Cascadia Composers May the Fourth

Partners in Time: Oregon Bach Festival brings new leadership to venerable institution

OBF has announced Jos van Veldhoven and Craig Hella Johnson as the festival’s new artistic partners.

|

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

The Oregon Bach Festival’s long, twisty search for stable artistic leadership has finally reached its goal. On Friday, after a years-long search process, the festival announced that Jos van Veldhoven, the longtime artistic director of the Netherlands Bach Society, and Conspirare artistic director Craig Hella Johnson will be the festival’s new “artistic partners.”

“Johnson and van Veldhoven are charged with shaping the Grammy-winning festival’s artistic vision, contributing to the development of the festival’s annual concert schedule, and cultivating artist relationships that result in new works and commissions,” reads the announcement from its parent organization, the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance. “They also will play key roles in the recruitment of acclaimed conductors, instrumental and vocal performers, and educators.”

The pair will join OBF’s other artistic leaders: choral directors Kathy Saltzman Romey with the Oregon Bach Festival Chorus, Anton Armstrong with the Oregon Bach Festival Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy, and Sharon Paul with the University of Oregon Chamber Choir, as well as Grammy-winning organist Paul Jacobs of the Oregon Bach Festival Organ Institute.

Long and Winding Road

The festival has lacked a unified artistic leader since the previous executive director abruptly forced out — for reasons never fully disclosed — Halls, the acclaimed young English conductor, in 2017. Since then, it has auditioned several candidates but never wound up appointing one of them. You can read more about how one of Oregon’s most important artistic institutions arrived at this point in our previous coverage, especially here and here. As I wrote in 2022: 

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.

That was supposed to happen even earlier, before the virus crisis scrambled everybody’s schedules, and further unexplained delays, not to mention the withdrawal of a prime candidate accused of harassment at his previous position. While the festival still lacks a single artistic director — the title given Halls and his predecessor, festival co-founder Helmuth Rilling — the new team bestows a collective leadership role on a group of accomplished artists.

Vision Infusion

Writing last month in ArtsWatch, longtime festival observer and former National Public Radio classical music critic Tom Manoff suggested that the festival find its long-lost artistic focus in its namesake’s music and inspiration. “The annual summer festival was created at the University of Oregon in 1970 specifically to perform and study J.S. Bach’s music,” he wrote. Its world-class reputation rests squarely on that vision. While 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.

Sponsor

CMNW Council

Manoff continued:

My hope was that Veldhoven would reinvigorate the festival’s Bach profile – potentially providing a point of focus on the festival’s namesake.

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.

There may be no more qualified figure in classical music to do that than Veldhoven, who’s been artistic director of the Netherlands Bach Society for more than 35 years (the position is currently listed as vacant) and spearheaded hundreds of performances and recordings of Bach’s music, including putting recordings of his entire unbelievably prolific repertoire online.

During his annual academic residency in Eugene, he’ll shape the Oregon Bach Festival Period Orchestra (and maybe give it a more mellifluous moniker), and the Berwick Academy for Historically Informed Performance training program. And as Manoff wrote, he could even return to some of Rilling’s original vision, too: “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.” He offers a lot of promise and potential to a festival that has long needed both.

“I feel like I am getting my youth back,” van Veldhoven, who turns 72 this year, said in a statement. “New energy is flowing through my veins again and I am eager to get started! It is an honor and an extraordinary pleasure.” 

As leader of the great Austin-based vocal ensemble Conspirare, Johnson — a Rilling protege, composer, nine-time Grammy winner, director of choral studies at the University of Texas for a decade in the 1990s and now artist in residence at nearby Texas State – seems perfectly positioned to advance the Bach Festival’s primary educational mission as well as honing its vocal performances and providing a long-needed boost there for contemporary choral music. For example, Conspirare has performed and recorded Bach-influenced music by UO composition prof and esteemed Oregon composer Robert Kyr, who directs the OBF’s biennial Composers Symposium (which, alarmingly, no longer appears on the festival website), and we’d expect that partnership, and more opportunities for Oregon composers, to continue.

Sponsor

CMNW Council

“The Oregon choral community will be over the top that one of the nation’s most respected choral conductors will join us each summer,” says ArtsWatch choral music columnist Daryl Browne. “OBF further validates choral artistry with this appointment.”

