Oregon Bach Festival: Underinvesting in Oregon’s musical future

Helmuth and Martina Rilling, with Matthew Halls, looking at the score of James MacMillan's "Allelulia" at its July 6 world premiere.

Helmuth and Martina Rilling, with Matthew Halls, looking at the score of James MacMillan’s “Allelulia” at its July 6 world premiere.


Last Saturday, the Oregon Bach Festival chorus sang a sweet surprise 80th birthday gift for retiring founding music director Helmuth Rilling – an “Alleluia” commissioned from the great contemporary Scots composer James MacMillan, who is working on a big new commission for the 2016 Festival. It’s a treat to see the OBF returning to sparking the creation of new music, as it did for awhile every other year a decade or ago, resulting in major works by Arvo Part, Osvaldo Golijov and other composers. (You can hear some of that music this Saturday night at 8 pm, and on demand for two more weeks, on Robert McBride’s excellent Club Mod radio show on Portland’s KQAC radio.)  It’s a coup made possible by a $25,000 NEA grant and by the festival’s executive director, John Evans, a fellow Brit who goes way back with Jimmy Mac.

Note: This story was originally published as part of a larger News & Notes post, but because of the volume of comments and interest, we’re republishing it and the other components as separate stories. Please continue this fascinating discussion below!

Yet amid all the good news, one question kept troubling me: why do our major Oregon classical music institutions keep sending American taxpayer dollars to non-American composers at the same time they fail to invest in the development of contemporary Oregon music? Of course, no Oregon composer is as famous as the above-listed worthies. But MacMillan didn’t reach the stratospheric compositional heights that qualified his for that august OBF commission by accident, or, as the old Romantic mythology would assume, solely by virtue of innate genius. In large part, MacMillan’s success stems from early and continuing support from his homeland music institutions—the kind of nourishment that backward-gazing organizations like OBF and others have failed to provide Oregonians.

Before he was 30 years old, the promising young Scot received showcases by at least three of Scotland’s major music festivals (in Edinburgh, Orkney, and Glasgow) for  his first major pieces. Those helped put him on the radar so that, in 1990, he was appointed composer in residence by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which supported his composing for years. In fact, SCO gave MacMillan a crucial commission when he was 28, and he soon received other commissions and performances from his homeland’s other major classical institutions, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Which under-30 Oregon composers have received comparable sustained, career-boosting support from the state’s festivals and orchestras?

That crucial early support for his music from his home orchestras helped bring MacMillan another commission by another British music festival, the Proms, for which he composed his breakthrough: the searing “Confessions of Isobel Gowdie.”

In fact, Britain’s music institutions supported MacMillan all the way up the ladder. The BBC Philharmonic made him its composer in residence from 2000 to 2009, and MacMillan also curated London’s Philharmonia Orchestra’s contemporary music series, the kind no Oregon orchestra bothers to sponsor. Few composers are going to invest the massive time and effort that goes into writing a symphonic work without knowing that an orchestra or festival will be willing to perform it, and to provide the support that gives them the time and resources to do so.

ComposerJames MacMillan. Photo: Hans van der Woerd

Composer James MacMillan. Photo: Hans van der Woerd

In other words, thanks in great part to the early support this rising young contemporary composer received from Scottish and British classical music festivals and orchestras, unlike those provided by comparable Oregon institutions, James MacMillan became an international star and helped revitalize the Scots classical music scene that had demonstrated such faith in his early promise.

How often have Oregon music festivals or orchestras done for promising Oregonian composers what Scotland’s classical music institutions did for MacMillan? Had Oregon institutions shown similar faith in our creative artists back in the 1980s and ’90s, maybe that plum OBF/NEA commission could have gone to an Oregonian rather than a Scot. It’s fine to have the OBF commissioning the superstars, but shouldn’t it be devoting at least equal efforts to nurturing new Oregon music?

That difference in political and artistic leadership may explain why Scotland (population 5 million) has succeeded in cultivating its native composers, and Oregon (population 4 million) hasn’t: unlike Scotland’s, shortsighted Oregon political and classical music institutions have failed to invest in our state’s creative artists.

If we want Oregon classical music to flourish, every Oregon classical music institution, especially those that receive any public funding, should be regularly performing, commissioning and otherwise encouraging the works of Oregon composers. Their record to this point has been disgraceful. “The Oregon Symphony hasn’t commissioned a work from an Oregon composer in three [now going on five] years,” Oregonian writer David Stabler noted at a March Music Moderne panel in 2012. “That’s outrageous.”

Granted, for years, the Oregon Bach Festival has sponsored a biennial Composers Symposium devoted to the cultivation of new classical music, but it’s not exclusively for Oregonians and it’s aimed at students. And the OSO and OBF are only the most visible culprits. If our major classical music organizations would only demonstrate visionary leadership and commitment to the creative future of the state they’re supposed to serve, they might find the next James MacMillan right here in Oregon.

