Weekend MusicWatch: Eugene Symphony: a new direction?

Cappella Romana sings Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil this weekend

A city’s major arts institutions are a public treasure, often subsidized to some extent by taxpayers. Yet the major decisions that determine their direction are usually taken by a small group, often selected by wealthy donors, often in secret. As the recent death of Portland Art Museum director John Buchanan reminds us, the leader in charge of a major arts institution can exert a tremendous influence — for better and/or for worse — on the community’s culture.

The city of Eugene will soon be facing such a decision. One of its most important arts institutions, the Eugene Symphony, must soon decide whether to renew the contract of its music director, Danail Rachev, which expires next year. But hardly anyone in Oregon would have realized that until one of the city’s most astute arts observers, National Public Radio classical music critic Tom Manoff, who has lived in Eugene for many years, wrote an op-ed for the Register Guard newspaper to remind readers that Rachev’s contract is coming up for renewal — and to recommend that the symphony find another candidate.

Danail Rachev

This may come as a surprise to those who thought of Eugene’s as a model medium-sized orchestra. It’s one of the few that has managed to stay in the black,  the quality of playing is higher than many would expect, and it’s been on an enviable winning streak with music directors. After some turmoil back in the 1980s, the symphony scored by giving an opportunity to a relatively unknown young woman from New York — and in less than a decade, Marin Alsop transformed the orchestra into (on a good day), the best and most dynamic in the state. She also won a deserved reputation for programming contemporary works, especially by American composers, and for connecting with audiences through her now renowned explanatory talks and her down to earth, easygoing, often wry humorous manner. Even though she’s now one of the most acclaimed conductors in the world, the first woman music director of a major American orchestra (Baltimore) and others, Alsop still maintains ties to the city and has returned to conduct the symphony and at the Oregon Bach Festival in recent years.

Marin Alsop. Credit: Grant Leighton

Alsop’s success made the ESO, once an orchestral backwater, a plum for other ambitious young conductors who wanted to follow in her footsteps, and the ESO’s perspicacious search committee, led by Roger Saydack, triumphed with both of her successors, Miguel Harth-Bedoya (who now leads the Fort Worth Symphony) and especially Giancarlo Guerrero, who now directs the Nashville Symphony. Both maintained Alsop’s affection for contemporary music, though contemporary American sounds were still too scarce, especially for a college town, and both raised the standards of performance, especially Guerrero.

I heard the orchestra often under all three conductors, and counted myself and Eugene lucky to have scored such a trifecta of young, ambitious conductors. I haven’t heard it under the direction of Rachev, Guerrero’s successor — but Manoff has, and to his ears, Rachev hasn’t measured up.

Those are some pretty sensitive ears. Although Manoff and I have disagreed in print in the past (over orchestra programming), I’ve always found him to be a wise observer and analyst of classical music, both on NPR and on his blog, which I’ve written for myself. Few critics anywhere can match his expertise: He’s trained in theory, composistion and conducting at the Manhattan School of Music , where he taught composition, theory, keyboard harmony and ear training in the school’s preparatory division; he’s an active composer, with music performed at Tanglewood and is composing an opera; he’s written two college music textbooks. His occasional R-G reviews often praised the symphony when it was led by Rachev’s predecessors.Eugene should count itself fortunate to have a critic as authoritative as Manoff living there. The media in Eugene should be begging him to write about the city’s strong classical music scene. (I have no idea if they have or whether he’d even be interested.) How often is a middling city blessed with both a superior orchestra and one of the best-informed classical music critics in the land?

So when an observer as experienced as Manoff makes a strong case that the symphony should consider looking elsewhere when deciding who will lead the orchestra beginning in the 2013-14 season, it should begin a community conversation. His Register Guard piece (which the paper deserves kudos for running) strikes me as eminently fair-minded and a product of deep and considered listening. And on his blog, Manoff has gone into much greater depth in analyzing the 41-year-old Bulgarian-born conductor’s pros and cons. In fact, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a more thorough analysis of a young conductor’s performance anywhere. I urge everyone to read it, and to listen to and watch the included audio and video components.

Manoff’s post also raises issues that transcend Rachev. One is the near disappearance of really professional music criticism in this country. Not every music critic has had Manoff’s level of formal training or anything close to it; I’m an example, because I have only a smidgen of musical training and experience, but then I’ve never considered myself a critic, but rather a journalist who happens to cover music. But in days of yore, major metropolitan newspapers would often divide their coverage between a music journalist like me who wrote previews and features, and a critic who wrote reviews. I subscribe to John Cage’s idea that a music writer should be more an “introducer” than a critic.

