It’s no surprise that this summer’s annual Oregon Bach Festival superficially looks a lot like previous editions. After all, the 52-year-old celebration of music by Bach and beyond, which opens on Sunday, June 19, and runs through July 5, currently lacks both executive and artistic directors to forge a distinctive new vision. This year’s fest accordingly follows the tried and trusty formula: a few big (and medium-sized) orchestral concerts, period instrument performances (which arrived in force in the 2010s with previous artistic director Matthew Halls and the historically informed performance training Berwick Academy), choral concerts, a splash of contemporary sounds and, of course, a whole lotta Bach.
The familiarity extends beyond the festival’s University of Oregon home territory to including names familiar to Portland classical music fans: Monica Huggett, Adam LaMotte and David Shifrin, the current or erstwhile artistic directors of, respectively, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Amadeus Chamber Orchestra and Chamber Music Northwest. (With both OBF and PBO now seeking new artistic leadership, maybe the time is nigh for closer cooperation between those two Oregon Baroque music institutions?) There’s even some fresh blood in the form of new music.
It’s a treat to have one of Oregon’s most important music events back live after a two-year virus hiatus. But for all the familiar elements, one essential is lacking: surprise. This year’s festival lacks the kind of unexpected thrills and sense of direction that an outside, visionary artistic leader can bring to a festival — any festival — in need of a refresh. That’s hard to do without a real artistic director in place, and that’s why one of the major focuses of this year’s OBF isn’t just what’s now, but also, who’s next?
As many orchestras (including Eugene’s own symphony) and festivals do these days, OBF is turning its search for new leadership into an audition attraction, choosing a trio of candidates for the AD position who’ll each conduct concerts and give audiences (and as important, the musicians) a chance to compare, contrast and assess. That was actually supposed to happen last time, until the coronavirus intervened, and maybe the silver lining is that one of the three finalists (since replaced as a candidate) was forced to withdraw in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. Imagine if that had happened after he’d been appointed.
Since its last leadership team departed, the festival, which had enjoyed independence under its founding fathers and then Halls, has been fully folded back into the UO’s School of Music and Dance, which welcomed a new dean, who promptly parted ways with the controversial executive director who’d earlier forced out Halls and left the festival artistically adrift. Once a new AD is named, a new team and presumably new vision will energize the venerable festival.
So while we’ll be watching and listening to this summer’s events (expect a review at festival’s end), we’ll also be pondering what they might portend for the future of this essential Oregon classical music institution. Meanwhile, even if this year’s model feels more like catching up than looking forward, “familiar” needn’t mean stale,” and there’s still plenty to like about this summer’s edition. Here are a few recommended highlights, with most concerts happening at the UO’s intimate, acoustically splendid Beall Concert Hall or Eugene’s Hult Center.
This year’s festival, according to the UO’s James Boyd, Director of Programming and Administration, comprises three main components. The conductor showcases offer the three candidates a chance to conduct a major Bach work on period instruments, and a modern-instrument chamber orchestra concert of selections they choose themselves. That gives audiences and musicians a chance to see how they handle the festival’s diverse range of repertoire, and a glimpse at how they might think about programming. It also means the rare opportunity for audiences to catch all three of Bach’s massive surviving choral orchestral masterpieces in the same festival, for the first time in 35 years.
Bach’s B Minor Mass is a culmination of his artistry and a pillar of Western music, but because of its scale, seldom performed live — except at OBF. The chance to hear it live, and on the instruments and tunings closest to the composer’s intentions (it was never performed in his lifetime) is one of the festival’s greatest contributions to Oregon music, and this time we’ll get to hear American-born, Germany- based orchestra conductor and AD candidate Kazem Abdullah’s interpretation. June 21.
Bach’s dark, dramatic St. John Passion offers candidate Eric Jacobsen (from Brooklyn Rider and The Knights) a chance to conduct one of the master’s three great surviving choral-orchestral works, on period instruments. June 28.
Former Eugene and Fort Worth Symphony music director Miguel-Harth Bedoya gets to strut his big-time Bach in the festival’s closing concert with a historically informed performance of the mighty St. Matthew Passion. July 5.
The second area keeps the festival’s earlier pandemic-postponed promises to perform live music by the visionary California pianist and cultural activist Lara Downes, a commission from esteemed New York composer Richard Danielpour, and more. Those were presented virtually over the last couple years, but as we’ve all been reminded lately, despite the advances in streaming technology, streaming is no true substitute for experiencing music in person. Read my ArtsWatch feature about Downes and her work with last year’s Bach Festival.
One of today’s most popular classical pianists, Simone Dinnerstein, reprises her 2020 virtual Bach Festival premiere of Danielpour’s solo piano epic An American Mosaic, and a Bach triptych, transposed to modern piano. This time, the action will be live. June 19.
In Variations on a Dream, Downes continues her exploration of American music that spans genre and racial lines. Featuring both Downes and Dinnerstein along with UO Chamber Choir and OBF’s Chamber orchestra, the show includes works by 20th century masters from Florence Price to Gershwin to Kurt Weill to Sam Cooke, and contemporary creations by rising young California composer Reena Esmail, Meredith Monk and a world premiere by New York composer Paola Prestini, whose music often appeals beyond the classical bubble. June 22.
Among my personal favorite-ever Bach moments was once hearing his immortal cello suites from about four feet away from cellist Matt Haimovitz at Eugene’s Sam Bond’s Garage, better known for bock and rock than Bach, many years ago. Haimovitz returns with Dinnerstein in music by Bach, a pair of Beethoven’s underrated cello sonatas, and a suite and more by Philip Glass. June 23.
In his Akoka project, Haimovitz joins the nonpareil classical/klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer and other chamber musicians in a tribute to the Jewish clarinetist who miraculously escaped Nazi death camps after premiering one of the true 20th century masterworks: Olivier Messiaen’s moving Quartet for the End of Time, which they’ll play along with a Krakauer original and Meanwhile… a contemporary electro acoustic composition from DJ Socalled that includes some rapping, historical vocal samples and more. June 29.
David Shifrin takes a detour from Chamber Music Northwest with the Viano String Quartet in music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Edvard Grieg, and Blueprint by the great American composer Caroline Shaw, who won fame (and a Pulitzer Prize) for her vocal music but has lately also been knocking string quartets out of the park. July 3.
The third tranche of concerts features the festival’s homegrown forces — the Berwick Academy period instrument players, the choirs that have long been the festival’s backbone. In the grandest of them, the UO Chamber Choir, OBF’s own Chorus and Youth Choral Academy converge in a major showcase, Choral Legacy, June 25.
Along with these and many other performances, the festival always offers a host of admirable free events open to the public, this year including four faculty recitals, a family day with Oregon Mandolin Orchestra (and ice cream!), in depth artist talks, and more, including a history of the half century old festival by always lively longtime contributor John Steinmetz. It’s good chance for a look back just before the festival decides which way to move forward.
The 2022 Oregon Bach Festival runs through July 5 at various locations in Eugene. Information and tickets at oregonbachfestival.org.