Oregon ArtsWatch

ArtsWatch Archive

The Shrinking Oregon Bach Festival

June 12, 2017
Featured, Music


Editor’s note: this post has been updated to reflect corrections provided by the Oregon Bach Festival. ArtsWatch invited the festival to respond to the story when it was published and will publish a response if provided.

JUDGING by its 2017 program, the Oregon Bach Festival has made substantial cutbacks in programing in the post-Helmuth Rilling era. The German conductor, who co-founded the festival with the University of Oregon’s Royce Saltzman in 1971, retired in 2013. He was succeeded by the highly regarded conductor Matthew Halls.

The most pressing concerns are a decline in ticket sales, a reduction in the number of performances at the city’s major concert venue, and a substantial cut in the number of performances by professional musicians. It’s hard to know which of these developments are cause and which are effect. But either way, this year’s scaled-back schedule offers fewer choices for patrons and also raises questions about the festival’s future.

Matthew Halls conducted Brahms’s ‘A German Requiem’ at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Josh Green.

The festival has faced some dire financial situations over the years according to former executive John Evans (2007–2014). Evans, who died last year, had the festival mostly in the black during his leadership, but saw the downturn coming. In a report first made public by Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer, Evans suggested that Rilling’s retirement was a core reason:

Oregon Bach Festival Director Emeritus Helmuth Rilling. Photo: Michael Latz/ Interationale Bachakademie.

“Helmuth Rilling wasn’t the only individual who retired in 2013, so too did many of his most loyal and passionate supporters,” Evans wrote. “And the donor, corporate, foundation, audience, and ticket revenue figures bear this out.”

During the transition from Rilling to Halls, OBF paid ticket sales dropped by 21 percent: 2011 had 14,502; 2014 counted 11,360. Overall attendance dropped by over 50 percent : 2011 had 44,148; 2014 had approximately 20,000. Attendance last year remained at 20,000. 

While Halls’s musical leadership is one component in reviving the festival, important decisions are also now made by Janelle McCoy, the executive director who came to the festival in 2015. McCoy inherited a festival already in the midst of audience and funding decline, and her decisions  will play a central role in the festival’s future. However, McCoy seems relatively inexperienced for OBF, an internationally-known festival with a budget of approximately 2.8 million. After all, she replaced John Evans, who was music director of the BBC, a world expert on Benjamin Britten, and, like his predecessor Saltzman, an acute judge of talent with extensive connections within the classical music world.

Oregon Bach Festival artistic director Matthew Halls and former executive director John Evans.

This year, McCoy has cut back concerts by professional musicians by half — a questionable strategy, considering the opportunities for many additional concerts at reasonable costs. Changes of venue also reflect OBF’s efforts to downsize the festival, apparent from this year’s opening night.

Subtracting Silva 

The festival has a long tradition of opening night at Silva Hall, Eugene’s largest venue (2,448 seats). But HIP early music’s smaller ensemble sizes are swamped in the hall’s acoustic. Last year, when Halls opened in Silva with Bach’s B minor mass, some in the audience were unhappy with the “small” sound.

In response, Halls opens this year with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall (527 seats), a much smaller venue, and for some less glamorous than Silva. Beall acoustics are quite good, and for Bach is the better choice. “I don’t want to give people a bad experience,” McCoy explained to Eugene Weekly.

The opening night’s concert repeats the next evening in the same venue, accommodating potential audience demand. But many patrons, including myself, consider Silva to have a special draw, and with the right repertoire, usually symphonic, vital to the festival’s ongoing success. Concerts in both spaces — Silva and Beall — intensify and diversify the OBF experience.

The Oregon Bach Festival is a founding resident company of Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

This year, only three festival events appear in Silva Hall: Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, conducted by Halls; Händel’s music drama Hercules, conducted by Lars Ulrik Mortensen (the one Baroque work set for Silva); and Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy, the festival’s high school chorus. This is half the number of annual Silva performances of the past two years. For a festival whose marquee home has been Silva Hall, these numbers strike me as meager, especially given Halls’s single appearance in the big venue.

Another factor in choosing Beall is cost. Depending upon a number of changing factors, and according to another Eugene festival, Silva runs $8,000-10,000 per concert. Add to this the expense of an orchestra and chorus and orchestra, Silva concerts can represent a significant part of the OBF budget. Because OBF and Beall Hall are both part of the University of Oregon, the hall’s cost is much lower.

University of Oregon’s Beall Hall is renowned for its unparalleled acoustics. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

But Silva’s cost must be considered against number of tickets sold. In the past, I’ve experienced many Silva concerts that were either sell-outs or substantially attended. Other arts organizations in Eugene continue to use Silva, drawing large enough audiences to make it possible.

