berwick academy

Oregon Bach Festival review: vision vacuum

Lacking a coherent artistic vision, venerable festival flounders

By TOM MANOFF

You can’t really assess what was at this season’s Oregon Bach Festival without acknowledging what wasn’t: erstwhile artistic director Matthew Halls, the multi-talented conductor whose questionable dismissal last year was widely covered throughout the arts world. Would this new season put an end to the shocking (for many) episode? Would this year’s music reassure audiences and musicians that OBF will continue at the highest levels of artistry? Most crucial, could the festival of founding artistic director Helmuth Rilling and Matthew Halls remain world class — without a music director?

Baroque on Steroids

OBF 2018 started June 29 at Silva Hall with audience favorite Monica Huggett leading the Festival’s 30-member Baroque Orchestra in four of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. In first half lineup of Brandenburgs 2, 4, and 5, No.4 was best performed, with Huggett’s virtuosic violin passages shimmering through Bach’s delightfully dense harmony and counterpoint.

The other two Brandenburgs fared less well with poor ensemble playing. The tempos were quite brisk and not all sections kept up with the pace.

Monica Huggett conducted Bach’s music at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Athena Delene.

The OBF Berwick Academy — the festival’s workshop orchestra of 30 young period instrumentalists — joined the OBF pros to make an unusually large orchestra for Bach, but suitable for Silva’s large space. Perhaps in keeping with this “Baroque-on-steroids” ensemble, Huggett led an irreverent (but somewhat charming) interpretation of Brandenburg One. The longtime Portland Baroque Orchestra leader and renowned Baroque violinist asked the audience to imagine that the two horn players in the ensemble were drunk, low-born musicians who had crashed a royal musical occasion. Whenever they played, Huggett pointed her bow to them, exhorting a loud, over the top effect. At other times Huggett stomped her feet with the music. Not your standard Bach, but the audience loved it. I remain on the fence. Since the concert I’ve listened to the work several times on CD with the score to restore the music to a more pristine version in my mind.

The concert ended with a tidy performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4, led from the keyboard by visiting conductor Alexander Weimann, but, following the “Bach Bacchanale” that was the Brandenburg One, the Suite came off as too straight-laced.

Silva’s acoustic was problematic. The sound was unfocused and without warmth. But last year, in the same hall, a splendid OBF performance of Handel’s Hercules proved that some Baroque fare sounds fine in Silva space. But Handel’s textures are generally less dense than Bach’s, especially the Brandenburgs. How to use Silva (and its electronic enhancement system) is an ongoing issue for OBF, ideally addressed by a future artistic director.

Berwick Academy

My favorite performance of the festival was by the Berwick Academy. The first half of their July 3 concert featured Telemann’s Overture in E minor, Händel’s Concerto Grosso in A major Op.6, No.11, and the suite from his 1706 opera Rodrigo in B flat.

This performance featured what every good Baroque outing must have: a decisive, forward moving bass line from the continuo instruments. In too many performances, the bass line plods along with no regard for the melodic richness. But here, the energized and nuanced phrasing by the cello and double bass Berwick players enlivened the lower part of the musical structure.

Phrasing from the entire ensemble was wonderful. Renowned Dutch harpsichordist Jacques Ogg directed from the keyboard. Concertmaster Chloe Fedor was particularly elegant leading the string section, and moving with the phrasing almost like a dancer.

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The Shrinking Oregon Bach Festival

Declining ticket sales and choices accompany University of Oregon festival's shift in focus and leadership

by TOM MANOFF

Editor’s note: this post has been updated to reflect corrections provided by the Oregon Bach Festival. ArtsWatch invited the festival to respond to the story when it was published and will publish a response if provided.

JUDGING by its 2017 program, the Oregon Bach Festival has made substantial cutbacks in programing in the post-Helmuth Rilling era. The German conductor, who co-founded the festival with the University of Oregon’s Royce Saltzman in 1971, retired in 2013. He was succeeded by the highly regarded conductor Matthew Halls.

The most pressing concerns are a decline in ticket sales, a reduction in the number of performances at the city’s major concert venue, and a substantial cut in the number of performances by professional musicians. It’s hard to know which of these developments are cause and which are effect. But either way, this year’s scaled-back schedule offers fewer choices for patrons and also raises questions about the festival’s future.

Matthew Halls conducted Brahms’s ‘A German Requiem’ at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Josh Green.

The festival has faced some dire financial situations over the years according to former executive John Evans (2007–2014). Evans, who died last year, had the festival mostly in the black during his leadership, but saw the downturn coming. In a report first made public by Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer, Evans suggested that Rilling’s retirement was a core reason:

Oregon Bach Festival Director Emeritus Helmuth Rilling. Photo: Michael Latz/ Interationale Bachakademie.

“Helmuth Rilling wasn’t the only individual who retired in 2013, so too did many of his most loyal and passionate supporters,” Evans wrote. “And the donor, corporate, foundation, audience, and ticket revenue figures bear this out.”

