Editor’s note: Shortly after our story was published, the Bach Festival issued a statement about its search for an artistic director.
The Oregon Bach Festival returned to live performances in 2022 facing, like all summer music festivals, a world rocked by pandemic uncertainty. Unlike other organizations, the festival — which this year took place in Eugene from June 17 to July 5 — is also facing its post-Helmuth Rilling future after stumbling through the 2017 forced exit of that co-founder’s successor as artistic director, Matthew Halls (just named Chief Conductor of Finland’s Tampere Philharmonic) , and a complete administrative reorganization that returned the festival to the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance control.
“Cautious optimism” seemed to be the general vibe on opening night, as the mostly-masked audience filled Beall Hall. An orchestra playing Baroque period instruments opened the festival with Bach’s A Musical Offering led by audience favorite Monica Huggett. The work (a series of complex canons based on a musical theme by Frederick the Great) is perhaps a bit academic, even abstruse for an opening night. But the performance in Beall Hall delighted the audience, which was near the capacity of the venue’s 520 seats. A couple of times I had difficulty hearing certain instruments in their lower ranges – particularly the otherwise elegant flute solos.
The June 25 Choral Legacy concert in the Hult Center’s Silva Hall was a special showcase for the festival, whose theme was A Celebration of Voice. It featured the venerable Festival Chorus singing Bach, Brahms, Haydn, Rachmaninoff, Howells – each one an exquisite masterwork carefully curated by the meticulous choral director Kathy Saltzman Romey as homage to this ensemble’s history. Following was the UO Chamber chorus, masterfully led by Sharon Paul in a truly stunning display of vocal ability and expression. Anton Armstrong’s Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy (high school singers chosen from around the nation), performed splendidly, as if the pandemic had never been. Ending with the combined choirs performing the “Dona Nobis Pacem” from Bach’s B Minor Mass, it was a stellar evening perfectly embodying the notion of legacy.
On July 2, festival favorite Tyler Duncan returned to sing Schubert’s bleak and beautiful song cycle The Winter’s Journey in a packed Beall Hall. The baritone personified the Romantic composer’s state of loss and grief that was poetic and spellbinding.
Behind all the festival’s public performances in 2022 was the great question of artistic leadership. OBF’s search process for its next artistic director brought its three final candidates to Eugene audiences. Each conducted two public performances – one in Beall Hall and one in the Hult Center’s comparatively giant Silva Hall. Programming logistics required that the choral works be performed in Silva, which meant that each of the giant Bach works would be accompanied by period instruments in a venue likely to swallow their sound. Each candidate also programmed a concert for modern symphonic instruments in the smaller Beall Hall, a programming decision that felt topsy-turvy in terms of sound (not often does one hear a Wagner overture in Beall!), but, as festival leaders explain in the interview below, coordinating the artistic director search dictated the unusual use of venues.
Logistics also affected Beall’s programming, as the small stage was limited to a little over thirty players, with the conductors perched close to the audience. Each of these modern symphonic concerts featured a work by a living composer, bookended by familiar masterworks — and what brilliant concerts they were.
On the festival’s second night, artistic director candidate Kazem Abdullah chose rising star American composer Jessie Montgomery’s Banner as his modern centerpiece, a vibrant and chaotic musical commentary on the U.S. national anthem. It was preceded by a vigorous and lighthearted “Classical” Symphony No. 1 by Prokofiev, and followed by a truly barn-burning rendition of Mozart’s 41st and final symphony.
Abdullah conducted Bach’s B Minor Mass in Silva Hall on June 21 with the festival’s orchestra of period instruments and soloists in an often satisfying performance. Balance and unity problems in the first movements gave way to greatness from the festival chorus, which benefited from the baroque tuning and instrumentation. I hoped for a “Cum Sancto Spiritu” that really cut loose, and indeed it did – vivacious, clear and athletic leading from the podium.
On June 24, candidate Eric Jacobsen conducted the modern orchestra in the seldom-heard overture to the 1780 opera L’Amant Anonyme by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Following was Prince of Clouds, an ethereal 2012 work by British composer Anna Clyne, and Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. No baton in his hand, Jacobsen’s elegant conducting offered a wide and expressive repertoire. The orchestra sounded somehow bigger than its numbers, particularly during the energetic Beethoven 7th symphony on the second half of the evening. Notable too were Jacobsen’s congenial and funny remarks to the Beall Hall audience.
