The Oregon Bach Festival once embodied a model of stability among arts institutions. From its origins in 1970 as a small, University of Oregon-based Baroque music organ and conducting training program, over the next three decades the annual summer celebration of J.S. Bach in particular and Baroque and Classical music in general grew into one of Oregon’s most nationally prominent arts organizations, especially renowned for major choral orchestral concerts featuring world class performers. That extended string of success stemmed in large part from the steady leadership of its founders, artistic director Helmuth Rilling and executive director Royce Salzman.
But succession didn’t produce success. Saltzman retired for good in 2007, followed, in 2013, by Rilling. He was replaced the following summer by dynamic young British early music keyboardist and bandleader Matthew Halls, who brought the festival into the 21st century by bringing it back to the 18th — that is, by adopting the historically informed performance model that Rilling, just about the last holdout among major Baroque interpreters, had long resisted in favor of his old fashioned modern instrument approach.
But then, in 2017, Halls was abruptly forced out under still-unexplained circumstances by a Saltzman successor, who then tried to replace Halls with a rotating annual artistic directorship model that would have given the permanent executive director more organizational power, without a permanent potential rival on the artistic side. Outside experts called such an arrangement inappropriate for an institution like the Bach Festival. The model, and the executive director who tried to perpetrate it, both departed after a new dean arrived.
As ArtsWatch contributor Tom Manoff reported, the years of unsteadiness and upheaval produced comparably uninspiring festivals, with a few notable exception concerts. So there was much celebration when the Festival announced a return to a permanent artistic director. Three diverse and accomplished finalists were named in 2020, with plans for each to conduct concerts at the upcoming 50th anniversary summer festival, after which the new AD would be chosen, with input from the musicians who’d have just worked with all three.
Then another setback: The pandemic put live music, including the Oregon Bach Festival, on ice. Last year’s virtual festival was cobbled together by a team from the UO music school, and everyone looked forward to this summer’s festival and its three-way audition competition.
This month, still another blow staggered the festival. On March 1, perhaps the best qualified candidate for permanent AD position, New York conductor Julian Wachner, was suspended from his position at prestigious Trinity Wall Street church after he was accused of sexually assaulting a Juilliard School employee during a music festival in 2014. Wachner denied the allegations. Two weeks later, Trinity announced his firing. And last week, the festival notified its supporters that Wachner had withdrawn his name from consideration for the Eugene position.
This latest setback leaves, for now at least, two candidates–conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya and cellist/conductor Eric Jacobsen–competing for the job. The announcement noted that “the artistic director search will continue through the summer and remains a prominent part of the 2022 season” but didn’t mention adding another candidate.
Manoff, the author and former National Public Radio classical music critic who’s followed the festival from the beginning, would like the search committee to consider more candidates. “Wachner was the only Bach and Baroque specialist among the candidates,” he told ArtsWatch. “I hope a third candidate to replace Wachner can be found. With all the turmoil of the last few years, it’s important that a new OBF artistic director be considered as a fully legitimate choice from a pool that included at least one Bach specialist.”
We’ll keep you posted on further developments.
The 2022 Oregon Bach Festival happens June 17 through July 5 in Eugene, with events at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Beall Concert Hall on the University of Oregon campus, and local churches.
Women Lead the Way
Speaking of Eugene classical music, PBS’s Great Performances is streaming a new biographical documentary about pioneering conductor Marin Alsop, who shot to national fame as America’s most prominent female conductor when she led the Eugene Symphony to a wondrous seven year run in the 1990s, culminating in a stirring performance at a national music conference in Portland that wowed classical music observers. She championed contemporary American composers (mostly East Coast, but still) and was one of the best explainers of classical music to general audiences since her mentor Leonard Bernstein.
You won’t hear about that in the new film (I heard the word “Eugene” mentioned once), nor her similarly distinguished tenure leading the Colorado Symphony, nor her advocacy for American composers as longtime music director at California’s Cabrillo Festival. The film interweaves interview material with rehearsal footage from Baltimore (where she became the first woman to lead a major American orchestra), the Juilliard school (which she left because of toxic sexism), São Paolo (home of one of her other orchestras), and older bits from her early bands String Fever and Concordia, which she founded when she found doors slammed in her face by the classical establishment’s literal old-boy network.
What you do get is glimpses of Alsop’s work and family lives (including her parents’ role, for better and worse), an appreciation of her relentless determination, down-to-earth personality (so different from the egotistical maestro myth, and even reality, including her own mentor, Leonard Bernstein), easygoing humor and warmth — all hallmarks of her personality when I covered her in Eugene and at Cabrillo. Alsop reaches broader audiences not by overwhelming them with suck-the-air-out-of-the-room charisma but by inviting them in, making all of us feel that classical music is for everyone. Oregon was lucky to have had her for so long, and so is the world. The documentary is free to stream through April 22 for everyone, and thereafter to OPB/PBS members.
