A Different Firing at the Bach Festival

Linda Ackerman’s departure from OBF in 2016 has similarities to that of Matthew Halls

Linda AckermanPhoto by Todd Cooper

When Linda Ackerman was fired by the Oregon Bach Festival in 2016, her story didn’t end up in The New York Times.

Her departure from the festival wasn’t the subject of outraged posts on classical music blogs like Slipped Disc.

But the tale of Ackerman’s firing — pushed through that summer by OBF Executive Director Janelle McCoy — may shed light on the still-unexplained firing this past summer of OBF’s Artistic Director Matthew Halls, a case that has drawn international news coverage and nearly unrelenting criticism of the 47-year-old festival and of the University of Oregon, which operates it.

In both cases, it appears that McCoy was behind the firings. Ackerman, a contract artist liaison, was closely allied with Halls, whom she considers a friend. And, like Halls, she insists she still doesn’t understand why her contract was terminated.

Ackerman, who lives in Eugene, had worked for the festival in various capacities, starting out as a volunteer, for about 30 years. For about the previous eight years she had been hired as an artist liaison, meaning that she was one of several people who made sure that visiting performers got from the airport to their hotels or other lodgings, had everything they needed during their stays, and made it to rehearsals and performances on time.

The job is demanding, requiring a person to be on call from 8 am to midnight every day during the two-and-a-half-week festival and to have the poise to navigate the world of top musicians and high-end donors.

Ackerman says that during the 2016 festival McCoy accused her of being rude to performers.

“She said Sheri Panthaki had complained to her agent about how rude I was,” Ackerman says.

Sherezade Panthaki is a New York City soprano who performed at the 2016 festival. In an email she sent Ackerman shortly after the 2016 festival ended, Panthaki presented quite a different picture of their relationship.

It read, in full:

“Thank you so much! It was a great pleasure to be at OBF! I’ve heard about it for so long and am really happy to have experienced it in person. Everyone has been so kind and friendly, and you are absolutely the best, more efficient, and trustworthy Artist Liaison one could hope for!”

After Ackerman was fired, Panthaki wrote to Ackerman: “I have heard, over the grapevine this past week, that there have been some very strange happenings (I don’t really know any details) for which you are bearing unfortunate and unjust consequences. I don’t know what has instigated all this, but I’m utterly dismayed that this has happened, and I wanted to offer any support I can. Apparently there is a rumor floating around that I complained to my agent about my OBF artist liaison, and I’m APPALLED to hear that my name is being used as part of this complete fabrication.”

Ackerman says she was also accused of being rude to Eugene festival supporter Anise Thigpen.

Thigpen, similarly, denied in an email to Ackerman that there was any problem.

“I am writing to reiterate and clarify my experiences with you in your capacity as a volunteer for the Oregon Bach Festival, 2016,” she wrote in an email a week after Ackerman’s contract was terminated. “For the record, you have not been offensive; on the contrary, I have enjoyed my interactions with you and all agents of the festival.”

Eugene Weekly has verified the authenticity of the emails from both women.

Ackerman describes a tense meeting with McCoy on July 8, 2016, while the festival was still in full swing, at which, she says, she was fired after forcefully denying that there was any problem between her and festival artists and supporters.

When Ackerman insisted the problems hadn’t actually occurred, she says, McCoy “jumped out of her chair and lunged toward me. She was shaking and white. She said, ‘Are you calling me a liar?’”

“Yes,” Ackerman responded.

At that point, Ackerman says, McCoy threatened to sue her for harassment and told her she was dismissed from her job.

Heavily redacted documents about Ackerman’s firing obtained from the UO under public records law generally support this account, although they never specify the actual grounds for her termination. They describe a tense atmosphere at a festival whose staffers were under a strain due to the unavailability of hotel rooms in Eugene on account of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials taking place here, meaning performers were scattered in private homes around Eugene.

These documents paint Ackerman, perhaps accurately, as a forceful personality who didn’t hesitate to speak her mind in staff meetings.

