Oregon Bach Festival announces artistic director finalists

Julian Wachner, Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Craig Hella Johnson

UPDATE 02/05/20: Craig Hella Johnson has withdrawn as one of the three finalists for the Oregon Bach Festival’s artistic director position and will no longer be conducting at the 50th anniversary season this summer. Johnson cited a series of difficult personal losses, culminating with the passing of his mother just a few months ago, as his reason for withdrawing. The festival hopes to announce a replacement for Johnson in the coming weeks. More details are available in a letter from Phyllis and Andrew Berwick Dean Sabrina Madison-Cannon.

The University of Oregon School of Music and Dance has named the three final candidates selected for consideration to become the next artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival.

The trio includes internationally renowned orchestral conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Grammy Award-winning choral conductor Craig Hella Johnson and preeminent early music specialist Julian Wachner.

“We have conducted an international search that really produced excellent results,” said search committee chair Roger Saydack, a nationally recognized expert in music director searches. “We had a very strong pool of candidates who just confirmed what we have known all along, that the Oregon Bach Festival is admired and respected around the world.”

Audiences will get the chance to see the candidates perform live at the 50th anniversary season this summer, when they will all appear as featured guest conductors as part of the process to choose the festival’s future artistic leader.

Each candidate will conduct one of Bach’s revered choral-orchestral masterworks, including the B-minor Mass, St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for festival-goers to be able to hear all three of these breathtaking masterworks performed in a single season,” said Sabrina Madison-Cannon, the Phyllis and Andrew Berwick Dean at the School of Music and Dance. “We’re so honored that these world-class conductors have chosen to join us and be part of this historic event.”

The candidates will also conduct a separate chamber orchestra program, with a handpicked selection of pieces designed to showcase their unique personal style.

“That’s what makes these concerts such extraordinary experiences,” Saydack said. “It’s not just an evening of entertainment. It’s looking into the future of this organization.”

Saydack said that while all three candidates have impeccable credentials, training and experience, they would each bring different strengths and perspectives to the role of artistic director.

“You’re looking for a lot in an artistic leader who will take this university, this community and this audience into the future,” Saydack said. “Who has got the ability to engage and inspire? We won’t know who that is until they are here, and we have the opportunity to see them at work.”

Harth-Bedoya, a Grammy-nominated and Emmy Award-winning conductor, has more than 30 years of professional conducting experience with orchestras around the world. He is currently serving his seventh season as chief conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, and his 20th and final season as music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

Harth-Bedoya has made two previous guest conducting appearances at the Oregon Bach Festival, and he is regularly invited to guest conduct at major orchestras around the world, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

He lived in Eugene during his tenure as music director of the Eugene Symphony Orchestra from 1996-2002 and said his upcoming appearances at the festival this summer would be a homecoming for him.

“Home is wherever people make you feel that you belong there, and I always had that feeling about Eugene,” Harth-Bedoya said.

The Peruvian native is also the founder and artistic director of Caminos del Inka, an arts organization dedicated to sharing the musical and cultural heritage of South America from pre-Columbian times to the present day.

His commitment to new music and living composers has impacted both concert programming and recording projects. He has commissioned or co-commissioned works by Osvaldo Golijov, Kevin Puts, Antonio Juan-Marcos, Jimmy López and Victor Agudelo.

In addition, he has programmed works by Jennifer Higdon, Gabriela Lena Frank, Mason Bates, Behzad Ranjbaran, Anna Clyne, Adam Schoenberg, Maria Sigfúsdóttir and Andrew Norman, among others, inviting each to Fort Worth for the performances.

Harth-Bedoya’s discography includes critically acclaimed albums on Harmonia Mundi, Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, FWSOLive, LAWO, Naxos and MSR Classics.

Johnson is the founder and artistic director of award-winning, Austin-based choir Conspirare and music director of the Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble. He served as longtime artistic director at the Victoria Bach Festival in Texas, led the popular San Francisco-based male chorus Chanticleer, performed as a guest conductor with the Austin and San Antonio symphonies and was awarded a Texas Medal of Arts in 2019.

He has won many accolades for his extensive recording work with Conspirare, including seven Grammy nominations, an Edison Award for “A Company of Voices: Conspirare in Concert,” and a 2014 Grammy Award in the best choral performance category for the album “The Sacred Spirit of Russia.”

Johnson, who has also been a guest conductor at the Oregon Bach Festival in the past, is known as a champion of new voices and underrepresented communities.

“For years, Bach’s mastery of polyphony — ‘many voices’ — has served as a springboard for my own musical exploration,” Johnson said. “His extraordinary imagination provides inspiration and a framework for an inclusive approach that is both rooted in the masterworks and also connects us with the music of today. I am excited by the idea that this festival can be a platform for music from a broad spectrum of composers and creative collaborators, particularly those whose voices have been underrepresented.”

Local audiences will get an additional opportunity to hear Johnson at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts on May 16 when he conducts Conspirare in his original composition “Considering Matthew Shepard,” a concert-length work dedicated to the memory of a young, gay man who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998.

Wachner is a multitalented composer, conductor, keyboardist and early music expert. He earned critical acclaim and Grammy nominations for his work as director of music and the arts at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City, where he created the standing-room-only weekly lecture and performance series “Bach at One.”

Wachner spearheaded the creative development and world premiere performances of three Pulitzer Prize-winning compositions in the last five years, including Julia Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields” in 2015, Du Yun’s “Angel’s Bone” in 2017 and Ellen Reid’s “Prism” in 2019.

In addition to serving as artistic director for the Grand Rapids Bach Festival and music director for The Washington Chorus, Wachner has made guest conducting appearances with some of North America’s premiere performing arts institutions, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and Montreal, Pittsburg and Pacific symphonies; the San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City operas; Philharmonia Baroque; Apollo’s Fire; and Seraphic Fire.

Wachner said he had strived throughout his career to expand the repertoire with new, commissioned works that lend themselves to performances by choruses of all sizes, while also celebrating what he called “further discoveries in musical archaeology.”

“I think it’s the same type of brain, steeped in curiosity, that is attracted to new music, and to the rediscovery of old music,” Wachner said.

During their interviews, all three candidates were enthusiastic about the prospect of expanding the Oregon Bach Festival’s educational mission and increasing cross-campus collaboration with university partners, as well as exploring innovative ways to reach fresh audiences.

“The ability of all of these candidates to create exciting programming, bring in new artists, and lead a dynamic, cutting-edge classical music festival gives us a vision of a very bright future,” said Robin Burk, chair of the Oregon Bach Festival Advisory Board.

The bottom line for local music lovers is that 2020 is set to be a landmark year for the Oregon Bach Festival, Madison-Cannon said.

“Our festival is at an important crossroads, where we are both paying tribute to our roots and traditions while also developing exciting new musicians and commissions and getting ready to welcome a new artistic director that will help shape that future,” she said. “It’s a fitting way to celebrate our golden anniversary, and we’re inviting our entire community to join the party and participate in this significant moment of our shared history.”

—By Steve Fyffe, School of Music and Dance