Berwick Hall, the new home of the Oregon Bach Festival, is an elegant building — small, modern, light-filled, with a performance hall that can seat up to 140, perfect for small-ensemble performances such as were given at the public reception on Oct. 8 celebrating the building’s opening. Windows abound — from virtually every desk in the office, light floods the space.
That, sadly, is the only transparent thing about the festival these days.
The few scraps of information given to the public lead to more confusion than clarity: The festival renews artistic director Matthew Halls’ contract through 2020 and then abruptly fires him, issues an unconvincing press release and then claims that the relationship has “drawn to a close.” Both the university and Halls agree to not “disparage” the other party. Yet in that silence, both parties are discredited as the public struggles to guess at what has been concealed.
That is how silence works — people fill it with whatever comes to mind.
The festival website has all but ground to a halt, its vibrant banner photo replaced by an appropriately black rectangle, like a censored phrase. Halls’ presence has been virtually erased from the site — photos featuring him are gone. News releases about him are gone. A video of Halls extolling the beauty of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 is inexplicably disabled.
One can almost hear crickets chirping in the website’s silence, a sharp contrast to years past when autumn would be spent gloating over the summer’s successes, promoting the Chamber Music at Beall concert series, highlighting any cheerful festival news and enticing patrons with hints of future performances.
Confidentiality is not a virtue, it’s just a tool that ensures information stays with authorized people. And it can, like any tool, be misused. Because of confidentiality, the festival’s stakeholders are prevented from knowing if there was wrongdoing or ineptness or both. They are unable to prevent whatever happened from happening again, because they don’t have any relevant information. All that’s known is that the University of Oregon, in clinging to its self-imposed secrecy, may well be protecting someone’s interests, perhaps even its own. And it is doing so at the expense of the Oregon Bach Festival.
Running a performing arts organization is a challenge even during the best of times, but look now at the new hurdles faced by the festival:
How do you repair the eroded confidence of donors?
How do you convince volunteers to stay, when the organization they love does not tell the truth?
How do you cultivate enthusiasm to a shocked and dismayed community of patrons?
How do you fix a damaged brand?
How do you run a conducting master class…after firing the master teacher?
How do you replace the relationship built between conductor and festival musicians?
How do you forge connections between community and festival in an atmosphere of mistrust?
How do you engage world-class artists after firing the world-class artistic director?
How do you sell tickets … when no one even buys your press releases?
I have a long history with the festival. I sang in the chorus for 20 years. Helmuth Rilling is one of my greatest influences and a master teacher I’m proud to have made music with. I was on the OBF board of directors as a musician representative and served on the search committee that hired Matthew Halls as Rilling’s successor. His joy, his relish and skill in music making are profound and infectious. And he was ours.
Amy Adams is a singer who lives in Springfield.