In Leadership Turmoil, Oregon Bach Festival Showcases Its Vitality

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John Butt led the Oregon Bach Festival Period Orchestra and Chorus in two major Bach works. (Photos courtesy of the Oregon Bach Festival)

MOUNT ANGEL, Ore. — The last decade has not been altogether harmonious for the Oregon Bach Festival. Aside from Covid interruptions, a seven-year interlude without artistic leadership has dogged the event.

But when British conductor John Butt pulled “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” out of his surprise-encore pocket at the repeat opening program June 29 (the first was June 28 in Eugene, home of the festival), the Mount Angel Abbey audience released gasps of recognition and adoration. All the better that the familiar piece was a three-minute, off-the-program thrill following two other beloved works by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Typically, when Oregon concert audiences appreciate the music, they stand up and furiously clap. And that’s what they did on that steamy afternoon in the bright, airy abbey about an hour south of Portland and an hour north of Eugene. The collaboration with the abbey was the first in the festival’s history and a welcome way to make at least one concert more accessible to Portlanders. About 270 people attended; the abbey holds 300 or so.

The joyful presentation and subsequent appreciation were small signs that the 54-year-old Oregon Bach Festival is fully back — and alive and thriving. The 11-movement church cantata Ich hatte viel Bekummernis, BWV 21, with its grand brass and timpani conclusion, followed by the more upbeat 11-movement Ascension Oratorio (Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen, BWV 11), were the blockbuster sacred pieces for which concertgoers bought tickets. But with the encore, they got more.

Butt’s “understated conducting style (no batons or anguished expressions from him) elicited stellar performances from instrumentalists and choristers.”

Each of the longer pieces — the 40-minute cantata and the 30-minute oratorio — was studded with performances by terrific guest vocal soloists, though oboist Debra Nagy reigned as the star. According to program notes writer Joyce Chen, in the cantata’s third movement, a theme of distress and sadness draws on the timbre of the obbligato oboe to convey the feeling of anticipation. That part was gorgeously played by Nagy, who brings agility and expressiveness to Baroque music.

Both pieces featured four soloists from the 43-member festival chorus, though only 12 of those singers performed on this occasion. They wove their voices in and out of the music played by the Oregon Bach Festival Period Orchestra (there’s also a modern orchestra). For the cantata, the soloists were soprano Linh Kauffman, mezzo-soprano Sylvia Leith, tenor Steven Soph, and baritone John Buffet. The male and the female soloists faced each other on opposite sides of the choir stalls. Both pieces were sung in German, and it was a treat to hear such fine pronunciation.

Butt deserves a lot of credit. His wry sense of humor, deep Bach and Baroque knowledge, and understated conducting style (no batons or anguished expressions from him) elicited stellar performances from the instrumentalists and choristers. He led a rigorously precise Messiah from the harpsichord for Portland Baroque Orchestra in Portland last winter, when the sold-out audience at First Baptist Church again went wild for the performance. A review of that concert is here.

In Mount Angel, the second set of soloists in the more succinct and ebullient Ascension Oratorio, possibly first performed in 1735 for the feast of Ascension Day 40 days after Easter, showed the work of a mature Bach and included the role of the Evangelist, who tells the story. On this occasion, it was tenor Gregório Taniguchi, who carried that weight lightly with his clarion-clear voice. MaryRuth Miller sang the crystalline soprano parts, and Kim Leeds performed the mezzo-soprano movements; her string of throat-clearing “Achs!” (rough translation: “Alas!”) was unforgettably emphatic. Edmund Milly sang the bass solos confidently. When he joined tenor Taniguchi in the seventh movement, “But they worshiped him,” the two men’s vocal blend was blissful.

Conspirare artistic director Craig Hella Johnson will be one of the festival’s artistic partners.

While the cantata — cantatas in Bach’s time were musical narratives, poems or snippets of Biblical verse composed to explain sermons — progressed from sorrow to joy in 11 movements, the oratorio traveled back and forth between those emotions, ascending and descending. That piece was split into two parts originally, before the sermon and after it. Such musicians as Bach and other church composers wrote countless cantatas.