Executive Director McCoy wrote that “sell-outs” are hard to come by: “Since 2010, OBF has ‘sold out’ exactly zero concerts in Silva. Helmuth Rilling’s final concert as music director in 2013 sold 1,765 tickets of the 2,400 available. In 2012, OBF opened the Festival with a Mendelssohn concert performed by world-famous violinist Joshua Bell. It sold 2,002 tickets of the 2,400. If those type of events are not selling all 2,400 seats, no OBF concert will.”

But these figures also suggest that Silva concerts with the right program continue attract large audiences. Last year, Halls’ closing concert of the Brahms’ Requiem in Silva drew 2,100, not a “sell-out” but a very good “hall.”

De-prioritizing Professionals

OBF concerts are of two types: those performed entirely by experienced professional musicians, and those including personnel from educational programs. The number of educational events this year have stayed about the same. The professional concerts have been cut back drastically, from 14 in 2016 to only seven this year. Meanwhile, the number of  concerts/lectures involving educational personnel has grown from seven to eight.

Oregon Bach Festival executive director Janelle McCoy.

“I don’t see it as cutbacks on any one entity over another,” McCoy explained in an e-mail. “They remain in basically the same balance. There was an overall streamlining of the Festival because over the last five years or so it had become overprogrammed. That was very clear to us based on audience feedback and our ticket data. This is a return to the balance that existed prior to that period.”

My best memories in the last decade include many solo and chamber concerts, from well-known performers like Portland Baroque Orchestra violinist and music director Monica Huggett and those on the rise like Shai Wosner. Following tradition, last year’s festival featured six fully professional solo or chamber music events in Beall. In recent years, with Rilling’s and Halls’s consent, these artists were chosen and booked by John Evans. His choices of artists were brilliant.

This year’s festival has none — perhaps the biggest mistake in this year’s programming. and baffling at that. Not only is Beall Hall the budget venue, the artist fee for solo or chamber concerts is far cheaper than an orchestra’s. Moreover, solo concerts at Beall were vital to rich and diverse musical programming.

Portland Baroque Orchestra’s Monica Huggett, left, conducted Baroque concerti in Beall Hall at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Monica Sellers.

Cutting the number of professional concerts could also threaten the festival’s audience size. Attracting out-of-town audiences has always been important. But this year’s cutbacks may be a problem especially for patrons seeking a two or more concert per-week schedule. If you attend Halls conducting Bach at the outset of the festival, your next professional concert is a week later. The same gap exists in the second week. While those weeks are filled with OBF educational programs, the cutbacks diminish the festival’s reputation as a professional concert series.

Reasons for Redirection

Why has the festival made these changes? One reason for the decline in Silva concerts: the festival’s recent and much-needed change to Historically Informed Performance (HIP). Helmuth Rilling, who founded the festival 45 years ago, used modern symphonic forces, and his “Big-Bach” sound was the backbone of audience success. But adopting authentic performance practices for Bach (and all Baroque music) was vital for the festival’s ongoing legitimacy. OBF needed a conductor fluent in both HIP and symphonic idioms.

Matthew Halls conducted James MacMillan’s ‘A European Requiem’ at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Athena Delene.

Matthew Halls, a multitalented and fast-rising star in the conducting world, was the choice. Halls first appeared at OBF in 2011 and took over as music director in 2014. Initially regarded an early music specialist, he’s now, according to his bio, “better known for his dynamic and intelligent work with major symphony orchestras and opera companies, and for his probing and vibrant interpretations of music from all periods.”

Whatever the style, Halls is a remarkable conductor. I realized the extent of his gift some years ago in a transcendent performance of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time. Halls did more than “know the music.” He penetrated it at every level. Such deep musical mastery is his signature. Halls is OBF’s best card. But I think it unlikely that, when his contracts runs out in 2020, he will re-sign. His choices for prestigious engagements will be too many.

But if Halls’s transformation of the Bach Festival into a HIP institution explains the shift from Silva, what about the decline in professional concerts? That could well stem from another recent festival change, an expansion in its educational program, which has always been one of the festival’s primary missions.

Established in 2014 by a $7 million donation from Phyllis and Andrew Berwick, OBF’s new Berwick Academy is an educational community of early music players in which “students will get unparalleled experience by working and living side-by-side with artists and musicians like themselves.” The academy establishes OBF as the premier organization for training young HIP instrumentalists in the U.S.

The Berwick players present three concerts at Beall in prime-time evening slots. My two-concert experience with them is a mixed bag. Depending on repertory the playing is often adequate, but at other times not so.

The 2015 class of the UO’s Berwick Academy.

While the new Academy is an exceptional and laudable program involving a significant financial commitment and effort, at present, other than three concerts, it benefits only 30 or so young musicians.

Seeking Solutions

However beneficial the festival’s new emphases on historically informed performance and education, its declining ticket sales and reduced choices for audience members must concern the festival, the university that supports it, and the community it serves. How can the Bach Festival continue the benefits of its new direction while maintaining its value and sustainability as a performing arts institution? Here are some suggestions.