Jacobsen conducted Bach’s St. John Passion in Silva Hall four days later, again with the OBF period instrument orchestra and festival chorus. Here again the venue works against period instruments, which in turn makes room for the voices – the chorus shone and soloists sparkled, particularly Evangelist James Gilchrist.
Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the third candidate for OBF artistic director, returned to Eugene after a long absence since his term as conductor of the Eugene Symphony 1997-2002. His all-German orchestral program in Beall Hall opened with Richard Wagner’s Concert Overture No. 1, followed by Bernd Franke’s vivid and strikingly dramatic Yellow Clouds (written in 2009) and Robert Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale. Harth-Bedoya nimbly and assuredly led the OBF modern ensemble, conducting Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 from memory, and his remarks to the audience were both insightful and engaging. Harth-Bedoya conducted Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on the festival’s closing night, eliciting moving performances from soloists, chorus and orchestra.
Each candidate brought such individual appeal to their residencies that it’s quite possible to imagine a future with any of them at the helm. It was clear to me that Harth-Bedoya has grown musically in the twenty years since he was the Eugene Symphony music director, and his scholarly German programming was a satisfying fit for OBF. Abdullah seemed a bit reticent in his remarks to the audience, contrasting with his commanding presence on the podium. Of the three candidates, it was Eric Jacobsen that seemed most naturally engaging with musicians and audience alike, eschewing the baton in favor of long, expressive gestures.
The Oregon Bach Festival’s future has been up in the air because of leadership changes both expected and unexpected, after resting so long on the shoulders of its founders. Executive director Royce Saltzman and artistic director Helmuth Rilling forged something unique and cherished in Eugene, life-changing for those who participated as patrons, students, musicians and staff. Based on what I experienced at this year’s comeback festival, it seems quite possible that OBF has weathered its storms.
In the middle of this year’s festival, I sat down to talk with Oregon Bach Festival Director of Programming and Administration James Boyd, and Sabrina Madison-Cannon, Dean of the UO School of Music and Dance.
OAW: Given that the Oregon Bach Festival eliminated the position of Executive Director, and given also that the longtime Director of Artistic Administration retired recently…how do things at OBF work now in 2022, compared to past seasons?
Sabrina Madison-Cannon: One thing that’s different is that the festival is more integrated into the school than it was, so there’s a lot of staffing that reports through each other to the school. James [Boyd] really is that executive leader, even though that is not the name of his position any longer. If you look at the two of us as partners, all of those responsibilities are taken care of.
James Boyd: I view my role as being the lead producer for the festival. We start the day with production meetings, and I facilitate those, and make sure that all the parts are working the way that they should.
What’s it like running a nonprofit inside a nonprofit (the University of Oregon)?
SMC: Starting with the advantages: stability. For instance, as other arts organizations were hanging on by their fingernails during the pandemic, I had zero worries about the festival. As a matter of fact, I feel like we emerged stronger than ever from a fiscal standpoint. In terms of disadvantages, whenever you have layers of hierarchy, you have things that slow you down when you want to do something, such as hiring staff.
One thing I’ll say about this current leadership is how incredibly supportive they are. The university provost [Patrick C. Phillips] came to our Gala and was incredibly moved by all that’s being done this year.
JB: Yes, we’re in the process of searching for our next artistic visionary, and I can’t wait for the day to come when we work with that individual. But you don’t have to look very hard to see artistic leadership: Kathy Romey, Sharon Paul, Anton Armstrong, Adam LaMotte…so dedicated to this festival and quietly bringing all their talents to it.
Can you give a sense of the timeline for the Artistic Director search?
SMC: Initially this whole thing was conceived back when we thought the search would culminate during the 50th anniversary (2020), and so there was that kind of dream, that there would be a handoff to the new artistic director during that year’s festival. But of course, a pandemic and a half later we’re thinking about that differently. We’re auditioning them, and they’re auditioning us. Everyone’s got to feel great about this partnership. In terms of the timeline, I can tell you this: when we get to the end, we’ll know this is the right person.
How do you find artistic personnel? I know that programming must come first – or does it, always?
JB: Most of the time! There are always surprises. When I got here in October, the core of the programming had been completed for quite a while. Much of it emanated from the [artistic director] search, so the pillars of the season in terms of the three big Bach choral works had already been in place.
The concepts of the three chamber orchestra concerts in Beall – because of the search component, each of those programs were designed by the candidates themselves…with the parameters that said “you have up to 35 players, use them however you like, and develop whatever program you like.” That’s one of the things that we wanted to observe, what they would they would do, given total freedom to design a program.