“It is with great joy and profound gratitude that I join Oregon Bach Festival,” the 61-year-old Johnson said in the festival’s announcement. “This specially designed OBF framework of seeking artistic sparks and inspiration from a circle of collaborating creatives feels fresh, vibrant and truly contemporary. I love this festival, and the time feels so right for this kind of collaborative dynamic structure.”

Collaborative Model

That quote, as well as the fact that OBF (like Portland Opera last fall) avoided using the term “artistic director” in announcing its new partners’ accession, suggest that artistic direction will be determined collectively, which can be tricky but also potentially allows for a more diverse and expansive vision than a single leader could provide. 

Questions arise. Will each of the partners control their own realm’s programming and development, or will such decisions be collectively determined, and if so, how? Of course, the details of planning, process and programming will need to be worked out before the new team’s product is ready for prime time in 2025 (this year’s festival planning is already well under way). But the new arrangement already constitutes a step up from the festival’s previous programming-by-academic-committee approach, or its proposed antecedent, the thankfully aborted idea of an annually rotating guest AD.

Inevitably, and happily for its continuing artistic vitality, the new leaders’ strengths will dictate the direction of the festivals much needed evolution. That might mean losing some features as well as gaining others.

“Looking at their backgrounds, which of these men would be comfortable with a big orchestral/choral work like the Penderecki Credo?,” Manoff told ArtsWatch. “The programming of the upcoming festival will give some indication how these choices will work out.” 

I suppose guest conductors could handle those and the 19th century orchestral classics lately sprinkled throughout OBF programs. But personally, I’d be happy with a festival that fiercely focuses on Bach and other Baroque composers and on contemporary composers who draw on that tradition. It would give the festival the distinctive identity and focus missing since Halls’s apparently unjustly forced departure, and bring listeners — including new and younger ones — some of the most vibrant music in the classical tradition being created today.

Sponsor

Seattle Opera Barber of Seville

No doubt many such details remain to be worked out among the leadership team. But at least and at last, that team is in place. ArtsWatch will be asking these and other questions, and covering this beloved Oregon arts institution’s next phase as it evolves.

Update: Classical music gadfly Norman Lebrecht weighed in:

What was once the best Bach festival in America remains – after multiple sackings and backtrackings – a global laughing stock.

The latest? The OBF has named Jos van Veldhoven of the Netherlands Bach Society and Conspirare artistic director Craig Hella Johnson as its new ‘artistic partners.’

So far, so dubious. An artistic partner is all title and no authority.

But wait: “The pair will join OBF’s other artistic leaders: choral directors Kathy Saltzman Romey with the Oregon Bach Festival Chorus, Anton Armstrong with the Oregon Bach Festival Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy, and Sharon Paul with the University of Oregon Chamber Choir, as well as Grammy-winning organist Paul Jacobs of the Oregon Bach Festival Organ Institute.

Chaos, pure and simple.

Sponsor

Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante

Be part of our
growing success

Join our Stronger Together Campaign and help ensure a thriving creative community. Your support powers our mission to enhance accessibility, expand content, and unify arts groups across the region.

Together we can make a difference. Give today, knowing a donation that supports our work also benefits countless other organizations. When we are stronger, our entire cultural community is stronger.

Donate Today

Photo Joe Cantrell

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

SHARE:

One Response

  1. Jos van Veldhoven stepped down from the director’s position at the Netherlands Bach Society in 2018, though he continues to work with the group as a guest conductor.

    The director’s position at the Netherlands Bach Society is vacant because van Veldhoven’s successor, Shunsuke Sato, stepped down this past summer.

CMNW Council
Blueprint Arts Carmen Sandiego
Seattle Opera Barber of Seville
Stumptown Stages Legally Blonde
Corrib Hole in Ground
Kalakendra May 3
Portland Opera Puccini
Cascadia Composers May the Fourth
Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante
OCCA Monthly
NW Dance Project
Oregon Repertory Singers Finding Light
PPH Passing Strange
Maryhill Museum of Art
PSU College of the Arts
Bonnie Bronson Fellow Wendy Red Star
Pacific Maritime HC Prosperity
PAM 12 Month
High Desert Sasquatch
Oregon Cultural Trust
We do this work for you.

Give to our GROW FUND.