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26 Responses.

  1. Greg Ewer says:

    By all means! Let’s hear and perform lots more art music by composers from our own community!
    However… when Oregon’s new El Sistema program is benefitting “Oregon kids who otherwise couldn’t afford access to classical music education” and it begins to “have all sorts of positive effects on their educational achievement” will the cultural relevance depend on the birth date and place of the composer whose music is being taught?
    Similarly, when local tax dollars support cultural events that benefit local businesses, performers and audiences, is the tax allocation indefensible if the cultural event features content written by someone who is deceased or from out of state?

  2. Greg Ewer says:

    By all means! Let’s hear and perform lots more art music by composers of our own community!
    However… when Oregon’s new El Sistema program is benefitting “Oregon kids who otherwise couldn’t afford access to classical music education” and it begins to “have all sorts of positive effects on their educational achievement” will the cultural relevance depend on the birth date and place of the composer whose music is being taught?
    Similarly, when local tax dollars support cultural events that benefit local businesses, performers and audiences, is the tax allocation indefensible if the cultural event features content written by someone who is deceased or from out of state?

  3. bob priest says:

    a very thoughtful piece here, brett, as usual, thanx!

    and, yes, james macmillan is one of the best composers @ work today. i was thrilled by the oregon symphony’s performance of “the confessions of isobel gowdie” a few years back- one of my absolute fave pieces of the last 20 years.

    additionally, macmillan is on my short list for an invitation to come to a future March Music Moderne as composer-in-residence. will keep you posted on this . . .

    thanx again for your ongoing advocacy & direct support for music of our time AND place!

  4. Brandon Stewart says:

    I was a participant in the OBF composer’s symposium this year and participated in the choral concert directed by Craig Hella Johnson as well as the gamelan ensemble directed by Robert Kyr. Both of those ensembles showcased nothing but student works, many of which live and study in the Northwest. I am one of those NW composers. It would be a shameful for the OBF and Oregon as a community to show me nothing but opportunity as a student and then deny me any recognition once I have graduated. Support the communities that support the festival and the tickets will sell themselves. Be proud that your festival is the OREGON Bach Festival and not just a festival that happens to take place in Oregon.

  5. Ian Guthrie says:

    I was also an OBF composer participant alongside Brandon. The fact that it brought not only local students but also graduates from top-tier programs leads me to believe that this is quite a special festival nestled in the otherwise pop-culture Oregon. They brought up some major points at the festival, though, that included the fact that we composers need to promote ourselves rather than wait for the commissions and jobs to come to us. We composers need to be proactive!

  6. On the OBF commission – I guess I am not surprised by these sorts of selections, I think it’s the low-energy norm in most of our established institutions (not just Classical) to be susceptible to big names if you have the budget. Trade conferences bring in big-name keynote speakers. Venues save prime prime weekend slots for touring national acts. Everyone wants to hire the established star because the groupthink says that’s what will draw people, and maybe sometimes it works out, but yes it does cultivate an attitude that tends to belittle the locals. Did you know that even in Manhattan in the mid-70’s rock clubs were hiring primarily cover bands? That’s where the Ramones came in.

    I don’t expect the hire-a-star mindset to fundamentally change by lobbying anyone else, though I admire the struggle. I just want to go down to the bar and have my string quartet played or my art-song sung while everyone’s hanging out and being weird. Fortunately I can have that refined experience regardless of what OBF or anyone else does. So my mission is just to get that going for more composers in our community – have more chamber music jams and showcases, and encourage composers to stop sending their scores off to silly academic-vanity contests and instead just get together with some bad-ass players and get out into the local fray. Even if you come from north of the river. 😉

  7. bob priest says:

    as for the OBF commission, i believe james macmillan to be an excellent choice. he is one of the hands-down & ears wide open finest composers out there, imo, natch.

    so, big name or not, i sincerely hope that fact won’t prejudice anyone against giving macmillan’s forthcoming opus an honest hearing. after all, some artists rise to the top for good reasons, pravda?