During the transition from Rilling to Halls, OBF paid ticket sales dropped by 21 percent: 2011 had 14,502; 2014 counted 11,360. Overall attendance dropped by over 50 percent : 2011 had 44,148; 2014 had approximately 20,000. Attendance last year remained at 20,000. 

While Halls’s musical leadership is one component in reviving the festival, important decisions are also now made by Janelle McCoy, the executive director who came to the festival in 2015. McCoy inherited a festival already in the midst of audience and funding decline, and her decisions  will play a central role in the festival’s future. However, McCoy seems relatively inexperienced for OBF, an internationally-known festival with a budget of approximately 2.8 million. After all, she replaced John Evans, who was music director of the BBC, a world expert on Benjamin Britten, and, like his predecessor Saltzman, an acute judge of talent with extensive connections within the classical music world.

Oregon Bach Festival artistic director Matthew Halls and former executive director John Evans.

This year, McCoy has cut back concerts by professional musicians by half — a questionable strategy, considering the opportunities for many additional concerts at reasonable costs. Changes of venue also reflect OBF’s efforts to downsize the festival, apparent from this year’s opening night.

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Bach Fest: an ace in the mule

A pair of historically informed concerts from the Big Names of the Concert Hall display the stubborn pleasures of keeping things elemental

EUGENE – I once spent a day at the mule races. They were a lot like the horse races, except more … eccentric. A mule race, I discovered to my delight, is a singularly unforgettable experience, unpredictable and unrepeatable in its essence: like snowflakes, no two mule races can ever be alike. The animals seem comical, but in a serious way, with a strength and power and sheer cussedness all their own. A nobility, too: a mule is a mule, and not an imitation horse, and it’s here to make sure you know it. A mule is happy to go where you want to go, as long as where you want to go is where it wants to go, too, and that makes the task of jockeying one of these sturdy contrarians seem like an attempt to tame an intransigent force with a flexible straw. It can be a major accomplishment simply to get the mule pointed in the right direction and focused on actually crossing the finish line. When you manage it with speed and style as well, it’s a triumph.

The memory came galloping back on Sunday afternoon as I was watching and listening to Andrew Clark’s mastery of his own particular mule at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene. Clark, an Englishman who is now principal horn with the Vancouver Island Symphony in British Columbia, was straddling a cantankerous coil of brass in a program of Beethoven and Mozart, including Beethoven’s 1800 Sonata in F Major for Horn and Piano, Op. 17. Even the modern horn is a touchy beast, fully capable of untoward surprises. Clark was playing a valveless period instrument, the kind that Mozart and Beethoven would have been familiar with, where embouchure is everything and you change keys by adding or subtracting a section of tubing. The sound is soft and burnished and impetuous, a wayward gambol through the woods on the back of a beast that is insistent on making its independence known, and if it sometimes nods its head toward the side of the path, Clark’s quiet and mellifluous command of it constituted both an adventure and a triumph.

Pianoforte virtuoso Robert Levin and Berwick Academy director Rachel Podger. Photos courtesy Oregon Bach Festival

Pianoforte virtuoso Robert Levin and Berwick Academy director Rachel Podger. Photos courtesy Oregon Bach Festival

The program, in the comfortably classical and resonant Beall Concert Hall on the University of Oregon campus, was called Viennese Masters III: Quintets for Piano and Winds, and it featured in addition to Clark some fellow masters of period instruments: Debra Nagy on oboe, Eric Hoeprich on clarinet, bassoonist Marc Vallon, and fortepianist Robert Levin. The sound they produced was winsome, balanced, light, and quick, with the fluid deliberation of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Throughout the performance, too, was the visual evidence of the sheer amount of labor it takes to keep these antique-style sound vessels going: Clark tapping his horn and disengaging sections for the occasional shakedown of spittle; Hoeprich elegantly running a cloth through the length of his clarinet to clean it out. Occasional pauses between movements made it possible to perform these instrumental ablutions with a minimum of disruption. We’re so used to the larger sound of the late Romantic and modern eras (let alone the plugged-in decibels of contemporary popular music) that the woodier, breathier, more organic, intimate and delicately balanced sound of period instruments can surprise us and shift our expectations in fascinating ways even decades after the period performance movement began.

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Oregon Bach Festival review: Rilling’s Passion

Festival’s founding music director returns to lead a masterful performance of J.S. Bach's St. John Passion

by BRUCE BROWNE

“Passion” conveyed more than one meaning on Thursday evening in Eugene.

Of course, the artists and audience gathered to hear the performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion, an oratorio revolving specifically around the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, meant to be performed during Passion Week in the liturgical calendar. “Passion” was burned into the entire performance on several levels.

Rilling conducting the St. John Passion on July 9.

Helmuth Rilling. Photo via OBF.

And certainly this Oregon Bach Festival crowd was passionate about seeing emeritus music director Helmuth Rilling in his singular concert offering this season. The concert at the Hult Center’s Silva Hall was dedicated to a man who devoted much of his life to Oregon. David Frohnmayer, passionate father, lawyer, Oregon Attorney General, and University of Oregon president from 1994-2009 and major advocate for the Oregon Bach Festival died in March of this year. He called OBF “the crown jewel of the University of Oregon.” 

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