The records show that McCoy’s staff continued to seek out complaints about Ackerman even after she had been terminated.

On Aug. 11, 2016 — more than a month after Ackerman was fired — Sandy Cummings, the festival’s finance director, sent an email, apparently to OBF staffers, soliciting reports of misbehavior by Ackerman.

“I am collecting documentation regarding the incident during the festival involving Linda Ackerman,” it said, without specifying what incident. “I’m not sure if you were affected or involved but it would be very helpful if you could document in writing anything you witnessed or experienced with Linda. If you could please describe the quality of interactions and if there was any hostile, intimidating, disrespectful, or inappropriate behavior.”


Matthew Halls conducts the OBF chorus and Orchestra at last summer's festival.

Photo by Athena Delene

‘Warning —  Matthew may be calling’

The documents also suggest that Halls accused McCoy of misleading him about the reasons for letting Ackerman go.

In an Aug. 11, 2016, email to Doug Blandy, then the UO’s senior vice provost for academic affairs, McCoy wrote: “I believe I mentioned that Matthew and I had met before I canceled her contract. He now maintains that I misled him in that discussion and this is a personality difference between me and Linda.” The subject line of the email was “Warning — Matthew may be calling.”

Since the Halls firing in August, McCoy has referred most media questions to Tobin Klinger, the university’s senior spokesman. When EW asked them both for comment on the Ackerman case, Klinger replied, “We wouldn’t be able to comment on personnel matters.”

Since signing a non-disparagement agreement with the UO following his departure, Halls has declined any comment on the festival.

There seems to have been little love lost between McCoy and Halls. Two insider accounts say that during a board retreat following the 2016 festival, Halls and McCoy had a strong public disagreement in front of board members. Halls, by one account, called out McCoy for providing inaccurate financial figures to the board, and was later accused of “humiliating” her.

Halls’ firing resembles that of Ackerman’s in this regard: The charges against him remain unclear. The UO released a complaint accusing Hall of sexism, with no named accuser, in response to a records request by EW. Halls insists he never saw the accusation before the information was published in EW. (See EW’s “Matthew Halls says he was never presented with Bach Fest sex discrimination charges” 11/15 and “UO document: Matthew Halls was fired from the Oregon Bach Festival while under investigation for ‘gender discrimination [and] harassment based on sex and race’” 11/14.)

The charges in the recently released documents also include the now well-known incident in which Halls was accused by an OBF participant of making racially insensitive remarks while joking with countertenor Reginald Mobley at an OBF post-concert reception. Mobley, an African-American, has insisted there was nothing insensitive about the conversation, which was simply good-natured joking between two longtime friends.

The UO has insisted that neither the Mobley incident nor the accusation of sexism is necessarily the reason for his firing, but will not say what the reason was.

An unexpected hire

When McCoy was hired by the festival in late 2015, many observers were surprised. Her résumé seemed thin compared to the job. In a story for Oregon Arts Watch earlier this year, former NPR classical music critic Tom Manoff called her “relatively inexperienced for OBF.”

Her predecessor, the late John Evans, had worked before coming to Eugene as a producer at the BBC and was a published authority on the music of classical composer Benjamin Britten.

McCoy, by contrast, is a singer with a modest record of performance. Before coming here she had been executive director of the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and, more briefly, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.

The Bach job was a big professional jump for her. At the Mendelssohn Club her 2012 salary was $65,300. Her salary at OBF is $170,363.

McCoy drew good reviews for her work with the two music organizations in Philadelphia. At the Mendelssohn Club in 2014 she oversaw a world-premiere production of Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields, which earned Wolfe the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2015.

Since Halls’ firing came to light in an EW story on Aug. 27, McCoy has largely remained out of public view. She is going to work each day, OBF staffers tell EW, but she has skipped public appearances such as the October dedication of Berwick Hall, the festival’s new facility next to the School of Music and Dance.