  8. Justin Ralls says:

    OBF Composers Symposium REPRESENT! Thanks Ian and Brandon for weighing in. I’ve taken Bob’s bait and am throwing in my two cents:

    Unfortunately, I am relieved to see an OBF commission at all, even if it is from an oldie but a goodie from across the pond. The critique/comparison of Scotland to Oregon is interesting, if not unfortunate.
    As if such a comparison could truly make sense of one of the last great cultural malaises in the history of Empire, as if Oregon could secede itself from the larger cultural bankruptcy of America – which always ends in the truly visionary and relevant writers, composers, artists, thinkers getting the short end of a rather dirty stick.
    Bottom line is the government’s not going to support relevant culture, the cities are not going to support relevant culture, and the big cultural institutions are not going to support relevant culture because…their bottom line tells them there is no money for relevant culture and heck, who even knows what relevant culture is any more since we’ve been so long starved for it. And unless any of you are one of those millionaire-board-member-philanthropists (please contact me if you are!) we really can’t change that. Therefore it is up to whatever culture is left out there to make communities out of the ether and impose themselves, pulling in other communities, other DONORS, and each other to create what we wish to see and hear, and persistently remind the public of “cultural relevance” actually means exactly and what composers offer a society (“creation vs. destruction” is usually an easy sell) and maybe a “community supported orchestra” is different than what we might think. It’s always been my position at CPOP (Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project) to reach out and ask the community what it needs and values and to challenge the status quo at every possible ictus, and aesthetic turn. We must not only be demanding of ourselves and proactive but turn this creative rage into creative opportunity; we must DEMAND our voices be heard (THANK YOU Brett Campbell for tirelessly working on our behalf).
    Nothing less than honest passion, articulate rebellion, and radical vision will assure composer’s voices in the future.

    MMM14 or BUST!!!

    • I have to agree with Justin here. We’re becoming increasingly on our own, and as such it is becoming more and more our responsibility to create our own opportunities as Oregon Composers.

      We can’t rely on our local (or otherwise) government to support local artists. How much fist waiving can we do? Until our wrists break?

    • bob priest says:

      MMM 2014, indeedy!!! – CPOP, C-Rev, Free Marz String Trio, 45th Parallel, Northwest New Music, Arnica String Quartet, Venerable Showers of Beauty Gamelan, Creative Music Guild, Friends of Rain Ensemble, The Late Now, MC Hammered Klavier, and, yes, the Oregon Symphony & Friends of Chamber Music! lookin’ forward to listening onward to everyone’s vital contribution to duh mix . . .

      thanx to all here for their welcome insights, suggestions, advocacy & more – ain’t this a grrrrrreat global village of a PDX that many of us call home?! MMMomentum & MMMore is solidly afoot, to be sure.

      btw, the first thursday MMM launch, “Ears Wide Open” will include a panel discussion on this topic & more that maestro brett campbell will moderate. so, come on out to Hipbone Studio on 6 March 2014 . . .

      actually, some of us have shown preliminary interest in possibly convening some sort of “town hall chat-about” waaaay before next march. so, please be in-touch with me &/or brett on this if y’all wanna continue to get to the gettin’ in a more regularly ongoing fashion.

      thanx AGAIN, everyone!

  9. Jack Gabel says:

    hear, hear! – more commissions all around – but, funds flows mainly from institutions which require jumping through dozens of hoops to get them – qué lástima – well there’s the tip jar – it goes with the pub model

  10. Scott Ordway says:

    Bravo, Brett. Spot on, as usual. The commenters here (particularly Chris Corbell and the OBFCS folks) are right on the money that self-starting, proactive composers are connecting directly with audiences around them, and creating careers for themselves in the mean time.

    The big institutions would do well to observe how packed the average Classical Revolution PDX chamber jam is, or how the OBFCS creates an age-diverse audience that comes for music and then hangs out until the wee hours talking and drinking and celebrating what they’ve just heard and played.

    Aren’t these the outcomes that the big organizations are desperately struggling to achieve via rebranding, outreach, genre-blending, happy hours, etc?

  11. James Bash says:

    Since Kenji Bunch has found some success as a composer and recently moved back to his hometown, perhaps he could shed some light on this topic.

  12. Jack Gabel says:

    understood how funding commissions can be troublesome – too many 4-figure commissions puts at risk your 6-figure directors’ salaries

    but OBF does host performances of regional composers – I was performed in the lobby of the HULT at a noon-time chamber music social – curiously never saw any sort of program, nor a performance royalty, neither of which is a problem – basic programs are quick and cheap – OBF’s blanket licenses cover all copyrighted work – yet someone would’ve had to make one & send a copy to BMI, ASCAP, SESAC

    again, understood: too much bothersome busyness – we all detest it – more of those bleeding ‘hoops’ – where’s my intern?

  13. Kenji Bunch says:

    This is a really interesting discussion. The notions of place and identity have certainly been on my mind recently, to say the least.

    I think Brett’s article makes some excellent points about the OBF, and also that David Stabler is right to be outraged by the apparent lack of interest from the Symphony in Oregon composers.

    I realize I need to pay my dues (or at least unpack my boxes) before claiming to be an Oregon composer, but it would be my honor to be considered one. Leaving NYC after 22 years wasn’t an easy decision to make, but the vibrant artistic buzz coming out of Portland and its environs made it clear to me that it was where I wanted to set up shop.