What’s the feedback mechanism for hearing from musicians and others regarding the three candidates?
SMC: There’s actually a survey that was developed for different types of constituent groups asking them questions based on their relationship to the festival. Those are going out to board members, obviously the musicians. The patrons also have an opportunity to weigh in, as well as our staff.
Can you speak about the vision for early music and historically informed performance at this point, as well as modern music?
SMC: What’s unique about the festival is that we do so many things really well, starting with the educational programs. There will always have to be energy put toward that effort. We have a strong, even evangelical following for those early music instruments, as well as an appetite for more modern programming. We’re always going to want to do new commissions.
Add into the mix that we want to increase our audience sizes, diversity and representation., and so I think it’s hard to, in this moment, speak to a cohesive vision without knowing who our new artistic director is. Their aptitude, interests, passions are definitely going to inform that.
But there are so many launching pads that the festival is good at and is known for… it doesn’t make logical sense to eliminate something, though it could be that we focus on something more strongly (maybe a season in particular is focused on something).
JB: In staff conversations we really honed in on the festival’s identity as a choral-orchestral festival. That is the thread that really holds everything together and allows us then to do everything from period performances of Bach to commissions of brand-new works. If you look at our commissioning history here, it’s mostly choral orchestral works. I don’t view it as either/or… it’s a spectrum of activity that’s available to us.
SMC: In terms of early versus modern instruments appearing in which hall, much of that has been hamstrung by availability, especially as we sandwich ourselves between track events. Everyone will tell you these instruments sound better in Beall Hall, or in Tykeson Hall, which does not accommodate large audiences…
In other words, each hall brings its constraints to programming?
SMC: Absolutely. So if you’re looking at a smaller hall, you are also looking at possibly multiple performances (which isn’t a bad thing, if we have the ability to do that). The Hult Center has a lot of positive things for a lot of types of performances, so it will probably always be a home venue for us – it’s a matter of figuring out what’s the right thing to program there.
JB: This season’s program is heavily influenced by having to adjust to the [track and field] World Championships. Without revealing anything about next year, the calendar does reposition the festival to open and close in Silva Hall. As much as I love Beall Hall, it’s a lovely space – there’s something grand about that [Hult Center] lobby and the patron experience that you can create downtown.
Is there any plan for the return of the Discovery Series lectures, and the conducting masterclass?
SMC: There has been discussion of the return of the Discovery Series and the conducting masterclass returning in some way, shape or form. What that will look like will be determined once we know who the artistic director is. I think the education component of the festival is key – I would call it a pillar, especially seated on a college campus.
JB: One of the reasons we haven’t had the Discovery lectures, other than the artistic director not being in place yet, is simply a Covid reality. We’ve tried to put together a festival that allows us to come back now, but phase in other parts later, with the great hope that next year we’re not talking about the pandemic anymore!
What is the festival’s relationship now with the “Chamber Music @Beall” concert series?
SMC: When [former UO School of Music and Dance dean] Brad Foley retired, we moved the concert series back to the festival. It just made sense to me — it can be used as a vehicle to preview some aspects of OBF, or to bring in artists affiliated with the festival, who can then interact with students in classes, clinics…those kind of opportunities.
Will the new Artistic Director be available as an artist-in-residence at the university’s School of Music and Dance?
SMC: I think that would be ideal – that’s why part of the interview process was bringing them in to work with students. So, they coached the chamber choir, they did a conducting masterclass…it was for us to see how they interacted with students. We have an opportunity to use the Oregon Bach Festival to get students excited about coming to the University of Oregon.
Update: shortly after this story dropped, the Bach Festival addressed the AD search on its website. ”As the Festival ended, the search committee convened and made a recommendation for the next OBF artistic leader,” it reads in part. “After taking the committee’s recommendation into account, chatting with many of you, holding conversations with a variety of OBF stakeholders about the Festival’s artistic needs and values, and speaking directly to the candidates, it became clear that OBF’s best path forward is through a continuation and extension of the search, rather than appointing a conductor at this time. The decision was made with the utmost consideration and with OBF’s artistic needs and mission front-and-center.“
Amy Adams sang with the Oregon Bach Festival chorus for twenty years and served as musician representative on the Board of the Friends of the Festival. A graduate of the University of Oregon School of Music, Amy has been a Eugene music educator, arts administrator and energetic advocate for the performing arts for over thirty years.