matthew halls

Looking for Leadership

Oregon Bach Festival artistic director finalists offer three dramatically different visions of the festival’s future

When Roger Saydack lived on a bare bones graduate student budget at the University of Oregon in the mid-1970s, the only way he could afford to hear classical music live was what’s now called the Oregon Bach Festival’s Discovery Series concerts. Following along in a score from Smith Family Bookstore, he’d catch a strong performance of a Bach cantata for $2, explicated by one of the world’s experts on Bach, festival director Helmuth Rilling. 

The festival maintained its attraction for Saydack, a longtime Eugene lawyer, who three decades ago served as president of its board of directors, and went on to be involved in other classical music institutions like the League of American Orchestras, working with about 35 orchestras, opera companies and classical music festivals around the US in artistic leadership searches in various ways. He led the Eugene Symphony’s searches that successively produced probably the strongest crop of young, rising music directors of any midsized American orchestra: Marin Alsop, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and Giancarlo Guerrero, who all won acclaim and moved on to positions with bigger orchestras.

Roger Saydack, leading Oregon Bach Festival's artistic director search.
Roger Saydack, leading Oregon Bach Festival’s artistic director search.

Now, Saydack is bringing those skills back to the Bach Festival he’s long cherished, leading the search committee charged with finding a successor to Matthew Halls, the talented young artistic director controversially ousted in 2017 by the festival’s then-executive director, who was herself dumped after a backlash against Halls’ never-explained departure. 

Continues…

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.

Continues…

Bach Fest: the $90,000 solution

After the University of Oregon fires Matthew Halls, it pays him $90,000 – but only if he keeps his mouth shut. And the crisis remains.

And then the lawyers swept in.

The first clue arrived on Tuesday in the form of a statement from the University of Oregon, signed by provost and senior vice president Jayanth Banavar, that the university was “disappointed and saddened that Matthew Halls’ relationship with the Oregon Bach Festival … has drawn to a close.”

Matthew Halls. Photo: Jon Christopher Meyers/OBF

The wording was smooth and soothing and just a little sorrowful – “We appreciate Mr. Hall’s (sic) many positive contributions to the festival … Everyone at the University and OBF sincerely wish nothing but continued success for Mr. Halls” – with no mention that the university had, in fact, fired the festival’s artistic director on August 24, with no stated cause, a mere two months after extending his contract, with a raise, for four years. It was a broken prophylactic of a statement, a reassurance after the unfortunate fact, a monument of untethered platitudes, and it had all the earmarks of having been vetted within an inch of its life by a squadron of administrators and lawyers.

Then, on Thursday, the lawyers’ work ambled into full view in the headline to Saul Hubbard’s news story in Eugene’s Register-Guard: “University of Oregon agrees to pay Matthew Halls $90,000; Halls agrees not to disparage UO.” Translation: You shut up; we’ll pay up. It is a very lawyerly deal, designed to solve an immediate crisis, avoid the courtroom, and let the players move on. With the pay-not-to-play solution, you might almost have thought Halls was a football coach.

Continues…

ArtsWatch Weekly: Eugene shocker

The Oregon Bach Fest fires its musical leader. Plus: arts for kids, the symphony at the zoo, peoples' art show in Milwaukie, skinny dipping.

The Oregon Bach Festival dropped a bombshell on Sunday, announcing a complete shakeup that includes the firing of Matthew Halls, its young and extremely talented artistic director. Journalist Bob Keefer broke the news for the Eugene Weekly, and it spread quickly throughout the classical music world, met by varying expressions of shock, dismay, and anger, with a smattering of cautious praise.

Matthew Halls: Out in Eugene.

The Oregon Bach Festival is one of the state’s premiere artistic institutions, with an international following. It was founded by the German conductor Helmuth Rilling, who led it and set its tone for decades before retiring in 2013 and being replaced by Hall. It’s always difficult following a legend – as Rilling was, at least in Oregon – and Halls’s position in Eugene and among festival followers was made more complicated by his turn toward historically informed performance, an extreme, if historically more accurate, switch from the big Romantic rafter-rattling sound that Rilling espoused.

