A Year After the Firing

A national critic says Oregon Bach Festival lacks vision without artistic director Matthew Halls

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 year’s music reassure audiences and musicians that OBF will continue at the highest levels of artistry? And could the festival remain world class — without a music director?

OBF 2018 started June 29 at the Hult Center’s Silva Hall with audience favorite Monica Huggett leading the festival’s 30-member Baroque Orchestra in four of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. No. 4 was best performed, with Huggett’s virtuosic violin passages shimmering through Bach’s delightfully dense harmony and counterpoint.

Two others fared less well, with poor ensemble playing.

Huggett led an irreverent (but somewhat charming) interpretation of Brandenburg No. 1, stomping her feet with the music and asking the audience to imagine that the two horn players in the ensemble were drunken, 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.

Not your standard Bach, but the audience loved it. I remain on the fence. 

Following this “Bach bacchanale,” a tidy performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4, led from the keyboard by visiting conductor Alexander Weimann, came off as too strait-laced.

Silva’s sound was unfocused and chilly compared to last year’s splendid OBF performance in the same hall of Handel’s Hercules. How to use Silva (and its electronic enhancement system) is an ongoing issue for OBF, ideally addressed by a future artistic director.

My favorite festival performance featured the OBF Berwick Academy, the festival’s emerging-professional workshop orchestra of 30 period instrumentalists, in music by Telemann and Handel.

The energized and nuanced phrasing by the cello and double-bass Berwick players provided what every good Baroque outing must have: a decisive, forward-moving bass line. Phrasing from the entire ensemble was wonderful. Concertmaster Chloe Fedor was particularly elegant leading the string section.

Berwick’s next outing on July 9 included Mozart’s Serenade No. 12 in C minor for winds, a difficult piece beyond their current abilities that should not have been programmed. Having seen the level of artistry the Berwick players are capable of under Halls’ leadership, I’m certain this misstep would not have occurred were he still at the helm.

Created by founder Helmuth Rilling and successfully continued by Halls, the lecture/performance Discovery Series is a primary component of the festival’s efforts to keep Bach relevant in the modern world. Led with nuance and precision this year by Scott Jarrett, the chorus sang Bach Cantatas 77 and 105 flawlessly.

But Jarrett had considerably less control of the OBF Baroque Orchestra. The result was often an uncertain ensemble. Focused phrasing from the chorus was laden with emotion; minimal phrasing from the instrumentalists was bland. 

Jarrett’s comments about the cantatas were sometimes interesting, but his delivery was dull. The series requires a personality like Rilling or Halls, able to make the complexities of Bach’s structure fathomable while speaking to audiences with equal amounts of scholarship and charm. Jarrett was not at that level for me.

JoAnn Falletta, who directs the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra, conducted the polished July 8 premiere of The Passion of Yeshua, American composer Richard Danielpour’s new two-hour OBF commission for chorus, soloists and orchestra.

Danielpour writes in a solidly tonal idiom: major, minor and modal harmonies often enhanced with not-too-heavy dissonances, occasionally punctuated with sudden, Stravinsky-like chords. At first these gestures have considerable dramatic effect, but as they repeat throughout, they start to seem too familiar. The choral writing consistently provided its most interesting harmonies and textures, and the chorus delivered with the assurance of focused musical intent.

Following the complicated drama proved difficult. The festival provided no text in the program, which at least included a synopsis of the various sections. Audiences had to rely on supertitles. Though overall it didn’t impress me, primarily because I found his harmonic language too static to sustain the text, Danielpour’s Passion was enthusiastically received. 

Written for pianist Simone Dinnerstein, Philip Glass’ new Piano Concerto No. 3 was flawlessly performed July 12 by a smallish string orchestra, with Dinnerstein conducting from the piano. It has many of the composer’s stylistic traits — pulsating chords, repeated arpeggios, melodic/harmonic fragments that repeated incessantly — and quite delightfully. Within Glass’s whirling, shifting kaleidoscope textures, these 19th-century Romantic motives became hauntingly postmodern. The audience offered a standing ovation.

I’ve been attending and reviewing OBF off and on since 1982. Judging from the seven events I saw this year, OBF 2018 was below the standards of years past. Nothing distinguished it from an ordinary lineup of classical fare. No artistic vision unified the schedule or oversaw the standards of performance.

Engaging with how a particular conductor thinks about music from year to year and piece to piece has been the most important feature of OBF. With the absence of a world-class musician heading the festival, I felt a profound artistic void.

After the last concert, OBF Executive Director Janelle McCoy praised the 2018 festival’s use of “more conductors.” If the festival moves ahead without a single artistic director, that makes McCoy the de facto music director. Those in power should re-examine her qualifications to take over those duties.

Would you advocate multiple conductors without a single artistic director for a symphony orchestra? Wherever you look, performing organizations are searching for and signing conductors to lend new levels of excitement and interest for their audiences. The Eugene Symphony is attracting audiences and press coverage for its new charismatic conductor, Francesco Lecce-Chong. OBF, once the most prestigious arts organization in Eugene, has given up that position.

OBF should immediately undertake a search for a new artistic director and bring candidates — one a year — in coming seasons. Audiences will be intrigued and will buy tickets. Otherwise, I think the festival will fade away, note by note.

Composer, author and music critic Tom Manoff was the classical music reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered from 1986-2012. He has also written for The New York Times and The Register-Guard. A longer version of this story appears in Oregon ArtsWatch, orartswatch.org.

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