Reinforce the [Re]Discovery Series

The festival already has an audience education component: the popular Discovery Series that Rilling pioneered — now renamed the “[Re]Discovery Series” — is a longtime centerpiece of OBF’s educational role. Halls is the “master teacher” and this year discusses Bach’s St. John Passion. He demonstrates sections with OBF’s professional Baroque Orchestra, chorus and soloists. Participants from the festival’s conducting master class also lead parts of the work — once again mixing professional and educational personnel.

The three Beall [Re]Discovery concerts, scheduled in the afternoon in the past, appear this year at night, receiving a mixed response from patrons I talked to. Many enjoyed the afternoon event followed by an evening concert. Two-concert days was a fine feature of the festival, focusing musical experience in luxurious abundance. According to OBF, the move was result of an audience survey in which some complained that they couldn’t attend in afternoons.

Helmuth Rilling conducted J.S. Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ at Beall Hall in 2013. Photo: Turell Group.

The shift to evenings seems reasonable, but not as a replacement for professional concerts. Certainly there is enough room in the schedule to present the [RE]Discovery at night with professional concerts on other evening slots.

I also wonder whether OBF might seek a grant to put the [RE]Discovery Series on public television. These lecture/demonstrations are easily captured on video. This would be another way to teach general audiences about Bach and early music styles.

Return to Silva

Silva Hall, as part of the Hult Center, was built with funds from the city of Eugene as a “People’s Hall” — a venue that could accommodate both classical and popular events. Housing the Bach Festival was one of the arguments for building the hall, which in turn helped the festival grow in size and reputation. For decades, OBF has sold enough seats to make it viable.

While the Silva is expensive to produce in, it offers the opportunity to sell many more tickets than Beall, making it the only path to maintaining and expanding current audience. This year’s nine concerts in Beall ( 527 seats) yields only 4,743 tickets – if all sold out. Given only three Silva concerts, ticket sales hit a built-in ceiling. The festival cannot grow its audience base without Silva.

The Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall.

There is also the issue of ticket cost. With the best seats at Beall running at $50 -$65, ten dollars cheaper than Silva, I, for one, was priced out of some concerts. There are limited numbers of lower-priced tickets in Beall, and the seats (balcony) are very uncomfortable. On the other hand, I found several comfortable and well-positioned  seats for other concerts in Silva at much lower cost. Beall offers fewer tickets and higher costs. Viewed from a community stance, a festival without significant numbers of lower-priced seats in Silva is, by nature, more elitist than the OBF of the past.

A Top-Notch Symphony at a Lower Cost

Paying an orchestra to stay in Eugene for two or more weeks is expensive and this year, the modern orchestra (as opposed to the Baroque orchestra) ONLY appears in week two.

But last year the OBF orchestra had one third of its musicians from the Eugene and Portland area, drawing from the top professionals in both the Eugene Symphony and the Oregon Symphony,  an obvious savings. Increasing that number of local players significantly would lower orchestra cost while maintaining a high level of professionalism. Without the burden of plane tickets and lodging, a mostly local OBF orchestra could appear throughout the festival as needed, including a return to the opening night tradition at Silva Hall.


A more cost-effective orchestra would make concertos less expensive. Concertos are audience favorites, especially in Silva. Well-known soloists are expensive. But the classical world is stocked with young virtuosos ready for orchestra breakouts. And these artists do not command top dollar. Eugeneans are proud being the city where a young artist makes a career splash. Such a soloist debuting at OBF, especially with local advertising on television, will sell tickets. It also gives Matthew Halls and his audiences another symphonic concert at Silva.

Jeffrey Kahane, here conducting, has long been a popular concerto soloist at the OBF, and his son Gabriel Kahane (on guitar) added a sophisticated pop music component to the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Monica Sellers.

Popular Music

Most classical music outfits these days have made peace with audience passion for popular music. Even Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, scheduled a joint concert with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. The Oregon Symphony’s greatly expanded pops program has been a crucial factor in curing its budget woes. OBF has had several sell-outs at Silva with Portland band Pink Martini which drew new audiences and made money. There are no popular acts this year in Silva.

What about the Silva’s much criticized acoustics? I have written extensively on Silva Hall’s acoustics. They are far from perfect. But, as the Eugene Symphony has demonstrated, they are good enough for symphonic music, and for post-Baroque era concertos featuring larger orchestras using modern instruments.

Notably, OBF has not abandoned Silva completely for HIP concerts. Handel’s Hercules in HIP performance is set there this year using the Festival’s Baroque Orchestra.

Renowned baroque violinist Rachel Podger led Berwick Academy musicians in Beall Hall at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival. Photo: Athena Delene.

