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September 17, 2007

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.

Posted by hfogel at September 17, 2007 5:53 PM

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Henry: glad to see you spreading the word about the good things happening at OFAM. I've been covering their work for years in the local press, and wrote a story about them in the Wall Street Journal Leisure & Arts page a few years ago. Plenty of orchestras and other music institutions could profit from studying how well OFAM brings history and context into its programming, making each festival a real learning adventure as well as an enjoyable musical performance.

With some orchestras dumbing down in the search for new audiences, it's refreshing to see a music institution succeeding by appealing to the audience's intelligence with smart programming that draws listeners who see the arts as a way to learn more about culture and history.

They also sponsor concerts several times a month, almost always with worthy performers in jazz, folk and sometimes further out. And they do quite a bit of educational work, classes and so on.

The people behind it do have some advantages -- money and a lovely old downtown church that they bought and converted to a music venue -- but the main asset is their passion for American music and willingness to put their money behind it. Without marketing devices like focus groups or lowest common denominator programming, they simply learn a lot about the music they care about, explain to listeners why it matters, then put what they love onstage -- and hope people will come see it. It seems to be working. OFAM has become a major community asset in a mid-sized town that's hardly an arts capital.

Glad to hear from you, Brett, but you might be understating the uniqueness of Eugene in terms of the arts - at least from the point of view of music. As the home of the esteemed and excellent Eugene Symphony, OFAM, and the Oregon Bach Festival, it feels to me like it just might qualify as an "arts capital."

Henry Fogel

Posted by: brett Campbell at September 18, 2007 2:28 PM