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Oregon Bach Festival co-founder, longtime University of Oregon professor Royce Saltzman dies

Miranda Cyr


Royce Saltzman, co-founder of the Oregon Bach Festival and longtime University of Oregon professor, died Monday. He was 94 and had been battling cancer.

Saltzman came to Eugene as a choral music professor at UO in 1964. In 1970, he and German conductor Helmuth Rilling held the first Oregon Bach Festival, which was small at the time. After five decades, the now multi-million dollar festival has grown to international recognition.

Saltzman was executive director of the festival until he retired in 2007. He stayed involved as executive director emeritus and remained an active participant in the festival's board.

"The Bach Festival for him was like his fifth daughter," Saltzman's daughter Lisa Skopil said. "He took great pride in the accomplishments and nurturing the festival. But it was so much about relationships and creating an environment within that festival that was about people."

Saltzman is survived by his wife, Phyllis Saltzman, 90, his four daughters − Kathy Saltzman Romey, 66; Skopil, 65; Jody Rose, 62; and Marta Newman, 59. He is also survived by six grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.

"(OBF) was very, very much about education, wanting to educate people at all different levels, and introducing them to music," Skopil said. "To just give people the opportunity to experience music was very, very important to him."

Apart from the festival, Saltzman was an educator. He served as acting dean of the University of Oregon Music School and was a board member of Chorus America (USA). He also advised multiple international music boards.

Humble beginnings

Saltzman, born in Abilene, Kansas, in 1928, was guiding a class excursion in Germany in 1969 when he met Rilling.

Saltzman Romey said her dad heard Rilling's first performance of Bach's B Minor Mass, and he was forever changed. The performance led to their friendship and the founding of the festival.

B Minor Mass was one of Saltzman's favorites, according to Saltzman Romey and has become a signature work for the festival.

"My father was so struck by that, by Helmuth's performance, that they then reconnected," Saltzman Romey said. "Later Helmuth invited him to his home, and they talked. My father came back to Oregon and then followed up with inviting Helmuth to do a small festival."


In 1970, they held what would now be considered the first Oregon Bach Festival, but was then called Summer Festival of Baroque Music. His daughter, Rose, recalled printing out flyers and the entire family posting them on telephone poles to spread the word.

What started off as a couple of days grew to a week, then two. It is now a three-week festival held during the summer. It consists of more than 45 concerts, recitals and lectures, plus master classes.

"It's just started expanding year after year because there was appetite for it," former festival marketing director George Evano said. "He would bring together musicians, volunteers, audience members, donors, and through the interaction, we'd get them to feel like a community of sorts. And these people would pull together to pull off the festival. As donations came in, as word spread that it was a really fun environment and a fun place to play, then more and more people came."

Saltzman spent a lot of time and effort fundraising and inviting international guests to the event for greater reach. Evano said the festival was covered by national news outlets, and even international press.

"Without a doubt, the exposure that the festival gave through international press and international musicians helped elevate (Eugene's) stature as a great cultural city," Evano said.

For the 1998 festival, Krzysztof Penderecki was commissioned to write Credo, the recording of which was the Best Recording by a Living Composer at the Cannes Classical Awards Festival and received a Grammy for Best Choral Performance.

OBF 2023 will celebrate the 25th anniversary of this performance.

Connection with University of Oregon

Oregon Bach Festival has always been closely tied to the UO School of Music and Dance, originally growing out of the school while Saltzman was a professor.

However, the relationship has changed over the years, until the festival was more of an auxiliary program going directly to the UO Provost's Office rather than through the music school. Current dean Sabrina Madison-Cannon helped finalize efforts to fully remerge the festival into the school.

"At the heart of the festival, even though it grew into this Grammy Award-winning, professional, world-renowned series of events, its heart and its core still has its educational mission," Madison-Cannon said. "That's how it began. That was the impetus for growth.

"I think that for Royce, he could see (the merger) as providing more stability for the festival, aligning it and and its future with the school."

In 2018, the merger was finalized. The university contributes to the festival's budget.

Since the merger, the festival has expanded outside of itself, holding intermittent concerts throughout the year under OBF's legacy.

As part of the festival, Saltzman helped start and supported several educational programs on music, including the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy, the Berwick Academy and the Organ Institute.

Madison-Cannon said she spent a lot of time talking with Saltzman about his vision for the festival. He told her to trust her instincts going forward.

"One of the last conversations I had with Royce, he was encouraging me to … think more openly about the future direction of the festival," Madison-Cannon said. "Even prior to his passing, we've been doing a lot of work internally to try to think about the best way to sustain the festival and just kind of having his blessing to do that has been invaluable."

A lifelong passion

Skopil recalled music as a constant in their family home. All four daughters played instruments at a young age. They attended endless concerts. Now, Skopil serves on the festival board.

Skopil said faith also played a big role in Saltzman's life, and he found a connection to music through his faith as a child.

Saltzman Romey followed her father's career path. She is now the director of choral activities at the University of Minnesota.

"He was a mentor, teacher and advisor throughout my entire life," Saltzman Romey said. "He was just very reassuring in those moments, of professional moments in all of our careers, where we have doubts. It's wonderful to hear somebody say, 'It will be okay. Tomorrow will be better. You can do this.'"


A nurturing soul

Those who knew Saltzman described him as gracious, diplomatic, hospitable, approachable, dignified, compassionate, calm and generous.

Madison-Cannon said he would always ask her how her husband and son were. She said even when he was busy, he would take the time to interact on a personal level.

"That was just him at his spirit, his soul, his essence, his core, just being a nurturing human being," Madison-Cannon said. "That translates directly into his teaching and his conducting."

Despite his many awards and accolades as a choral director, Saltzman Romey said, she never felt pressure to perform as she followed a similar career path.

"He was so supportive of my work and my journey that I only saw his presence and support of my career as a positive," Saltzman Romey said. "He was a great father. He was there for us, loved us with all of his heart. He was a great listener, and a compassionate individual, and always sees the individual and accepts where they are."

While there will be no public remembrance service, Oregon Bach Festival will honor Royce’s legacy with a celebration of life during the 2023 festival, which begins June 30.

Miranda Cyr reports on education for The Register-Guard. You can contact her at or find her on Twitter @mirandabcyr.

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