What about the Berwick Academy in Silva? While Beall Hall’s acoustics are the best choice for Berwick’s HIP Baroque performances, the festival might consider one concert of Classical fare (Beethoven symphonies, for example) on a trial basis in Silva.

Because Berwick players perform for free, audience attendance to the program is partially subsidized by their endowment. Why not offer one Berwick concert at a “people’s price” — say $15? That would make a Silva appearance by Berwick musicians the “hot ticket” of the festival, and a significant community offering.

Reconnect with the Rillings

No secret that many OBF fans miss Helmuth Rilling, who stopped appearing in 2015. Understandable. But at some level I want to say get over it. Matthew Halls is an extraordinary conductor, recognized by important orchestras and opera houses around the world. Eugeneans pining away for Rilling will miss out on Halls’ artistic journey to greatness.

Rahel Rilling. Photo: Alfred Steffen.

That said, a way to restore the Rilling connection is restoring the chamber concerts by his daughters, Rahel and Sara. Presented at Beall or Soreng (the smaller hall at the Hult Center) these were near-sellouts in my memory. Consider also bringing Rahel Rilling as a soloist in a violin concerto conducted by Halls in Silva. This would honor Rilling and perhaps bring back some of those who have strayed.

Engage Local Luminaries

Eugene arts outfits have always been snooty about supporting each other. A “symphony person” might not be a “Bach Festival” supporter. Years ago, however, the Bach Festival brought former Eugene Symphony music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya to lead a Beethoven Ninth, for the specific purpose of attracting Eugene Symphony patrons. Eugene Symphony has a new, exciting music director, Francesco Lecce-Chong. OBF might invite him for a concert and, in return, Halls might conduct the Eugene Symphony. There are also opportunities to present concertos with players from the symphony, many who have significant local following.

New Eugene Symphony music director Francesco Lecce-Chong .

OrchestraNext conductor Brian McWhorter has a Eugene following in the hundreds. Although known for contemporary and avant-garde music, he’s also at home with all traditional fare, including jazz. McWhorter would bring both audience and energy to festival programming.

Year Round Community Choral Program

A splendid way to build classical audiences is through amateur choruses, young and old. I believe that singing Bach is the best way for an amateur to experience his genius. A year-round OBF community chorus could involve hundreds of people, each able to generate ticket sales. Such a group might perform three or four times a year and then have one concert at the festival. OBF now has the Stangeland Youth Chorus for high schoolers around the country. But a local, year-round, high school-age chorus, would teach Eugene youth about Bach, and, importantly expand the OBF audience base.

Bring in Berwick Hall

The festival is set to move to a new $9 million dollar building, funded partially by the Berwick family, that will provide office space for OBF staff and a smallish performance space for concerts and rehearsals. In an email, McCoy cites the building as essential for OBF’s future.

“[I]n order to understand our vision, you must also take into consideration our new home Berwick Hall,” she wrote. We are eager, as the crown jewel of the University’s and Eugene’s new cultural gateway and artistic corridor, to incorporate all the manners in which we can serve the greater campus and community. Its mere existence has been the driver behind ample dialogue, internal and external, regarding our vision, Berwick Hall’s curation and how our new home will benefit the Festival and others all year.”

Berwick Hall, now under construction, will serve as the Bach Festival’s headquarters.

The Berwick performance/rehearsal space will seat 140. If it is essential for the festival’s future, does it mean more concerts with fewer seats? However, the size would be perfect for the Berwick Academy to open their rehearsals to OBF ticket holders, providing the community with a unique opportunity to learn about HIP performance, extending the impact of the Academy into the community.

Uncertain Future

Even if the festival succeeds — using these suggestions or other changes — in rebuilding its audience and increasing ticket sales, that may not be enough to sustain it, because along with ticket sales, grant funding has also declined.

Between 2012 -2014 (figures for later years unavailable), according to the Evans report, individual giving dropped from $672,000 to $472,000, while corporate giving dipped from $120,000 to $56,000 and foundation and public grants plunged from $111,000 to $87,000.

While there are no budget numbers from the last two years, clearly, the festival must live within its means. But the balance between the cost of a specific event and its potential to expand revenue and audience pose a critical choice. Cutting back the festival cannot grow it. Programming is the heart of OBF’s future, and will also be the underpinning of new funding.

I’ve seen many festivals around the world. Each has its particular attraction. But in 35 years of attending and reviewing the Oregon Bach Festival, it has held my interest through its concentrated schedule of extraordinary music making in orchestral, choral chamber and solo settings. This year’s schedule does not reach that level. Thinking ahead, I ask: If this year’s schedule portends the future, can OBF retain its world-class level? My answer is no.

Composer and author Tom Manoff was the classical music critic at National Public Radio’s All Things Considered from 1986 – 2012. He has also written for the New York Times and the Register Guard.  

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives