John Evans insists he left the top job with the Oregon Bach Festival voluntarily last month, but he concedes that the University of Oregon’s public handling of his departure may have given the impression he was pushed out as executive director.
In a wide-ranging interview last week, Evans said he gave notice on Oct. 4 to the UO’s acting senior vice president and provost, Frances Bronet, that he would be leaving the festival’s top administrative job, which he has held for seven years. His exact title was general director and president of OBF.
Shortly after that, Evans’ name quietly disappeared from the festival’s website, which began to list OBF artistic administration director Michael Anderson, also a clarinetist with Eugene Symphony, as interim executive director. No other public announcement was made of the change.
Rumors quickly circulated that Evans was forced out of his job.
“My job was done,” Evans said by phone on Friday from his condominium in Portland. “I did what I came to do.”
He said that giving the university such short notice of his departure did not indicate any problem. “We discussed it,” he said. “It works out quite well for me and the university. They can do a national search, and this is the best time to do it.”
Evans said the UO’s failure to publicly announce the change resulted, in part, from the fact that the UO was planning to make its formal announcement of a $2 billion fund-raising drive on Oct. 17. “On the 4th and then by the middle of October we had come to an agreement” about his departure, Evans said.” “During that time we were getting closer and closer to the next (fund raising) campaign.”
The university wanted to inform festival insiders quickly, so they wouldn’t first hear about the change from the news media, but didn’t want to make a formal announcement at the same time as the big fund-raising announcement, Evans said.
On Oct. 8, Bronet sent an email to OBF friends and insiders. It read, in part, “I write to you today to share significant news about the festival’s leadership. John Evans, who has led the Oregon Bach Festival for more than seven years as director, has accepted a new role to provide strategic planning for the festival as he begins to transition back to his home in the UK after the first of the year.”
Bronet has not replied to my email asking whether Evans was asked to resign.
Bronet and Scott Coltrane, interim president of the university, have not been long in their jobs, Evans noted.
“They had to decide on how to go about telling the staff and board before talking to the press,” he said. As a result, public announcement of his departure “kind of got lost,” Evans added.
The first public notice of the change came in an article on Eugene Art Talk on Oct. 21.
“Once all that had come together, they realized the silence, or lack of communication, had created some misunderstanding,” Evans said.
On Oct. 23, the UO finally announced on its website that Evans had accepted “a new role to provide strategic planning for the festival” and would be leaving the festival entirely after the first of the year.
Founded in 1970 by UO music professor Royce Saltzman and German choral director Helmuth Rilling, who would become its executive director and artistic director, respectively, the Oregon Bach Festival went on to become the largest and best known arts organization in Eugene. Over the years the festival has attracted worldwide attention, winning a Grammy Award, sending its forces to perform at the Hollywood Bowl and commissioning new work from such music luminaries as Arvo Pärt.
Saltzman initially retired in 1994 and was replaced by Neill Archer Roan, a flamboyant self-promoter who had previously been in charge of programming at Eugene’s Hult Center. OBF racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in deficits during Roan’s tenure, and and Saltzman came out of retirement to head the festival once again in 1997.
In 2006 an outside consultant hired by the university to evaluate the festival issued a scathing report that said OBF had gone stale in its programming and flat in its marketing under Saltzman’s leadership. Saltzman retired again that year.
Evans, a former BBC producer, was hired in the wake of the critical report and came in, he says, with a mission to shake things up. In the past seven years, he’s extended the reach of the festival geographically around the state, sometimes attracting criticism that it has become the “Portland Bach Festival.”
He’s also been a successful fund raiser, attracting most recently a $7.25 million gift from Andrew and Phyllis Berwick to support a youth orchestral academy.
Finally, he has managed the transition in artistic director from founder Helmuth Rilling to Matthew Halls, a charismatic young Brit with a strong interest in historically informed performance practice – in brief, the idea that Bach’s music should be performed as Bach might have heard it, rather than with the fuller sound that became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Evans says he’s ready to head home to the United Kingdom.
“I miss London,” he says. “I left a lot of really good friends in London. And my family there is really important to me.”