Continues…

Music Notes

Wrapping up recent news in Oregon music

Every so often, when the live music schedule slacks off a bit, we wrap up news in various provinces of Oregon’s vibrant music scene. Many of the items originally appeared on ArtsWatch’s Facebook page, which you should follow to keep up with the happenings in Oregon arts and ArtsWatch.

Laurels

The Portland State University Chamber Choir, which has been featured often in these news wraps and elsewhere on ArtsWatch, continues to bring the state international acclaim. Last month, it became the first American choir ever to compete in Asia’s largest choral festival, the Bali International Choral Festival, which featured over 100 choirs. And it won the Grand Prix. The Chamber Choir won two categories: Music of Religions and Gospels & Spirituals, earning the highest score in the entire festival for the latter.

According to PSU’s press release, during the ten day trip, the Chamber Choir toured cultural sites, visited a program to alleviate poverty and sang at a charity concert to raise money for homeless youth. The choir also joined two Indonesian choirs to sing opera chorus at a gala for Catharina Leimena, Indonesia’s first opera star. The group also apparently spontaneously rehearsed one of its pieces in the Shanghai Airport, drawing international attention.

This is the second international competition that the Chamber Choir has won in recent years. In 2013 they were the first American choir to win the Grand Prix at the Seghizzi International Competition for Choral Singing, held in Italy.

Ethan Sperry and PSU Chamber Choir won the big prize at the Bali International Choral Festival.

Last week, the choir released its new CD, The Doors of Heaven, which immediately landed  at #1 on Amazon Classical, #1 on iTunes Classical, and debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical chart — the first university choir to chart. It’s the first recording made by an American choir exclusively devoted to the music of one of the world’s hottest choral composers, Latvia’s Eriks Esenvalds. We’ll be telling you more about it before the choir’s November CD release concerts in Portland.

Sperry was just named recipient of the first Portland Professorship, a new program that allows donors to name and fund termed PSU faculty positions.The first Portland Professorship position was recently created with a gift from longtime major PSU donor Robert Stoll of the Stoll Berne law firm.

Continues…

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.

Continues…

Berwick Chorus review: Dynamic tension

Oregon Bach Festival performance of Frank Martin's 20th century classic reflects composer's spiritual conflict

by DANIEL HEILA

I am surprised by the number of musical settings of the Catholic Mass that have been written by twentieth-century composers who have reason to be apostate: Igor Stravinsky with his long-suffering wife back in Russia and his life-long mistress at his side, Benjamin Britten and Lou Harrison with their devoted same-sex relationships, Leonard Bernstein’s life of pop fame and decadence.

I am neither Catholic nor Christian. But I can see (and hear) the tidal influence that this faith can have on artists: piety and devotion at one time, decadent behavior, or “anti-Christian” lifestyle at another. Perhaps that psychological dissonance is what drove these artists to excel, to push themselves to great achievement: a dynamic tension that arises from simultaneously attempting to transcend and to dissolve into a Faith.

Frank Martin, a devout Christian and son of a Calvinist minister, wrote his Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir between the years 1922 and 1926; the last movement was not finished till four years after the first four were composed. Martin was loath to have the work performed and it did not have its premier until 40 years later. The composer explained that it was “a matter entirely between God and myself.” This suggests the best behavior of Tolstoy’s beloved Father Sergius, who strived to live for God without living for the praise of others. The tidal pull of Martin’s faith against the good graces of his audience must have played a part in both the suppression of the piece and its great beauty.

Matthew Halls led the Berwick Chorus at the Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Monica Sellers.

Matthew Halls led the Berwick Chorus at the Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Monica Sellers.

However, since its premier, the Swiss composer’s work—performed in Portland earlier this year and at the Oregon Bach Festival last month—has achieved great success and critical acclaim. I wonder how that settled with Martin. Did he struggle with the same doubts that Father Sergius did, when the poor hermit realized that, indeed, he “lived for men on the pretext of living for God.” I think that Martin did. I think that he struggled with the beauty he unleashed with his piece (its torn-paper sonic climaxes), wondering whether the beauty served the aesthetic needs of his audience or the ascetic purpose of worship. After leaving the Agnus Dei unfinished for several years, he chose to end the mass with a self-effacing, humbling study in the coming together of estranged elements. 

Continues…