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ArtsWatch Weekly: Eugene shocker

By Bob Hicks

August 29, 2017

The Oregon Bach Festival dropped a bombshell on Sunday, announcing a complete shakeup that includes the firing of Matthew Halls, its young and extremely talented artistic director. Journalist Bob Keefer broke the news for the Eugene Weekly, and it spread quickly throughout the classical music world, met by varying expressions of shock, dismay, and anger, with a smattering of cautious praise.

Matthew Halls: Out in Eugene.

The Oregon Bach Festival is one of the state’s premiere artistic institutions, with an international following. It was founded by the German conductor Helmuth Rilling, who led it and set its tone for decades before retiring in 2013 and being replaced by Hall. It’s always difficult following a legend – as Rilling was, at least in Oregon – and Halls’s position in Eugene and among festival followers was made more complicated by his turn toward historically informed performance, an extreme, if historically more accurate, switch from the big Romantic rafter-rattling sound that Rilling espoused.

Rilling devotees were not pleased, and attendance plunged – a situation that did not reflect the quality of Halls’s programming or conducting. The transition was rocky in many ways. Tom Manoff, the former classical music critic for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, wrote The Shrinking Oregon Bach Festival for ArtsWatch in June of this year, outlining the complex challenges the festival faced.

The festival’s press release seemed disingenuous at best, beginning almost cheerfully with the proclamation that the festival “is moving forward in an exciting direction that will bring new voices, points of views and artists with more diverse backgrounds to festival audiences.” Guest “curators,” it said, will work with OBF staff to devise the programming and bring in “world-renowned conductors.” Only in the second paragraph did it mention the essential fact that Halls, in the middle of a four-year contract, was being fired, a move it described as “parting ways” as “part of the transition.” Executive director Janelle McCoy held up the example of the Ojai Music Festival as a model for guest curation, and suggested a broader or more diffuse focus: “disparate visions from a choreographer, stage director, or jazz musician, for example.” Halls’s own musical vision seems large, but he is notably a Bach specialist.

Many, many questions remain. Considering how personality-driven the festival was during Rilling’s long tenure, will a significantly sized audience be willing to show up for a festival that changes direction year to year? Will the festival hold to its Bach roots, or consider them disposable? What is the “true story” behind what appears to be a divorce? Will Halls’s dismissal require a buyout? Is this a power play on the part of the festival’s board and staff? What role will the University of Oregon play? Will it try to assert more authority over the festival, or be a creative and adaptable partner? Portland observers who have seen the periodic dismantling of arts programs by various administrations at Portland State University and the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s initial saving of the nationally respected Museum of Contemporary Craft before abruptly shutting it down might be forgiven for adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

I am not an expert on the Bach Fest’s ins and outs, and I haven’t had a chance to talk with anyone at the festival about what seems a radical change. I’ve observed the festival from afar and occasionally from up close for many years. I liked Rilling and his conducting, even though his approach seemed increasingly out of tune with the times. I appreciate the festival’s vital blend of education and performance, and the genuine enthusiasm that musicians have had for performing there. And I like Halls’s astute and energetic approach to music very much. Reviewing the premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s A European Requiem at the 2016 festival, I wrote: “Conductor Matthew Halls, who is also the Bach Festival’s artistic director, led a splendidly well-articulated performance, pinpointing its textural shifts and vital balancing of tension and ease.” Halls, I felt at the time, was an exceptional talent who held the promise of leading the festival into a bright new second phase of its existence.

Like a lot of people, we’ll be tracking how things work out with the “new” Oregon Bach Festival. Stay tuned. And take that big smiley face with a grain of salt.





“The Laughing Boy (Jopie van Slouten),” Robert Henri, 1910, Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama

You might have noted a new header, the one that says Family, at the top of ArtsWatch’s home page. It’s a place to find information about organizations that create art for children, teenagers, and families: music, dance, and theater that stimulate young people’s imaginations and help open the doors to creative thinking and learning.

ArtsWatch believes, as these groups do, that if a love of the arts is nurtured early it’ll stay with someone for a lifetime. The information you’ll find when you click the Family header is supplied by our partner groups: Portland Youth Philharmonic, Oregon Children’s Theatre, Northwest Children’s Theatre & School, and The Portland Ballet.

Check ’em out, and make some plans with your kids or grandkids.





Artist Erik O’Banion’s “Bandit Love,” for “Little by Little.”

Little by Little 8×8 Arts Show. Chris Haberman is the People’s Artist, a muralist/painter/curator/impresario known for putting together mass shows of work by large groups of artists, many if not most unrepresented by galleries, and pricing them to sell to just about anyone who doesn’t think they can afford art. With this show he branches out geographically, too: It’s in downtown Milwaukie. Fifty artists from Clackamas County and 50 from Multnomah County are creating 8×8 inch works, each of which will sell for $40. Part of the proceeds will benefit CHAP, the Children’s Healing Art Project. It kicks off 5-9 p.m. Friday at these venues: Beer Store/OneDer Gallery (10610 S.E. Main St.), City Hall Milwaukie (10722 S.E. Main St.), ChaChaCha Taquiera (11008 S.E. Main St.) and Painted Lady Coffee (2045 S.E. Washington St.).

