MYS Oregon to Iberia

Out of Focus: The Oregon Bach Festival wanders far from its original inspiration, with no clear destination in sight

Despite some fine performances and guest conductor Jos van Veldhoven from the Netherland Bach Society, OBF 2023 was hampered by a lack of strong artistic leadership, poor acoustics, and a dearth of music by its namesake.

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Conductor Jos von Veldhoven. Photo courtesy of Netherlands Bach Society.
Conductor Jos von Veldhoven. Photo courtesy of Netherlands Bach Society.

As 2023 ends, ArtsWatch has been covering significant changes in many of Oregon’s major arts institutions, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to Oregon Symphony to Artists Repertory Theatre and more. But we’ve heard little about one of the state’s other pre-eminent arts organizations. That’s because the Eugene-based Oregon Bach Festival, which has struggled through for years without an artistic director, will apparently end the year still artistically adrift. Although several candidates have auditioned for the position (and not forgetting the role of the pandemic in interrupting the search), no artistic director has yet been announced.

The artistic leadership by committee that has characterized the festival since the forced departure of former artistic director Matthew Halls in 2017 has certainly produced some highlights. But in general, the festival hasn’t offered the world-class programming of the past.

That was the case at this summer’s festival, held in Eugene from June 30-July 16. The theme of OBF this year – “Wanderlust” – seemed apropos for a series whose destination seems unclear. There was no intellectual connection to Bach and relatively few of his works.

The Leipzig Audition

I had been excited that opening night featured conductor Jos van Veldhoven, former artistic leader of the Netherlands Bach Society and creator of the “All of Bach” project, which is recording the composer’s entire work for online release. My hope was that Veldhoven would reinvigorate the festival’s Bach profile – potentially providing a point of focus on the festival’s namesake.

The three works of the opening night composers – Telemann, Graupner and Bach – were audition pieces for the Kapellmeister position in Leipzig, which Bach eventually won. (Read Daryl Browne’s ArtsWatch story.)

First on his program was Georg Phillip Telemann’s Hamburg Admiralty Music, a pleasant work with moments that point to the emerging Style Galant. Veldhoven’s conducting highlights motivic detail, which supports and reveals the musical style.

Next was the Cantata Aus der Tiefen rufen wir (From the depths we call) by Christoph Graupner (1683-1760), a relatively unknown composer today. Veldhhoven is a champion of forgotten composers and suggested that the Graupner work deserved a place in the common repertory. I found the cantata an average work of the late Baroque era.

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Bach’s audition work for the Leipzig job, his cantata Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe (Jesus gathered the twelve to himself) was next. Listening to the easygoing complexities of Bach’s style felt immediately like encountering an old friend. And Veldhoven’s Bach is finely wrought both technically and emotionally.

Bach’s Magnificat, composed in Leipzig, was the last piece on the concert. All the works on the program received splendid treatment from Veldhoven and his musicians.

The OBF Period Orchestra was first-rate, as was the OBF Chorus prepared by Sharon Paul. The able vocal soloists in the various works were sopranos MaryRuth Miller and Olivia Miller, mezzo-soprano Sylvia Leith, alto Rhiana Cockrell, tenors Stephen Soph and Corey Shotwell, and basses Edmund Milly and Harrison Hintzche. The standout was Leith, whose rich sound and unforced lyricism anchored the vocal ensemble.

Sylvia Leith. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Mezzo-soprano Sylvia Leith. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Some days later, Veldhoven led the Berwick Academy in an afternoon Beall Concert Hall program called Mozart: Paris Symphony, all by 19th century composers: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydyn, and two lesser known composers, Joseph Bologne and Marianne von Martinez.

Soprano Camile Ortiz was the soloist. The UO School of Music faculty member’s exuberant operatic style was perfect for Haydn’s dramatic cantata Scena di Berenice (Bernice’s scene). She also excelled in Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate (O be joyful in the Lord.)

Composer Joseph Bologne, born in the West Indies to a French planter and an African slave, has gained popular interest because life story is now a movie on Hulu. He also traveled to fight in Haiti’s slave rebellion. His Symphony #2 proved a well-crafted and tuneful work. Marianne Martinez’s Sinfonia in C Major was also interesting melodically and neatly structured in form. Both works were deftly played by the Berwick musicians.

I recognize that many may not have the same response as I did with this programming, and give historical obligations over pure musical value as I do. Bologne and Martinez may be important composers in historical context, but on a program of Haydn and Mozart- two giants of music history – unintended musical comparisons among the composers were difficult to avoid. I think it would have worked better if Bologne and Martinez were played first rather than following the very dramatic Haydn cantata. Programmed thus, the unknown works would reach fresh ears with unfettered impressions.

