Brutal US sacking of a British Bach director

Brutal US sacking of a British Bach director


norman lebrecht

August 28, 2017

The Oregon Bach Festival has summarily fired Matthew Halls, halfway through a four-year contract.

‘I have been let go by the University of Oregon,’ he told Eugene Weekly. ‘As yet, I’m not sure why. It has not been revealed to me yet.’

Halls succeeded the festival’s founder Helmut Rilling, who held control for 43 years.

Last night the festival issued this statement:
August 27, 2017 – [Eugene, OR] – Oregon Bach Festival (OBF) is moving forward in an exciting direction that will bring new voices, points of views and artists with more diverse backgrounds to festival audiences. Starting in summer 2018, guest curators will work with OBF staff to build a season of dynamic and engaging musical selections led by world-renowned conductors. 

As part of the transition, OBF is parting ways with artistic director Matthew Halls. Halls leaves the Festival with a legacy that includes the establishment of the Organ Institute, the Vocal Fellows program, and the Berwick Academy for Historically Informed Performance. During his tenure, Halls conducted many of Bach’s masterworks, including his own reconstruction of the composer’s lost St. Mark Passion, as well the world premiere of A European Requiem from Sir James MacMillan.


  • Jonathan Cable says:

    I am particularly shocked and saddened by this news. I was a teacher and performer at this year’s OBF and loved every minute of it, but now I am afraid that Bach will now play only a minor role in future plans, if any at all. Matthew is an extremely capable conductor, teacher and artistic director, and I am shocked and saddened to see him go. The future of Early Music in America in general and the University of Oregon in particular looks really gloomy right now.

    • Jon H says:

      On that last point, every major orchestra should do at least one concert of baroque rarities/gems. I realize it may not sell out the concert hall, but there’s no point in having conservatory trained musicians earning over $100k a year to play pop arrangements.
      Anthony Tommasini sometimes amuses when he wishes there was more non-Mozart at a mostly-Mozart festival. But there is enough good Mozart to have an all-Mozart festival – and if performed well, would be better than anything you could hope to accomplish by mixing things up. The same is true of Bach.
      And the opportunity to connect with something written that long ago – is something special. The opportunity to work with older conductors who have lifelong experience with the music is valuable.
      And it’s what defines classical music – going back to a score, from any era – and bringing it back at the highest level. Because, IMHO, if your thing is praising the latest thing at all costs, there are other genres out there that are doing that well. There are some composers alive today doing great music – but the stuff that’s pushing the boundaries isn’t necessarily orchestral. It’s those composers writing for small groups of instruments and figuring out every last thing the instrument can do – that’s making new sounds, that to an experienced ear isn’t easy to identify. And you can’t make a whole piece of that with 90 other people sitting around…

    • Jonathan says:

      Do you have any sense of why they did this, other than the obvious reason of poor and declining attendance?

      • trolley80 says:

        I’m quite sure this is why. The Festival is subsidized to a large extent by the University, and this has always been a bone of contention. (I have performed here before so I know some of this stuff.) I’m not sure how they think they will simultaneously hire world-class guest curators and also save money on paying them. Who is going to curate next season? I doubt anyone at the top of the field is available, and willing to plan a big chunk of a season with no artists lined up. It’s mind boggling.

        • Marc says:

          Philip Glass’s Third Piano Concerto is already announced, to be performed by Simone Dinnerstein; and a work of Richard Danielpour the name of which I forget at the moment. We shall see.

          • A. Guy says:

            That repertoire was planned out several years ago, so it is not really part of the new ‘plan’. Those of us who perform at OBF have no idea what is happening at this point, or if there will be a place for us in the future.

          • Jonathan says:

            These were set up under Halls. What is entirely unclear is who is going to conduct next year, who will put together the rest of the program.

  • Tom Moore says:

    they probably were seeking to save money on salary. That’s how it usually works.

    • Doug says:

      The university was looking to hire an assistant dean to the undersecretary of racial justice and equity at an annual salary of $250k. No joke.

