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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 10.12.06

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Bach on Track

Transition offers new opportunities for Oregon Bach Festival


The recent release of a report evaluating the Oregon Bach Festival (OBF) has sparked a reflex defense by locals who treasure the 36-year-old music institution. EW has covered and praised the festival's many triumphs: inviting superb choirs; creating a Youth Choral Academy; bringing premieres of masterpieces by Arvo Pärt, Oswaldo Golijov, and Tan Dun; and — with a small staff — building a small summer workshop into an impressive two-week extravaganza of high artistic standards and national acclaim. We have also criticized its stodgy programming, a major complaint in the report.

Run by musicians like the superb Royce Saltzman, the festival has always had a great deal of integrity. Now its parent, the UO, should enlist expert musical advisers to make substantive changes in programming, and not merely resort to crossover gimmicks and marketing hype. Here are some suggestions to revitalize our festival that will give longtime listeners, younger audiences, international music scholars and journalists new reasons to attend.

• Get HIP, not hype. Historically informed performances (HIP) using the instruments and tunings of the period reveal the energy and beauty in Baroque music that have for too long been smothered by bland, bloated performances like Rilling's. Instead of paying big bucks to bring the same old crew from Stuttgart and LA, why not enlist performers who play in agile, transparent authentic styles? In addition to UO professors Marc van Scheeuvenhoek and Eric Mentzel, there are many professional early music performers in Portland and Seattle. If money goes to bring European musicians, why not bring Europe's acclaimed HIPerformers and conductors? Hearing the music the way its composers intended it would provide a fresh experience for new and old listeners alike. And the festival could improve its local connections sponsoring a year-round Oregon Baroque Ensemble using HIP regional performers.

• Make it affordable. As New York Times writer John Rockwell said at an OBF forum a couple years back, there's nothing wrong with classical music audiences that lower ticket prices won't solve. Studies back him up. The festival already subsidizes plenty of tickets, but the UO should increase the subsidies.

• Put it in context. Orchestras around the U.S. have enticed new audiences with thematic programming, in which the music is accompanied by contextual material — program notes, films, discussions, art exhibits, dance — that help listeners appreciate the music. The festival has always done some of this but could do a lot more.

• Bach to the Future. The single most important thing the OBF can do to draw new audiences and wider interest is an annual commissioning of contemporary composers and presenting other works from the past (from famous and obscure composers alike) that haven't been heard here.

Rather than acceding to Rilling's request for yet another retrograde recording of Haydn masses, the OBF could get worldwide attention by issuing recordings of commissioned composers and newly discovered old music performed at the festival. And some of those commissions could go to Northwest composers, which would improve the festival's connection to its home territory. Again, the UO has resources on campus, such as music professors Robert Kyr and Anne Dhu McLucas, who could advise it.

Use money wisely. Because it performs so many concerts at the Hult Center's cavernous Silva Hall, OBF is locked it into high-cost, low-common denominator programming that undermines its educational mission by precluding historically accurate performances and forcing it to program conservatively to fill seats. The UO wants to make the festival self-supporting; to reduce costs, it might consider paring the number of big Silva performances and employing smaller, HIPper ensembles at the UO's Beall Hall, the Shedd, local churches, and other nontraditional locations like malls and community centers — the size of venues that Baroque music was written for. A leaner, HIPper, more intimate and more forward-looking Bach festival could serve the community, the university, and most important, the music better than the dinosaur it has increasingly come to resemble.

Brett Campbell writes about music for EW and other publications and covers West Coast performing arts for the Wall Street Journal.


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