From One Stage to Another. Portland Storytellers Guild celebrates its 32nd year with a season-opening triple play of storytellers – Brianna Barrett, Julie Strozyk, Ken Iverson – at its new home, the Clinton Street Theater. 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Zoo-bound: Conductor Carlos Kalmar with the Oregon Symphony.

Oregon Symphony at the Oregon Zoo. Brett Campbell’s musical pick of the week: “It’s not really a replacement for the big annual Labor Day concert on the waterfront, which the city of Portland, beset by crises in homelessness and affordability, decided not to help fund this year, but the orchestra’s first-ever performance at the Oregon Zoo should boast a lot of the same musical fireworks, including of course the perennial 1812 Overture, about which its composer, Tchaikovsky, wrote: ‘I don’t think the piece has any serious merits, and I shan’t be the slightest bit surprised or offended if you find it unsuitable for concert performance.’ But hey, maybe especially this year, it’s always great to commemorate Russian military might (the army’s victory over Napoleon), the silver jubilee of the Tsar, and the completion of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. And, y’know, CANNONS! I hope they don’t frighten the elephants. Don’t forget the water and sunscreen.”

The Winter’s Tale. Portland Actors Ensemble, the granddaddy of the city’s Shakespeare-in-the-parks troupes, winds up its season with Labor Day Weekend performances at Reed College of this fabulist late romance. 3 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, Monday. Free; donations appreciated.

Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments. The New Black Fest and the August Wilson Red Door Project’s program of monologues has been playing for months at venues in and out of town, and it’s starting to wind down for 2017. Next performances are Sept. 9 and 10 at Wieden + Kennedy: tickets are free but they go fast, so it’s a good idea to look ahead and make a reservation. The writer/performers, directed by the sure-handed Kevin Jones, are Nathan James, Nathan Yungerberg, Idris Goodwin, Nambi E. Kelley, Nsangou Njikam, Eric Holmes, and Dennis Allen II.

Portland Dance Film Fest. This feast of films about dance around the world started last week and continues through Sept. 6. Friday’s program at the 5th Avenue Cinema includes works from Finland, Vietnam, and the United States. Sunday’s includes films from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, and the U.S.

Casey Gray, “Petit Déjeuner,” 2017. Aerosol acrylic, glitter, molding paste and acrylic on paper; 14 x 11 inches.

Casey Gray’s Appetite for Life. The San Francisco artist’s new show at Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books on Northeast Alberta Street features five oils on panel and 20 smaller, more experimental works on paper that concentrate on surface effects and images of the pleasures of food.

Dance: The New Season. Watch for Jamuna Chiarini’s DanceWatch Weekly column on Wednesday, Aug. 30: It’ll include a comprehensive calendar of dance events coming up during Portland’s 2017/18 season.

The Child Finder book launch. The new novel by the superb Portland writer Rene Denfeld, author of the tough and magical death row novel The Enchanted, makes its debut with its author on hand next Tuesday, Sept. 5, at Powell’s City of Books. Advance notices have been excellent. A year ago, Denfeld wrote for ArtsWatch about watching The Enchanted take shape as a stage adaptation at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Breaking the Mold and Tom Bartel at Eutectic Gallery. Eutectic continues its dedication to contemporary craft arts with these two shows, both continuing through Sept. 23 – the holdover Breaking the Mold, an international group show of slip-cast ceramics, and Tom Bartel’s new show of small ceramic heads, which has its opening reception 6-9 p.m. Friday.

Skinny Dip: An Improv Open Stage. Deep End Theater’s weekly dip into improv comedy is open to anyone who wants to try the waters. Dive on in and see what happens. 8-9:30 p.m. Saturday, 2111 S.E. 11th Ave.

Where To Wear What Hat. WolfBird Dance’s work about societal restraints on women from the 1950s to now continues Thursday-Sunday at New Expressive Works.

Unit Souzou. As much a dance as a music show, this performance is a simultaneous introduction (to the taiko/folk dance group’s new professional ensemble, and to a new composition by US member David Wells) and a farewell to the group’s three-year home, Jade APANO Multicultural Space (JAMS), which is being demolished to make say for much needed affordable housing. Wednesday, JAMS, 8114 SE Division Street



ArtsWatch links


Composing in the Wilderness: three views. In its sixth year, the innovative Composing in the Wilderness program took nine contemporary composers into the Alaska wilderness, accompanied by scientists and naturalists. Then they sat down to compose new works. Three of the nine are from Oregon, and they wrote about their experience for ArtsWatch:

William Byrd Festival: small wonders. Brett Campbell reviews the opening concert of this year’s 20th annual celebration of the great early English composer: “Evidently even in Byrd’s homeland, a show like this one confounds expectations, and considering what delight it was and what a surprisingly wide variety of excellent music Byrd composed, it’s indeed a shame that it doesn’t happen more often. We Oregonians are lucky to have the William Byrd Festival here to provide it. Here’s to another 20 years.”



Oregon ArtsWatch Archives