Appropriately, the overall theme of the three-week Oregon Bach Festival, June 28-July 14, is “Ascending Voices,” and nine of the 12 main concerts involve a chorus and/or vocalists. The vocal-heavy concerts include appearances by festival artist-in-residence and Grammy Award-winning composer Eric Whitaker. The July 12 concert will feature him conducting his Sacred Veil.

The years since beloved founder Helmuth Rilling retired in 2013 have been rocky for the Oregon Bach Festival. Co-founder Royce Salzman died in 2023 at the age of 94, and in 2017, Matthew Halls, the uber-talented British musician and current conductor of Finland’s Tampere Philharmonic, was pushed out as festival artistic director with little explanation other than plunging attendance after Halls insisted on more historically informed concerts.

Lately, to add to transparency issues — or lack thereof — the festival this season hired (and unhired) trumpeter Michael Muckey, who had been accused of sexual harassment, rape, and other serious misdeeds several years ago. In 2018, he was fired by the New York Philharmonic and in 2020 rehired after union negotiations and arbitration but has since been “sidelined,” according to a New York Times April 15 story this year. After being informed about Muckey by longtime festival trumpeter principal Doug Reneau, Oregon festival officials withdrew their offer. Portland-based Oregon ArtsWatch published a story about the situation in May.

After periods of uncertainty, it appears that things are looking up musically for the many-pronged summer festival that includes the Oregon Bach Festival Chorus, Oregon Bach Festival Period and Modern orchestras, Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy, Berwick Academy for Historically Informed Performance, University of Oregon Chamber Choir, and Oregon Bach Festival Organ Institute. The University of Oregon School of Music and Dance in Eugene is the group’s parent organization, and many of its professors and students participate in the festival. Aside from the music, three weeks of lectures designed to enlighten the music are scheduled throughout the festival.

Jos van Veldhoven, longtime artistic director of the Netherlands Bach Society, will team with Craig Hella Johnson as artistic partner.

Other good news was the festival’s January announcement after a years-long search that Jos van Veldhoven, longtime artistic director of the Netherlands Bach Society, and acclaimed Austin-based vocal ensemble Conspirare artistic director Craig Hella Johnson will be the festival’s new artistic partners. Both conducted pieces during this summer’s festival, though neither curated the programs. Hella Johnson led the June 30 concert showcasing Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Mass for the Endangered, and van Veldhoven conducted the July 5 program featuring Mozart’s unfinished Mass in C Minor, K. 427, along with Handel’s Sinfonia from Israel in Egypt, the “Hallelujah” Chorus from Messiah, and the overture to Alexander’s Feast, Mozart’s Prelude and Fugue and Agnus Dei from Litaniae laurentanae, and “Dona nobis pacem” from Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

Hella Johnson and van Veldhoven will be seeking new artists and commissions, the latter of which the festival has been thin on in recent years. Chamber Music Northwest, an Oregon group of similar stature, longevity, and festival length, averages five commissions most summer seasons. In the last decade, rarely have more than two or three Oregon Bach Festival yearly commissions been performed.

This year’s festival commissions include Lowell Liebermann’s Organ Concerto, Op. 141, to be played by Paul Jacobs on July 11, and the stunning Sandbox Percussion’s Prophesies of Fire by John Luther Adams, a commission shared with Chamber Music Northwest that will have its world premiere at a Chamber Music Northwest concert July 10 in Portland before the Oregon Bach Festival performance July 13. The third commission went to Portland’s Resonance Ensemble and Portland Opera artistic co-advisor-composer-singer Damien Geter, whose world premiere, Prelude and Fugue (and Riffs, too), is based on J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 847, from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1. It will open the Oregon Bach Festival Modern Orchestra’s “Organ Symphony” concert on July 11 that includes the Liebermann commission and Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”).

What a pleasure to hear living composers contribute to this Bach festival, which has proved itself over and over in the past half-century to be one of the Pacific Northwest’s most celebrated musical endeavors.