Compare this year’s 2018 Oregon Bach Festival to a boxing match where the underdog, who has been seriously scuffed up in earlier rounds, comes out in the last one blazing away and knocks out the opponent.
After Helmut Rilling’s retirement as artistic director in 2013 and the disappearance of his popular lush, romantic approach to the music came increasing adherence to Bach’s original Baroque style. That cleared out seats at festival venues. A dust-up ending with the resignation of Rilling’s successor, Matthew Halls, last year didn’t help.
Suddenly, this beloved festival, magically started in 1971 by Rilling and Royce Saltzman, seemed on the ropes.
Turns out that’s a wonderfully wrong assumption. This year’s festival, June 29 to July 14, burst out of the gates on fire. Musicians and audience were in tune. Artistically, the event was a triumph, with two world premieres and an inspired, intriguing mix of old (Bach in original Baroque style) side by side with exciting, inventive new music.
Robert Kyr’s vibrant Composer’s Symposium, a biannual participant in OBF, hummed along at an exceptionally high energy pitch. Composers and musicians in that collaboration warmly and creatively inspired each other. Each side learned from the other. And it all fit together.
The festival’s 2018 reload paid off. Attendance this year surged 16 percent, corporate sponsorship is up 171 percent, and foundation support increased 248 percent.
OBF Executive Director Janelle McCoy tapped these reasons for success; offering two world premieres (Richard Danielpour's and a regional premiere of a Philip Glass piece), more conductors, more collaboration, concentrating on the Eugene home base and trimming previous over-production. “This year we were lean and thoughtful,” McCoy underscores.
Performers love the new-look festival.
Guest star artist Rodney Marsalis: “You know you’d expect some snobbishness at a Bach festival. But not at this one. First thing we noticed was warmth of the audience. We felt it right away. They were very open to what we were doing. I credit Janelle for matching us so well with the spirit and intent of the festival. This was a lot of fun.”
Same sentiments came from world famous baritone Kenneth Overton who sang the title roles for both "The Passion of Yeshua" by Richard Danielpour and Mendelssohn’s "Elijah." “This was so special,” he says. “It was an emotional experience for me. I had people coming up to me afterwards weeping with joy. Rarely am I surrounded by so much light from everyone involved but that’s what distinguished this festival.”
Christina Rusnak, Portland-based composer, lauds the interaction she had at Kyr’s composer symposium. “Getting your work performed by skilled professionals is amazing.” She also appreciates insights and gems that the University of Oregon’s own Kyr, a renowned international composer in his own right, along with superstar composer Richard Danielpour, offered participants. “They really imparted a sense of how their own lives and beliefs shape their compositions. No other classical music event offers this kind of opportunity.”
Paul Rudoi, veteran singer in the festival choir and longtime professional vocalist and composer, serves as chorus representative on the OBF Friends of the Festival Board. He brims with optimism. “For a festival so much in transition this year was one of the most amazing turn arounds I’ve ever seen.”
It was a festival infused with real, palpable joy.
Kudos to McCoy and staff who refocused and fired away with solid, innovative programming showcasing old and new side by side. Their efforts gloriously hit the bullseye. UO President Michael Schill also points out the festival’s role “as a vital connecting point between the university and the community.”
Special applause to Brad Foley, retired dean of the School of Music and Dance for 16 years. He handed over leadership July 16 to Sabrina Madison-Cannon, associate dean of academic and faculty affairs in the Conservatory of Music and Dance, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Under his steady hand this past year the festival was skillfully reconnected to the school just as it had originally been conceived in 1970.
Now, Madison-Cannon brings a whole new perspective. But she cautions there will be no dramatic decisions until she hears from all stakeholders. Collaboration is key she emphasizes.
You can be sure there are intriguing dance and music ideas ahead for 2019 and beyond.
Madison-Cannon adds: “I’ve never come to a community where I’ve been so immediately and effusively embraced.” This new dean can’t wait to hear what festival stakeholders have to say.
The world is indeed watching as a unique festival morphs into brilliance again.
Paul Omundson is a freelance writer and retired public relations consultant for health care, media and higher education. Changing our World is a series of occasional columns highlighting people who act as catalysts for community enrichment. Suggestions for future subjects can be sent to email@example.com.