  • Nigel says:

    How does an organization put a press release out announcing this without working through it with him first? I’d tie them up in litigation for so long I would end up owning the place. Idiots.

    • Paige Turner says:

      There may be more behind this than Halls’ public reaction lets on, as few organisations part with their leader with him/her not having an inkling of something so significant coming towards them.

      Apparently, musicians who worked with Matthew Halls in the UK may be slightly less surprised than the Oregonians to see such a parting of the ways. Whatever his undoubted musical talents, and his Oxford-educated charm, Halls enjoyed a somewhat bumpy career in the UK when it came to dealings with colleagues, and with budgets. His walkout in the middle (literally mid-session) of a recording of Brandenburg 5 after a series of preparatory concerts with The English Baroque Soloists is still talked about, leaving colleagues aghast, and the recording in tatters (it was later re-recorded with another player, but at considerable cost to the SDG label). His own “Retrospect Ensemble” was short-lived: according to its public statements, more than £300,000 of charitable funds were spent under his artistic leadership in only a handful of years before he left the organisation, which shortly afterwards was closed down by its board.

        • Robert King says:

          I don’t want to rain on anyone’s picnic, save to say that I make my occasional posts on SD under my own name.

          According to an item written by the same reporter who wrote the article linked above, OBF festival audiences in 2011 were apparently c.44,000, in 2016 were down to c.18,000, and in 2017 fell to c.12,000. When anyone takes on a festival directorship (I’ve been in that seat a few times during four decades in the profession), it is hard to imagine that you will please everyone if your festival sells only 27% of the tickets shifted a few years previously. If your audience falls in just one year from 18,000 to 12,000, that also will not look great in the box office stats (of course, artistic and other costs may also have lowered commensurately – we’d need to see what was programmed in 2017 relative to 2016 and correlate costs). If you are a Board member who has to look at the bottom line, substantially falling audience numbers and reduced income is not what you want to see, especially if there is perhaps competition for funding within the University (which in this case appears to be a major funder of this festival).

          So the Board looks to see where the problem lies. Maybe a marketing disaster? If they escape the axe, the Board perhaps looks at artistic policy and planning that, however musically satisfying it undoubtedly was for performers and “core-loyal” audience, has not pulled enough crowds at the door. This artistic director apparently hadn’t directed a significant festival before Oregon, so maybe was guided through his first festival(s) by an experienced hand, John Evans. Then Mr Evans departs as festival manager, a new person takes the reins, festival attendance still falls, new manager (in the office all the time, so perhaps has more regular ears of Board members than a necessarily visiting artistic director) says “not my fault”: so the Board looks more questioningly at artistic policy. And therein lies the problem for any artistic director. If you take a festival in a more specialist direction, play in smaller halls, play to smaller audiences, take less cash at the door, at the bar, in programme sales and other merchandising, presumably the deficit grows. There is not necessarily anything completely wrong with such a policy, but unless you have carried the whole board with you in advance, and have their full backing and total confidence, you are running a risk of being shown the door. Sitting thousands of miles away, as an outsider who the kind gentleman above has drawn into this discussion, that would be my briefest analysis, albeit based only on the quickest look at a few numbers which sit in the public domain.

          • Amy Adams says:

            Not that Robert King or anyone outside the OBF community would be likely to know this…but the board of directors’ actual role is “Board Of Directors Of The Friends Of The Festival.”
            They behave as a typical board of directors, but technically are advisory (as well as generously supportive of OBF).

            The festival is answerable to the University of Oregon Provost.

          • EricB says:

            “So the Board looks to see where the problem lies. ”

            According to some sources, the Board of Directors had not been consulted on Halls’ firing process….

  • Jules says:

    “Guest curators?” That never bodes well.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    I hope he will sue for wrongful dismissal.

    • trolley80 says:

      What would the basis of such a claim be? He has a contract that likely has all the necessary “here’s what happens if we fire you” language.

