A Model Festival in Oregon
Normally, I write about things symphonic. But I recently had an experience in Eugene, Oregon, that left such a strong impression on me that I wanted to share it with you, even though it relates to a somewhat different art form: the uniquely American one of the musical comedy. The Oregon Festival of American Music's The Sweetest Sounds, an eleven-day festival focusing on Richard Rodgers, was produced by the John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts in Eugene, under the leadership of Jim and Ginevra Ralph. Much of what struck me about the four days I spent there was that OFAM (as everyone calls the Oregon Festival of American Music) can serve as an example for any producer, including a symphony orchestra, of what a festival can be...
Often "festival" is a word used to describe a group of programs with some thematic connection. But here it meant a thorough, in-depth exploration of its subject, an exploration that raised any number of intriguing issues and provided intellectual stimulation and musical satisfaction. In the eleven days of the festival there were 40 events scheduled, only a few of them repeats (specifically four performances of South Pacific and three of Babes in Arms). There were lectures virtually every day, exploring a huge range of subjects: the differences in Rodgers's music when writing to words of Hart and Hammerstein; the forward-looking, even daring, confrontation of racial issues in Rodgers's work; explorations of different stages of Rodgers's career. In addition to South Pacific and Babes in Arms, both fully staged productions that operated on a very high level, there were concerts of Rodgers's music every day - frequently more than one - and the music's adaptability to different approaches was amply demonstrated. My own favorite was a jazz-based evening with soprano Maria Jette, the festival's retiring Jazz Advisor Dick Hyman (whose piano playing at age eighty is a wonder), and his successor, clarinetist Ken Peplowski. Hyman arranged a gaggle of songs for the three of them (in a few cases just for clarinet and piano) and the evening was a thing of real beauty.
The festival also showed films of five other Rodgers musicals, and produced a program book chock full of probing, thoughtful essays (a total of nine in-depth essays, in fact). The films and public talks were all free, by the way. One could not spend any serious time attending these events without thinking long and hard about Rodgers, his music, his relationships with his two lyricists, and the use of the musical comedy to make important social commentary. (The song "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" was a remarkable statement about racial bigotry for 1949 as is the whole story of South Pacific, and even more astonishing is the facing of racial prejudice in the 1937 Babes in Arms.) OFAM has been doing this kind of work for some years now - next year will be built around "music for hard times," and will span Broadway from the Depression through World War II. This is a festival that deserves to be more widely known than it is - in addition to its intellectual depth, the performances are on a consistently high level - and others can justifiably look to it as a model of how to do this kind of thing, whatever the musical subject.
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