    Regional identity might not be as significant as it once was, due to modern conveniences, and I don’t know if it’s realistic, or always necessary, to require state institutions to include state residents in their programming, if more compelling options present themselves (and for the record- I’m as big a James MacMillan fan as the next guy).

    However, there’s something to be said for a kid from Oregon growing up seeing and hearing working professionals who live in the region up close. I knew the name Tomas Svoboda by the age of 10, and was made aware, through his association with the OS, that composers were alive and well and making a living writing music- and that’s about when I got it in my head that it would be a great line of work someday.

    Back in good ol’ NYC, much has been made recently of Mayor Bloomberg’s work to entice science and technology institutions to make the city their home base. Maybe it’s naïve, but I think the arts work much in the same way. If local arts institutions appear to be supportive and inviting of local artists, people will notice and more artists of national stature will be attracted to put down roots in the area. Or, in the words of the voice of Darth Vader, if you build it, they will come!

  14. Greg Ewer says:

    Straw poll: How many of those who have posted comments on this thread, and were living in Portland in April 2012 attended a performance of local composer Theresa Koon’s chamber opera entitled “Promise”?

  15. Greg Ewer says:

    With so much awareness of Theresa’s project, I’m sure each of you is aware that she received one of the largest project grants RACC awarded in 2012. I bring up this example merely to suggest that “shortsighted Oregon political institutions” might be a bit of a one-sided characterization. Buy into it at your own risk.

    On another note, Gary Ferrington’s recent ArtsWatch article, “Composing the Future” contains an interesting suggestion:
    “The symphony orchestra is in transition, with many having disappeared and others on the brink of bankruptcy. Writing for smaller ensembles and chamber groups holds more promise for the performance of one’s music.”

    My agreement with this statement is absolutely not to suggest that more contemporary orchestral music wouldn’t be a welcome addition to our concert halls. It would! I just find it more useful than the notion, seemingly in vogue locally, that adding more local contemporary programming will singlehandedly solve the challenges facing modern orchestras. The issue is far too complex and enigmatic, especially when Beethoven’s 9th can (and did last season)sell out three consecutive nights…for example.

    • Jack Gabel says:

      biting the hand that feeds you is generally never a good idea – especially if what’s on offer is all you know

      Seattle artists can get individual projects funded up to $8k – SF, up to $10k – Pdx we know is capped at $6k

      but if you want to talk real money, e.g., http://tinyurl.com/onvhh9n – “…maximal förderhöhe von 50.000 euors…” i.e., “maximum funding, 50,000 euors”

      I’ll have to admit, being married to a fellow artist (my principal collaborator and EU citizen, only resident alien here), I’m tempted… read on… Berlin is calling:


      “Berlin’s funding for artists and the arts: Berlin has a thriving international art scene that has made the city its own, over and over again. Estimates suggest that around 5,000 artists, 1,200 writers, 1,500 bands (pop, rock, and world music), 500 jazz musicians, 103 professional orchestras and music ensembles, 1,500 choirs, 300 theater groups, and 1,000 dancers and/or choreographers of contemporary dance live and work in Berlin.”


    • bob priest says:

      btw, i seriously worry about the precedent that was set in the lvb 9th instance. might this imply that poor advance sales of britten’s “war requiem” (&/or some other scheduled work) will result in it getting pulled again in order to slot in another bodies-in-seats favorite?

  16. bob priest says:

    having spent a few weeks in west berlin many years ago, i certainly can attest to the vibrancy of that glorious town.

    however, we should try to keep comparisons within an apple-to-apple spectrum, ja? i mean, come on, berlin is a COMPLETELY different story, context & history.

    but, yes, whadduh scene over there . . .

    • Jack Gabel says:

      this article is now 10-years dated but I think still relevant – it goes some distance in making a meaningful comparison

      Marketplace of Ideas: But First, The Bill

      A Personal Commentary On American and European Cultural Funding

      By William Osborne


      • bob priest says:

        ok, back to deutschland for a minuet . . .

        i just finished listening again (with score) to an absolutely SCHMOKIN’ piece by wolfgang rihm entitled “jagden und formen” as scorchingly rendered by frankfurt’s stupendously bitchen ensemble modern (dominique my, conductor).

        now, while we DO have 25 comparable performers here in pdx to be able to mount this thrill ride of a 52-minute blow-out, what we do NOT have is the 20K+ needed to book the crew for the do.

        so what, you say? well, EXPERIENCING a work like this “live” would stretch performers, flatten an audience & be of invaluable stimulation/education for any & all composers that could attend the rehearsals & performances.

        imho, this would be 20K+ well spent for this “game-changer” of a recent masterpiece. but, that’s just me.

        btw, there are a few other works of this scale, depth & punch that would also & amply re-pay the investment required in bringing them to a theatre near you!

  17. Jack Gabel says:

    wie schade – wir sind nicht in deutschland

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