Her role in planning the 2018 festival is unclear.

McCoy said “absolutely” when EW asked whether she was actively involved in planning Bach 2018.

Brad Foley, dean of the UO School of Music and Dance, gave a slightly different account. “The artistic advisory committee that I appointed in late September is overseeing all planning for the 2018 festival,” he wrote in an email to EW. “Ms. McCoy has been chiefly responsible for the programming of the [Richard] Danielpour commission and the Phillip Glass commission concerts that were previously announced, and I am regularly asking for her input and advice as our committee continues to develop our plans.  Ms. McCoy continues to oversee the day-to-day operations of the Oregon Bach Festival.”

No trespassing

Meanwhile, Ackerman was not only fired by OBF, she has been officially banned from the UO School of Music and Dance.

During the 2017 festival, no longer employed or accredited as a volunteer, Ackerman headed backstage at the music school’s Beall Concert Hall to visit friends before an OBF concert. Ackerman says she was asked to produce OBF credentials and was not allowed backstage. She left, she says.

A few nights later, she says, she was in the Beall Hall lobby before a concert when two UO police officers asked if she was Linda Ackerman and, when she said she was, presented her with a formal notice and ordered her to leave the property.

“I had been taking care of Matthew since he came to the festival in 2007,” she says. “They presented me with a trespass notice.” She was banned from the music school, meaning she can no longer even attend concerts there, Ackerman says, for 18 months.

Like Halls, Ackerman is no longer part of the Oregon Bach Festival — and neither she nor Halls nor longtime festival fans and supporters can find out why.

OBF 2018:

Still shrinking In the wake of  Matthew Halls’ firing,  the festival tightens even more

The Oregon Bach Festival, which had already shrunk in size in 2017 compared to previous years, appears to be getting even smaller in the wake of the firing of its artistic director Matthew Halls.

Now that the festival is being run by the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance, its 2018 season is being planned by a seven-member committee named by Dean Brad Foley after Halls’ sudden termination last summer.

While the committee has yet to make any announcements about the 2018 program, we’ve learned a few details about the planning so far:

Next summer’s festival will run, as scheduled, June 29 to July 14.

In what would be a big break with tradition, the opening-night concert might not involve choral music. Past OBF seasons have generally opened with a sprawling choral work such as Bach’s Mass in B-minor.

“The committee is floating a number of ideas for the opening concert — some with chorus, some without,” Foley said in an email. “No final decision has been made. The one thing we can say is that it will be an all-Bach concert.”

The OBF Vocal Fellows program has been canceled. The program paid emerging professional singers to come to Eugene and work with more-established pros. The Vocal Fellows would, for example, perform small solo parts in large choral concerts; those roles will now go to OBF chorus members.

“The Vocal Fellows initiative has always been about offering unique, high-quality opportunities for aspiring soloists,” Foley said. “In 2018, the nature of the proposed concert schedule and repertoire has led us back to a place where we will once again recruit directly from our immensely talented chorus. The decision is not about a budget cut or a cancelation of a program. It is about finding the best talent and providing more opportunities.”

The future of the OBF Master Conducting Class is uncertain. Long the backstage heart of the festival, the master conducting class brought emerging conductors from around the country to study under founding Artistic Director Helmuth Rilling and, later, under Matthew Halls.

The student conductors would lead performances of the works they had studied in informal public concerts called the Discovery Series, last year named the (re)Discovery Series. Current plans are to continue the Discovery Series but cut the conducting class at least this year.

“The Conducting Master Class is likely to go on hiatus in 2018,” Foley confirmed.

The Discovery Series, he said, will continue in 2018 with a different focus. “The repertoire will be focused on Bach cantatas, and they will be presented in a lecture/demonstration type mode.”

Finally, the world premiere of The Passion of Yeshua, a new work commissioned by OBF from Richard Danielpour, is to go ahead as scheduled, as is a performance of Phillip Glass’ new Piano Concerto No. 3, with Simone Dinnerstein.