But I also believe that cities and orchestras also need real critics, just as they need experienced beat writers in politics and other fields. Without that kind of informed critical response, it’s difficult for orchestras to develop. Every small (minded) town goes through a period of boosterism in its cultural development; the test of its growth is whether it can hold itself to higher standards, to expect more of its institutions and their leaders, and to go out and get them, just as Eugene institutions did when they hired Alsop, Guerrero, Dick Hyman at the Oregon Festival of American Music and Matthew Halls at the Oregon Bach Festival. If Oregon’s arts culture is to evolve, it needs more critics with Manoff’s qualifications involved in its cultural conversations.

Eugene Symphony

Manoff is writing as a critic, not reporter. He doesn’t interview Rachev or a representative of the symphony, for example, nor cite other sources, like orchestra musicians from Eugene or Portland. (That’s more of a job for the other kind of music journalist I mentioned.) Now that he’s commendably raised the issue for public discussion, let’s hope that others, including the Eugene media and the music faculty at the University of Oregon (one of the nation’s top music schools), will weigh in as well.

So far as I know, the UO music faculty have so far been silent, at least publicly, about Rachev’s performance in the past two years. I believe that universities shouldn’t be ivory towers, that their publicly supported faculty should weigh in on issues of public concern, and this is certainly a crucial one for Eugene. That’s why we pay them — for their informed judgment, which shouldn’t be confined to journal articles, and teaching, which should transcend the classroom. The UO boasts some of the nation’s finest classical musicians and scholars of classical music. They must have heard their city’s symphony. What do they think?

The city , the symphony, and the music deserve that elevated level of public discussion over such an important choice. How the city and its orchestra — an Oregon treasure — handle this decision will tell us a lot about whether the city is really as ready for the big leagues as the undeniable quality of some of its artists,  including the Eugene Symphony and its past conductors, would suggest.

A new conductor is also on the horizon at Eugene’s other orchestra, the Oregon Mozart Players, which is auditioning candidates to take over from the departed Glen Cortese. Portland Youth Philharmonic’s David Hattner has already taken his turn, and this weekend brings the second candidate, Oregon native Kelly Kuo, who leads the band through Mozart’s elegant Piano Concerto #23 (with the estimable UO faculty member Dean Kramer at the keyboard), Beethoven’s Symphony #2, and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring ballet suite.

Also in Eugene, a group of Oregon early music specialists, Musica Maestrale, performs early Italian Baroque music by composers including Barbara Strozzi (one of the few female composers we know of from that era), the pioneering Claudio Monteverdi, and more at First United Methodist Church Sunday afternoon. They’ll be playing in historically informed style on instruments and in tunings of the period. The ensemble also performs Friday at Hillsboro’s Walters Cultural Arts Center and Saturday night at Portland’s Community Music Center.

Cappella Romana rehearses Rachmaninoff

The big event in Portland, though, is Cappella Romana’s presentation of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil Friday and Sunday. Certainly one of the 20th century’s greatest choral works, the 1910 masterpiece (sometimes called “Vespers”), like so much of the late Romantic composer’s work, gazes backwards — this time, to pre-Revolutionary Russian Orthodox liturgical ceremonies. In fact, to enhance the ritualistic nature of the performance (which always seems to add depth to such concerts), Cappella Romana will interpolate choral arrangements by other Russian composers, plus intoned readings and verses, and it will be sung in church Slavonic. (And no, it doesn’t last all night, or afternoon, but around two hours.)

With its two decades of experience in even older Orthodox musical traditions, Cappella is one of the world’s ideal interpreters for this austere music, and its splendid core group (which is really a Portland all-star choir) will be augmented by more of the region’s finest singers — 26 in all. The year’s first major classical music event makes a splendid start to 2012. Even if you think you don’t like Rachmaninoff’s often heavy-handed other music, don’t miss this transcendent beauty. Tom Manoff, in fact, has something to say about it, too.

Finally, anyone who enjoyed the Oregon Historical Society’s fascinating look into Oregon music history, Oregon Rocks! (which ends January 15) and wondered what pop music was like in Oregon in the days before rock ruled might want to check out a free multimedia presentation at 2 pm Sunday at Portland State University’s Fifth Avenue Cinema.  Film archivist Dennis Nyback will show rare films and discuss some of Oregon’s early 20th century pop stars, including singer Lee Morse from Union County; Portland-born bandleader George Olsen, who supplied soundtracks to Jazz Age musicals from the 1920s forward; and Newberg’s Del Porter, who appeared in landmark 1930s musicals such as the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, and whose band morphed into Spike Jones’s City Slickers, for which Porter served as composer, lead singer and arranger.  Congrats to the good folks working so hard to preserve Oregon’s cultural history.

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