  • Bodie Pfost says:

    Jonathan Cable wrote: “The future of Early Music in America in general and the University of Oregon in particular looks really gloomy right now.”

    Halls actually had very little to do with early music at the University of Oregon. The UO collegium musicum is doing fine, preparing to host their third annual Musicking Conference, which combines historical performance scholarship and practice, focused on a particular theme. This year’s theme is Cultural Considerations, and the final concert will be Mozart’s Requiem led by Distinguished Guest Artist, Peter van Heyghen. Find more details here:

    • BachNoMore says:

      yeahhh sure…the SOMD is doing just fine.. Halls was one of the only major performances of note for a flailing orchestra and strings program. It was the only choral/orchestral work of note for the students. Early music at UO is relegated to a tiny old victorian house and a few tiny performances a year.

      • Jonathan says:

        I disagree. The Bach festival has been a great thing in Eugene, especially when it was flourishing under Rilling. But it is only 2 1/2 weeks. And it is hardly the only game in town. There is a first rate, flourishing chamber music series of top level professional performers. Various local orchestras. A wonderful truly early music group the Oregon Bach Collegium. I hope the OBFest survives, but it is not the whole story.

  • respect says:

    Click bait headline, I don’t see a reason why the dismissal is brutal. Because he’s a Brit? The US has been a disproportionate employer of British conductors, a favor one doesn’t see being returned in the land of brexit.

    • John says:

      I’m curious. What does a conductor’s nationality have to do with anything? I didn’t realize we were keeping score? A rather shallow observation, don’t you think?

      • Nathan Redshield says:

        A holdover from the post-WW II days perhaps. With nationalism in music slowly disappearing probably a welcome development. On the other hand, there’s the matter of recruiting new listeners and nationality is another “hook”. Me? I just happened on opera because one of the soloists for my men’s glee club was in the chorus for Eugene Onegin and I found it an enthralling intertwining of story and music and I’m hooked and in a city/college city (Boston MA) that I can get multiple opportunities. The Early Music “Movement” has its “hooks” too that I won’t get into. That conductor Oregon fired does sound like a handful, though, and Oregon seems to have its share of “crazies”.

      • Martin Atherton says:

        Very, John. Talent ought to be the issue. The comment about the land of Brexit is cheap.

      • Jonathan says:

        Uh, maybe the editor or author who deliberately brought “US” and “British” into the headline had something to do with the introduction of nationality into the discussion?

    • Una Barry says:

      What? Nationality? What’s that got to do with it?

    • Donald Hansen says:

      Not that it matters but I can think of a few: Leonard Slatkin, Keith Lockhart, Michael Tilson Thomas, JoAnn Falletta, Andre Previn (yes, I know he was born in Germany but is a US citizen). That’s just off the top of my head – there are probably others.

  • trolley80 says:

    Whatever the reason for the Festival doing this, they were clearly caught with their pants down. The story was broken by a reporter days after the dismissal, and the Festival didn’t even have a statement ready. The statement they did put out is bizarre – evidently they will have all these curators but no artistic director? This is bad bad bad management.

  • David says:

    The new director McCoy seems to be exhibiting a bit of incompetence and insecurity. Was she, by any chance, given the job by our new “president”?

  • Martin Atherton says:

    Undoubtedly he did. What’s your point?

  • Don says:

    Not related but similar, football and volleyball coaches but sacked the same way? Not much information.

  • Jonathan says:

    For more on this truly, truly bizarre story, this latest from the Eugene Weekly is must reading:

  • Marc says:

    I looked at EW first thing this morning (am in Eugene; not that I usually read EW but…). I’m sure that the UO contract with MH must have included a provision for termination for cause but if they are going to blame this in large part on their own Equity and Inclusion (i.e. diversity! identities!) nonsense, then I can see a wrongful termination lawsuit going forward, perhaps (IANAL). Doubtless however MH wouldn’t want to muck about in those waters with the University who surely keep a pack of attorneys on retainer.