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.

September 17, 2007 5:53 PM | | Comments (1)

Categories:

1 Comments

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

Leave a comment

Blogroll

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by on the record published on September 17, 2007 5:53 PM.

High Quality Across the Map was the previous entry in this blog.

São Paulo's Orchestral Jewel is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

AJ Ads


AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

culture
About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Dewey21C
Richard Kessler on arts education
diacritical
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Flyover
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

dance
Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

jazz
Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
ListenGood
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Rifftides
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

media
Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Overflow
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
PianoMorphosis
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
PostClassic
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Sandow
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

publishing
book/daddy
Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

theatre
Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

visual
Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
Artopia
John Perreault's art diary
CultureGrrl
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.