janelle mccoy

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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News & Notes: Happenings in Oregon music

Newsworthy recent developments in Oregon classical and jazz music

Every now and then, when the press of covering live performances briefly abates, we try to catch up on a few recent announcements in the Oregon music world.

Head Honchos

 Portland Youth Philharmonic appointed Noreen Murdock as its executive director. Now the development director at Chamber Music Northwest and former executive director of the Salem Chamber Orchestra, she replaces Kiri Murakami-Lehmann, who’s moving to California.

Sarah Tiedemann

Sarah Tiedemann

Young Musicians & Artists (YMA) has named Portland flutist Sarah Tiedemann as its next executive director. Now entering its 51st year, YMA sponsors summer visual arts and performing arts programs in areas such as photography, dance, composition, and more for about 250 students grades 4-12.A frequent performer with Third Angle New Music, Salem Chamber Orchestra, and other classical music groups, Tiedemann moves from her communications position with Third Angle (and before that, Chamber Music Northwest) to replace Quinlan Porter, who departs after eight years.

Oregon Bach Festival selected Janelle McCoy its new executive director, replacing John Evans, who departed the University of Oregon institution last year. The mezzo soprano formerly directed Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and the city’s Mendelssohn Club chorus, which premiered Julia Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning Anthracite Fields. She’s also worked on the staff of several other arts and music institutions and performed as a singer with the Atlanta Symphony and other orchestras.

• Seattle’s Medieval Women’s Choir chose University of Oregon prof Eric Mentzel as its director. A member of the renowned early music vocal ensemble Sequentia, Mentzel also founded and directs Eugene’s Vox Resonat.

Eric Mentzel

Singer and professor Eric Mentzel.

Radio Waves

• The parade of classical music radio personalities to Oregon continues with the arrival in Eugene of Peter van de Graaff as music director and host of the University of Oregon’s KWAX radio, replacing the retiring Caitriona Bolster. His burnished basso profundo (he’s also a professional singer who’s performed with orchestras and opera companies around the country) has long graced the national late night classical radio program broadcast by Chicago’s WFMT since 1988.

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