Bach is Back

The beleaguered Oregon Bach Festival looks ahead as it prepares to name a new artistic director

The Oregon Bach Festival has finally begun to re-invent itself.

In the wake of a 2017 scandal that drew international publicity and threatened the festival’s survival, OBF on Jan. 23 announced the names of three finalists vying to become its new artistic director.

The candidates are Miguel Harth-Bedoya, former conductor of the Eugene Symphony (1996-2002), who is finishing a nearly 20-year run as the music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra; Craig Hella Johnson, founder and artistic director of the Grammy Award-winning Austin choir Conspirare and a respected contemporary composer in his own right; and Julian Wachner, director of music and the arts at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City and a scholar of early music.

The new artistic director will step into a leadership vacuum at OBF. The festival, which marks its 50th birthday this summer, has no executive director — the position was eliminated in 2019 —  and hasn’t had an artistic director since August 2017, when Matthew Halls was inexplicably fired from his job.

“This person is really going to lead the festival onto the future — and that future is not prescribed,” says Eugene lawyer Roger Saydack.

Saydack headed the OBF search, which began early last year and looked at 80 candidates.

“There is no planning document that says, ‘This is what you shall do with the festival in the years ahead,’” he says. “We chose three musicians, three artists, who are very different and who would each take the festival to a different place.” 

Saydack is an old hand at this process. He ran the searches that brought in every Eugene Symphony music director going back to superstar Marin Alsop, now heading the Baltimore Symphony. Alsop conducted the Eugene Symphony from 1989 to 1996.

Two and a half years ago, OBF was in in chaos. The University of Oregon, which has run OBF since its beginning in 1970, had suddenly and without clear explanation fired Halls, the charismatic Brit who had been brought in to succeed founding artistic director Helmuth Rilling. After his firing, Halls agreed to silence and a $90,000 payoff from the UO, musicians threatened not to perform, board members quit and audiences found other things to do with their ticket money.

“If the venerable University of Oregon music institution is ever to regain the cultural primacy it once enjoyed in its glory days, I’m afraid we’ll need to wait for new artistic and executive leadership,” music writer Brett Campbell wrote in 2019 in a piece for Oregon ArtsWatch. 

The resurrection of the festival began when the university brought in a new dean, Sabrina Madison-Cannon, for its School of Music and Dance, and put OBF — which had been an independent organization within the university — under her control.

One of Madison-Cannon’s first moves was to eliminate the job of OBF executive director, in response to UO-imposed budget cuts, and lay off Janelle McCoy, who had been instrumental in firing Halls. At the same time, Madison-Cannon called on Saydack to help run a broad search for a new artistic director.

She says she is delighted with the choice the festival now faces.

“We have three amazing individuals, and they all have different sorts of backgrounds,” she says. “We would be lucky to have any of them.”

Among the candidates, Harth-Bedoya is best known in Eugene, having conducted the symphony here. “Miguel brings a breadth of this larger orchestral experience,” Madison-Cannon says. “Maybe a little reminiscent of Helmuth [Rilling]. So, you know, there’s some excitement there.”

The director of the Austin, Texas, choir Conspirare, Johnson has a strong choral background and is known for his work as a composer, Saydack says. Conspirare will perform Johnson’s oratorio “Considering Matthew Shepard,” a 2016 reflection on the 1988 murder of a young gay man in Wyoming, on May 16 at the Hult Center. The show had already been booked before Johnson was named as a finalist for the OBF job.

Wachner is an early music scholar who has commissioned a number of new works through his job as director of music and the arts at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City.

Each of the three candidates is to conduct a major choral work of Bach in the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall at this summer’s festival. Wachner will conduct the B Minor Mass, Johnson will conduct the St. John Passion and Harth Bedoya will lead the St. Matthew Passion.

Each of the three will also conduct a smaller chamber work of his choice at Beall Concert Hall.

“We get to see them work within a couple of different genres of music, but also they get to work in the two main performance spaces that the festival takes place in,” Madison-Cannon says. “So we’ll get to see how they handle that.” ν

OBF will name its new artistic director in the weeks after this summer’s festival, which runs June 26-July 12.

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