From Baroque to Britt
And speaking of female artistic leaders in this Women’s History Month, Portland Baroque Orchestra Executive Director Abigail McKee is leaving that position to become President & CEO of Southern Oregon’s Britt Music and Arts Festival in Jacksonville, succeeding retiring predecessor Donna Briggs.
During her five years at PBO, McKee successfully steered PBO through the retirement of longtime artistic director Monica Huggett and the pandemic. PBO’s Great. Arts. Period. digital concert hall and video service (which continues free) was one of Oregon music’s highest quality responses to the Covid crisis. The splendid recording quality set new standards for streamed chamber music, and PBO made the tech available to other local music organizations. She’ll be missed in Portland, but at least Oregon gets to keep her.
Another female arts leader, Carissa Burkett, succeeds Lisa Volle as Executive Director of Portland’s Third Angle New Music. Burkett earlier served as Curator for Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts and founded Public Annex, a nonprofit art and urban farming organization serving adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities through ongoing programming, artist residencies, and artist representation. She joins Artistic Director Sarah Tiedemann on 3A’s all-woman leadership team.
Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble chose Portland percussionist, DJ, teacher, and administrator Meg Morrow as its new Executive Director, succeeding Douglas Detrick. She has served as Assistant Director with the Louisville Leopard Percussionists, Music Director for Girls Rock Louisville, percussion instructor for Kentucky School for the Blind, and has taught classroom music for educators at the University of Louisville. Morrow will continue to host the AM Bridge jazz program on Portland public radio station KMHD.
BRAVO Youth Orchestras named Portland native Cinda Jackson as director of After School Programs for the organization, Oregon’s first El Sistema-inspired program, which serves hundreds of students in six high-poverty schools in North Portland with intensive music programs. She has worked over 25 years in the non-profit sector and has over 20 years experience in community outreach, program and staff development, program management, social services, education, after school programming and youth mentorship. She also directed one of Portland’s biggest community choirs.
BRAVO also bade farewell to its founding executive director and current development director, Seth Truby, who’s leaving after nine years to become executive director of LEAP Wilderness Adventures.
She’s Speaking has issued an introductory video about the Portland-based organization’s work to “promote songs about women, by women, for everyone.” Recognizing that women are significantly underrepresented across all aspects of the music industry, Oregon singer-songwriters Bre Gregg, Kristen Grainger and Beth Wood started SS’s YouTube channel (launched on International Women’s Day in March 2021) and produced livestream concerts throughout the pandemic, including a tribute to mothers and grandmothers in May and a Folk Alliance showcase in August. She’s Speaking – Live was the project’s first live, in-person performance at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre in November 2021. On April 10, the organization is sponsoring in-person benefit concert at 7 pm at Portland’s Artichoke Music, 2007 SE Powell Blvd., featuring five women singer-songwriters, The show will also be live-streamed, with proceeds benefiting Mercy Corps’ humanitarian relief efforts in Ukraine.
Former Portland Opera artistic director Christopher Mattaliano announced the establishment of a new company that will produce two operas each summer in Portland State University’s 475-seat Lincoln Hall. OrpheusPDX “brings together two of my greatest loves,” he wrote in a press release, “producing high-quality professional opera and providing a rich learning experience for gifted young singers and instrumentalists.”
The company’s splendid first summer program, scheduled for this coming August, include Monteverdi’s magnificent L’Orfeo (one of the first operas as we know them) and Philip Glass’s tumultuous The Fall of the House of Usher. Next year, the company also intends to establish a training program for a dozen gifted young singers selected by nationwide audition and taught during a summer-long residency by OrpheusPDX’s professional artists.
Contemporary opera is one of the few growth areas in classical music, with small, innovative companies around the country producing vibrant new work — often on an intimate scale. Portland alone now boasts Opera Theatre Oregon, Renegade Opera, Queer Opera, PSU Opera, and an apparently newly forward looking Portland Opera, plus an experienced corps of opera musicians. During Mattaliano’s tenure, Portland Opera’s opportunities for innovation were limited by the economic and other constraints imposed by the need to fill massive Keller Auditorium and the old subscription model. I’m looking forward to seeing what he’ll do in a more intimate and flexible environment, as he often did in Portland Opera’s more intriguing smaller venue programming. The new company and its excellent opening program, which avoids the stodgy fare that legacy opera companies so often repeat ad nauseam, may be a promising portent of Oregon opera’s renewed vitality.
How To HomeSchool has chosen Portland bassoonist/composer Nicole Buetti’s kids program Meet the Instruments as one of their “Best Homeschool Curriculum and Products on the Planet.” Starting this month, Meet the Instruments appears on both Kidoodle.TV and Sensical – From Common Sense Network.
Finally, one of my favorite radio shows, All Classical Portland’s Club Mod regularly presents some of the most appealing new music in the classical tradition. In last week’s edition its perspicacious, dulcet voiced host Andrea Murray devoted the entire, characteristically fascinating program to new music by Oregon composers. It’s available for streaming for two more weeks.
Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!