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Silver Celebrations

Two 25-year anniversaries were programmed together for a July 9 afternoon concert in the Hult Center’s 2,500 seat Silva Hall: the founding of the festival’s Stangeland Youth Choral Academy and the commissioning/ performance of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Credo. (Read Daryl Browne’s ArtsWatch preview story.)

In the first half of the program, conductor Anton Armstrong — whose charismatic leadership of the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy has doubled its size this year — offered a program of varied musical styles. Among these, American composer Robert M. Johnson’s House of Peace was especially poignant and featured a fine young soprano, Coraine Tate.

Anton Armstrong.
Conductor Anton Armstrong.

Armstrong also offered one movement from Bach’s Cantata BWV 147 Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life). Well-performed, it was the only Bach in the program.

The second half of the concert was the late Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s Credo, a work for large chorus, orchestra and soloists. Commissioned and conducted by Rilling in 1998, its recording in Silva won the 1998 Grammy Award in the best choral and orchestra category. It remains one of OBF’s most important accomplishments and featured in all its promotions.

Credo is a big work in both size and structure. The massed choral forces included OBF Chorus, UO Chamber Chorus and Portland’s Pacific Youth Choir. The choral singers were perfect in every respect, reflecting the solid coaching from Sharon Paul and Kathy Romey.

The conductor for this year’s performance was Anna Sulkowska-Migoń, a rising talent from Poland, and also a Marin Alsop protege. The soloists were soprano Erica Petrocelli, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein, alto Daryl Freedman, tenor Charles Reed, and bass-baritone Jongwan Han.

Penderecki’s musical language in this work abounds with thick harmonies and counterpoint. It was difficult to hear those complexities. Although the performance held together structurally, the overpunched dynamics were a problem. From my seat, only the tenor and bass soloists were easily heard, the other voices lost in the overall sound. Silva has notoriously tricky acoustics and proved again that it’s too easy to mistake unfettered loudness as a sign of great emotional expression.

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Rilling’s commissions most often show some kinship to Bach — notably the Passions, Canatas and the B-minor Mass. When Rilling toured Europe with Penderecki’s Credo, it was programmed with Bach’s Credo (from the B minor Mass) to show the connection. The Penderecki has become a cornerstone of OBF’s reputation and moving forward, it surely must be celebrated by new commissions which also continue, in some way, the Bach lineage.

To that end, I’ve wondered if OBF might establish a yearly prize for a new work related to Bach. It could be short. Perhaps a choral piece. Offering a modest prize. It could be performed with some Bach to show its kinship, helping restore focus to the festival by connecting today’s music to its founding spirit. And it might be called the Rilling Prize.

Helmuth Rilling conducted Willamette Master Chorus. Photo: Holger Schneider.
Helmuth Rilling conducted Willamette Master Chorus. Photo: Holger Schneider.

Path Forward

The Path of Miracles by English composer Joby Talbot (b. 1971), a work for chorus and crotales (occasionally heard) was for me the most interesting work in this year’s festival. Strikingly original, and a tour-de-force for chorus, its musical fabric is made of disparate but ultimately cohesive styles. Passages of sliding, indeterminate pitch create mystery and even a sense of disorder, and are balanced by repetition of simple tonal melodic fragments and melodies and, at key moments, straightforward chorale harmonies. I would call this work Pancultural in its departure from tradition while still culling from its memory. There are many efforts at this kind of style, but too often result in pastiche. But Talbot’s musical mind blends the various styles into a cohesive and uplifting effect. In its July 2 performance at Beall Concert Hall, the OBF Chorus, prepared by Sharon Paul, was splendid. Conspirare artistic director Craig Hella Johnson led the emotional performance, as much a celebrant as a conductor.

Eric Jacobsen, the New York-based cellist and conductor, opened his July 13 Silva Hall program with Imani Winds co-founder Valerie Coleman’s Fanfare for Uncommon Times. The title references Aaron Copland’s famous Fanfare for the Common Man, and employs a somewhat similar orchestration. It’s a well-constructed piece and with a timely purpose. Coleman hopes the piece “brings people together, a piece that touches that within us, that thing that wants to survive.”

Eric Jacobsen. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Eric Jacobsen. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Brahms’s Shicksalslied (Song of Destiny) for orchestra and chorus was next. Although not as well known as many other works by the composer, it is Brahms at his best – deeply poetic in its pure music with words by German poet Friedrich Hölderin.

The performance was flawless. Conducting from memory, Jacobsen shaped the nuances of individual phrases without sacrificing the longer phrase-structures. The orchestra sound was among the best I’ve heard in Silva Hall in many years. The chorus, prepared by Kathy Romey, also sounded wonderful.

The evening ended with Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, a huge work for over 100 players and the composer’s longest symphonic opus, included in the festival because, per the “wanderlust” theme, it portrays a hike in the Alps.

