The point of contention was a decision by the Oregon Bach Festival to perform Bach’s St. John’s Passion in a season themed “War, Reconciliation and Peace.” A local paper asked “How can reconciliation and peace be represented by a musical work whose text has been an incitement to genocide?”
The problem, according to Neill, was that Passion Plays were performed in Nazi Germany to incite anger against Jews and even before that, the worst pogroms always coincided with Easter. (The time during which the plays were historically performed.)
Even worse, the local temple was vandalized by skinheads who shot up the place with guns and spray painted hate filled slogans not nine months before the performance of the piece.
To compound things, the temple’s rabbi was on the Bach Festival’s audience development steering committee. In addition to the Passion piece, they had wanted to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the end of World War II by exploring the works of Jewish artists who had been interred in concentration camps. The rabbi’s guidance about how to handle it with sensitivity was fairly key.
As people learned more about the controversy surrounding the Bach piece, the rabbi and Neill had long conversations about it. The rabbi eventually removed his involvement with the festival because of their resolution to perform it.
What Neill says next really caught my attention because I think it something every arts person embroiled in controversy needs to remember (emphasis is mine):
Any person or organization whose artistic work engages in raising issues which engross our minds, hearts, and polity must expect-even bless-the exercise of conscience, even when that exercise takes the form of withholding support, fierce and active opposition, or even condemnation. As artistic organizations, we may own the work, but we do not own the issues. We may hold the match, but nobody holds a conflagration. We should not be surprised that someone we view as principled enough to be invited to serve on a Board or Steering Committee might also be principled enough to withhold the imprimatur of their good name in affairs that they cannot, in good conscience, support.
What the Festival decided to do though was engage the community in a discussion/debate about the work, “about the dynamics and origins of bigotry, even when that bigotry seemed to spring from the dominant culture’s holiest of stories.”
“By opening up the matter to the community at large and inviting their reflection on the matter, a situation that could have seriously damaged our organization wound up strengthening it. During these times, when people are becoming increasingly disenchanted with institutions, there is no better lesson from my experience that I can offer you today than to trust your public if you want them to trust” you
Much to Neill’s surprise, the local Christian clergy were very open about admitting the anti-Semitic history of their faith and lent immeasurable support to the discussion effort. This support was sorely needed because everyone, including Festival donors, long time patrons and board members were angry, frustrated and confused by the controversy. It was only through continued discussion that people finally began to understand the entire situation. In Neill’s mind, short efficient statements are too abrupt and alienating to be effective solutions in a controversy.
The churches got on board and condemned anti-Semitism from the pulpit the Sunday before the piece was performed and again the night before at a Reconciliation.
The night of the performance a rabbi and his wife handed out flyers asking people to stand and turn their backs on offensive passages. People stayed away and donors withdrew their support.
Personally, I felt buoyed. In a society where the arts are often thought of as the “toy department of life,” at least on that evening we were no longer on the periphery of community life. We performed the St. John Passion, but in a new context. A deep and principled discussion of meaning, history, and accountability had occurred. We had not only talked about reconciliation, but lived its possibilities.
I am sure the experience was nerve wracking at the time and not something one would wish on oneself ever. I think it is a mark of a good artist though to not only recognize when one is in the presence of great art, but to also acknowledge that it has provided an opportunity for growth and transformation. (Granted, those of us who have gone through puberty can attest that growth and transformation is more exciting in the abstract than in reality.)