Oregon Bach Fest, Caught In Turmoil, Is Light On Bach

British conductor John Butt will lead music by C.P.E. Bach and Handel during the 2019 Oregon Bach Festival.
 By James Bash

EUGENE, Ore. – A year shy of its 50th anniversary, the suddenly turbulent Oregon Bach Festival veers from a tradition centered on its namesake this year with a mix that runs the gamut from historically informed performances to pop-suffused concoctions – all bookended by performances of Mozart’s Requiem and Symphony No. 29 (June 28), with British conductor Jane Glover, and Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet (July 13) under John Nelson.

British conductor Jane Glover will lead works by Mozart.

Founded by Helmuth Rilling and Royce Saltzman, the Oregon Bach Festival began with an emphasis on the music of J.S. Bach and choral works. Rilling and company gradually built a stellar reputation, presenting several world premieres, making a dozen commercial recordings, and winning the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance with Krzysztof Penderecki’s Credo. But in the aftermath of Rilling’s retirement from the festival in 2016, his successor, Matthew Halls, was abruptly fired less than 12 months later by the festival’s new executive director, Janelle McCoy, for reasons never made public. Since then, the festival has stumbled for a lack of artistic direction, suffered in attendance, and reduced its programming.

The shift in repertoire and dearth of music by Bach has caused some critics and patrons to wonder where the Oregon Bach Festival is headed. The festival is under the control of the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, whose dean, Sabrina Madison-Cannon, announced that the festival had begun an international search for a new artistic director – a revelation at odds with earlier statements from McCoy that the festival would be curated by various artists.

In the meantime, the festival’s public relations spokesperson resigned, and New York arts marketing consultant Jonathan Eifert stepped in temporarily to fill that role. Madison-Cannon recently dismissed McCoy, effective after this year’s festival. In a statement, Madison-Cannon said that McCoy had put the festival in the black financially but that the university, which primarily funds the festival, has asked for a budget cut of $250,000.

Brooklyn Rider will play works by Beethoven and living female composers.

Still, armed with a budget of $2.7 million, the 2019 festival – offering concerts through July 13 at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Beall Hall on the campus of the University of Oregon, and in local churches – has a lot going for it. The world premiere of “Bach in Motion,” a collaborative presentation of music and dance, is this year’s thematic centerpiece. The program (July 5) spotlights DanceAbility International and the UO Department of Dance, guided by choreographer Alito Alessi, in collaboration with the festival orchestra, UO Chamber Choir, and soloists conducted by Glover in pieces chosen by Bach specialist Koji Otsuki. That performance is underwritten by a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The two Discovery Series concerts will present Bach’s Cantata 74, Wer mich liebet, (July 3) and Cantata 34, O ewiges Feuer, (July 7) with the Oregon Bach Festival Baroque Orchestra under the baton of Scott Allen Jarrett, resident conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus. A concert (July 6) of Bach’s cello suites, reworked by Peter Gregson for soloist, cello ensemble, and synthesizers, will be infused with electronic ambient soundscapes and looping snippets of Bach.

The music of Bach’s son, C.P.E. Bach, will be led by renowned Baroque artist and scholar John Butt in a historically informed performance of his joyous Magnificat (July 9). Butt, who is known for his dynamic leadership of the Edinburgh-based Dunedin Consort, will also conduct an evening of Handel’s music (June 30), including the Water Music Suite, the Concerto a due cori, No. 1, and an Italian cantata.

MacArthur Fellowship winner Vijay Gupta is set to give a lecture.

The Berwick Academy for Historically Informed Performance, an intensive education-cum-performance institute for young professionals, will highlight its fifth anniversary with recorder virtuoso Matthias Maute (July 1). In addition to conducting works by Telemann and Rameau, Maute will perform Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto in G Major.

The Portland Cello Project, billed as the West Coast’s premier alt-classical group, will rev up a genre-bending concert (June 29) with pieces that span from J.S. Bach to John Coltrane and Radiohead. A Brooklyn Rider concert (July 2) centers on the theme of healing through music, anchored by Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15 in A minor and augmented by five new commissions from women composers: Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, Matana Roberts, and recent Pulitzer Prize winners Caroline Shaw and Du Yun. Drawing inspiration from the history of Oregon – its landscape and its people – Darrell Grant’s The Territory (July 12) will appeal to listeners who love jazz.

Peter Gregson has redone Bach’s cello suites for soloist, cello ensemble, and synthesizers.

The stellar male quartet New York Polyphony will sing a program (July 11) featuring Spanish Renaissance master Francisco de Peñalosa and Flemish contemporary Loyset Compère. Grammy-winning organ virtuoso Paul Jacobs will perform Louis Vierne’s Symphony No. 6 (July 8), along with works by Mozart and Bach. Several lectures dot the schedule, including an evening (July 9) with Vijay Gupta, who won a MacArthur Fellowship for his work with homeless and incarcerated communities in Los Angeles through Street Symphony, his non-profit organization.

As the Oregon Bach Festival sets off in a new direction, only time will tell if it can regain the glory of former years.