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The success of the work in concert rests squarely on the musical colors of the orchestration as much as the melodies and harmonies, the kind of nuanced playing one might expect from an established orchestra whose members know the playing of the other musicians and are experienced in the blending and balancing among the group sounds. The OBF Modern Orchestra is professional, but not composed of players who consistently perform together — basically a pro pickup orchestra. Given the festival’s limited rehearsal time, this was more a reading than a polished performance. Nonetheless, the orchestra gave a sturdy account.

Missed Chance

The concert I was most looking forward to was pianist Angela Hewitt’s program of Bach’s complete Well Tempered Klavier Book 1. However, illness kept me home as it also did for Paul Jacobs’s all-Bach organ recital. By all accounts both concerts were outstanding and a welcome addition to the Bach tally. 

The festival closed with a July 16 afternoon concert at Silva under the direction of Gemma New, who is principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony. She opened with Arise, Athena! by Eleanor Alberga (b.1949), a well-conducted work that celebrates the Greek goddess of wisdom and courage.

Gemma New. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Gemma New. Photo courtesy of the artist.

New then led some Bach, his Fantasy and Fugue in C minor arranged by Edward Elgar. Elgar’s rendering seemed like “Bach on steroids” in its offensive orchestration, which, believe it or not, included a tambourine.

If ever there was a composer to restore one’s musical palette, it’s Maurice Ravel, and pianist Angela Hewitt joined Gemma New in Ravel’s charming Concerto in G major for piano and orchestra. Among Hewitt’s many gifts is her piano sound, which is both penetrating and sweet at the same time. Both conductor and pianist were of the same mind in a performance that was among the best of the festival.

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) who studied briefly with Ravel, was another composer of the time whose style partook of Romantic lyricism but not its German harmonies. His A Sea Symphony is an 80-minute work for soprano, baritone chorus and orchestra. The four movements depict various sea scenes from text drawn from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Like the Alpine Symphony, this is a huge work depending on nuances of orchestral color. But the excellent choral work held it together. The OBF Chorus and the UO Chamber Choir, prepared by Sharon Paul, were excellent, as were Suzanna Phillips, soprano and baritone Jarrett Ott. The performance was met with extended applause from the audience.

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Get Back to Bach

For all its occasional successes, this year’s festival suffered from lack of connection to both its history and its founding spirit. Veldhoven, who likes to talk with the audience and is a world-famous Bach specialist, would have been perfect to revive Helmuth Rilling’s signature Discovery Series, once a bedrock feature of the festival but abandoned some years ago. Moreover, the festival could use the Berwick players at the festival at no cost – their participation is subsidized by the Berwick Institute. One might also argue that the aspiring professionals of the Berwick Orchestra should be playing Bach at Eugene’s Bach Festival. This year they did not.

This year’s programming struck me as unfocused. Too often, the programming seemed as though it could have happened at any classical music concert or festival. Merely lumping pieces together because they reflect some kind of travel reflection was too light intellectually to anchor musical choices. Surely a good artistic director would have offered a more legitimate theme. 

The festival is still in the process of deciding about artistic leadership. Director of communications Josh Gren sent this in October:

While we’re not prepared to make any kind of announcement yet, I can tell you that the working group talks have continued toward an answer and I believe we’re headed in a very good direction. … We want to make the right choice for OBF, the School of Music and Dance, and the entire community, so we’re ensuring that we don’t rush to any decisions or take this choice lightly. 

It’s a difficult task to come up with a theme each year. But there’s an “easy” way to bypass the need for a theme each season to be packaged as a promotional blurb: Add more Bach.

The annual summer festival was created at the University of Oregon in 1970 specifically to perform and study J.S. Bach’s music. Its world-class reputation rests squarely on that vision. While the past festivals included music by other composers — often connected to Bach in some way — Bach was the center of the programming. This year, there were no strong intellectual connections to Bach and relatively few of his works performed during the festival.

Returning the focus to Bach’s music and its continuing cultural importance and influence in contemporary works would stabilize the cohesiveness of the programming. If Bach’s music made up, say, half the concerts, such concerts would be at the festival’s core and a constant theme.

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However, the best solution now, with a new year arriving, is hiring a new artistic director – not necessarily a Bach specialist, but an energetic music talent who overflows with creativity. New blood. New energy. Recommit to Johann Sebastian Bach.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Composer, author and music critic Tom Manoff was the classical music critic reviewer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered from 1986 to 2012. He has also written for The New York Timesand The Register-Guard in Eugene.

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3 Responses

  1. In addition to noting Dr. Paul’s fantastic preparation of the OBF Chorus, the fine Talbot performance was conducted by Austin, TX’s Craig Hella Johnson.

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