, they’re going to be meeting with singers, instrumentalists, UO faculty, board members, donors, and talking to the audience, which will also have the chance to offer their feedback to the search committee.”

“These are extraordinary musicians, and each has made Bach an important part of their lives as a musician,” Saydack says. “Ultimately the greatest test of their knowledge, ability, and insight is going to be their performance. Where you going to hide? There’s no way to fake that music: you either know it and understand it, or it’s not going to be a great concert. You will learn everything you need to learn about them as exponents of Bach’s music through those concerts. It will be wonderful to compare the three of them in their Bach performances, and then to see how they articulate their personal musical passions in chamber orchestra concerts.”

Engaging with the Audience

Saydack is excited about how each of the candidates, for all their differences, offers strong ideas about increasing audience connection with the music. “I played baseball when I was younger,” he says, and even though I wasn’t anything special, just that experience made me appreciate it as a fan so much more than I would have otherwise. So much of the problem with classical music is that it’s become a spectator sport. It’s not participatory enough. Each of these candidates really wants to engage with the audience, with Bach as the foundation.”

Of course, the selection process, like practically everything else in the music world, is tentative until the effects of this spring’s virus crisis shake out. Assuming the festival and concerts go as planned, the committee hopes to make a final decision by the end of August, though there’s no official deadline. “We have to be convinced that the right person is among the finalists,” Saydack said. “If at the end we’re just not convinced, then we will continue searching till we find the right person.” 

His experience in previous searches tells Saydack that’s unlikely. “I honestly think it’s not going to be hard. It gets clearer after you see them work. At the end, if it’s there, you see it and you know it.”

Saydack realizes that this decision is a momentous one for a storied festival that’s at a crossroads. “Royce Salzman told me that he and Rilling every year would meet after the festival to plan the next season,” Saydack remembers. “At the end of that planning session, they’d look at each other and say ‘our mission is to change lives.’ You can’t let something like that die.”

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch

Comments are closed.