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Ojai Music Fest to Oregon Bach Fest -- That's not how it's done

After Eugene Weekly broke the news Sunday (Aug. 27) that the Oregon Bach Festival had fired artistic director Matthew Halls, the festival sent out a press release calling his departure a strategic move toward implementing a trendy model being used by California’s venerable Ojai Music Festival.

Under that vision, OBF, the release says, would use “guest curators” brought in each year to select programming instead of having a single artistic director in charge.

“More and more organizations around the country, such as Ojai Music Festival, are using this model to expand the choices available to their audiences and participants,” OBF executive director Janelle McCoy says in the release. 

Not so fast on that, says Ojai Music Festival’s artistic director Thomas Morris.

In a letter emailed today (Aug. 31) to McCoy and copied to UO President Michael Schill, to OBF board chair Brad Stangeland and to EW, Morris says the Ojai festival uses guest curators, and always has — but only under the direction of an artistic director who gives the festival a coherent vision.

“This is not an ‘emerging trend’ at Ojai but one that was baked into the very founding culture of the organization 72 years ago,” Morris writes. “While I wish I could say the model is increasingly followed elsewhere, I find little evidence that this is so.”

The Ojai model requires a strong artistic director at the helm, Morris says.

“What concerns me greatly is your willingness to embrace the variability of annual curators without at the same time insisting on the need for strong, visionary and accountable artistic continuity at the same time,” he writes.

“How tragic if your distinguished festival morphed into a mere series of concerts without continuity, focus or profile.”

Here is the complete text of his letter:

Dear Ms. McCoy:

As the artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival for the past 14 years, I read of your recent decision to terminate your artistic director with an idea of engaging guest curators each year. I take the strongest issue with your comments about this structure as an “emerging trend” and your description of how the Ojai Music Festival is the model you want to emulate. Both comments are without any understanding of the facts or merit.

The Ojai Music Festival was established in 1946 and upon its founding, established what was a very unique structure. The board hired both an executive director and an artistic director, both of whom reported to the board, not unlike what has become standard in many orchestras between the executive director and the music director. What was really unique in Ojai was defining the artistic director as a non-performer. The artistic director’s sole jobs were to fashion a long-term artistic vision for the festival, to hire each year a different “music director” or chief curator for the annual festival, and to partner with the music director to create a festival. That structure has endured successfully for seventy-two years. I am honored to be only the fifth artistic director. Having a strong multi-year artistic director to hire the different music director each year assures variety, vitality, accountability and innovation in the context of continuity and consistency.

This is not an “emerging trend” at Ojai but one that was baked into the very founding culture of the organization seventy-two years ago. While I wish I could say the model is increasingly followed elsewhere, I find little evidence that this is so.

Most importantly, the key to this model is in fact having both changing curators each year AND a multi-year strong artistic director to choose those different curators each year, and then to work in partnership with them to fashion a festival that is both consistent with the artistic ideals and standards of the festival but also reflects the widely divergent artistic personalities of the different music directors. Your proposed model apparently does not anticipate having that central role so in no way are you following the Ojai model.

Our model has proven itself successful artistically and I would be delighted if the Oregon Bach Festival were interested in emulating it. However, if so, please understand how it works, how it doesn't, and how to make it successful. What concerns me greatly is your willingness to embrace the variability of annual curators without at the same time insisting on the need for strong, visionary and accountable artistic continuity at the same time. With all due respect, that is not something that can be provided by “administrative leadership or the University of Oregon”.  How tragic if your distinguished festival morphed into a mere series of concerts without continuity, focus or profile.

I am happy to enlighten you if you want. We know how this works.

Yours sincerely,

Thomas W. Morris

Artistic Director
Ojai Music Festival