Bach to the future

Yet another Sacramento classical music project is struggling. As usual, a certain controversial conductor is involved.

Conductor of controversy: Zvonimir Hacko

Conductor of controversy: Zvonimir Hacko

The California Bach Festival—which was to have begun a week of concerts in Sacramento on Saturday night (June 9)—won’t be happening as scheduled. Those hoping to hear period instrument performances of Bach’s music—common in the San Francisco area, but still rare in Sacramento—will have to head to festivals in Carmel or Oregon this summer.

Over the past few weeks, the June series gradually fell to pieces. The festival’s phone number abruptly changed, and the festival’s Web site—which on May 1 listed a schedule of 14 concerts and a roster of guest artists—now carries the message: “We apologize … the California Bach Festival is no longer happening due to circumstances beyond our control.”

The festival’s founding executive director resigned, and two other board members who quit will only say that they’ve parted ways with the organization.

Capital Public Radio, listed as a sponsor in a press release, is no longer associated with California Bach, according to station manager Carl Watanabe. And Sacramento mayor Heather Fargo, listed as a guest of honor at the proposed June 9 opening gala, has decided not to participate, according to Fargo’s spokesman Chuck Dalldorf.

Somewhere in the midst of these developments is controversial conductor Zvonimir Hačko—who, according to a former board member, was functioning as music director for the festival. He was, however, not named in the California Bach Festival press release, or on the May 1 version of the festival’s Web site. But Hačko confirmed to SN&R that he is “connected with the California Bach Festival.”

So, what happened to the planned festival?

Patricia Thaxter, a self-described lover of Bach’s music, served as the executive director of California Bach. Thaxter said that Hačko approached her with the idea in December 2000. “I very much wanted to make it happen. … I wanted to give this gift of music to the community, and that’s why I volunteered.”

But within a few months, Thaxter said, “There were numerous problems, indeed circumstances beyond my control that led to my resignation. We had a lot in place, but it became very difficult to work with [Hačko]. At the time I resigned, he was the only person left on the board. I had no choice but to abandon the project I put my heart and soul into over four months. I actually feel very sad. I’ve learned a lot. I should have never gotten involved!”

In response to questions, Hačko, in a May 28 e-mail said, “We have decided a while ago to wait till next year [to stage the California Bach Festival] because we wish to build the festival infrastructure more thoroughly. We had to move our offices, add more personnel, so it all became too much to do this year.”

Hačko hinted that the festival would be back with a two-week season next year. In a subsequent phone conversation with SN&R News Editor Steven T. Jones, Hačko said, “The Bach Festival exists, but yes, it’s true that some people are no longer connected to it.” (As this paper went to press, a California Bach Festival press release announced intentions to stage events this fall and in June 2002.)

The story may sound familiar to observers of the local classical music scene. The California Bach Festival is at least the eighth group the persistent Croatian-born conductor, who holds a doctorate in choral conducting from Indiana University, has helped launch.

The first group was the Sacramento Chamber Orchestra, which Hačko founded and led for a single season (’96-’97). Hačko resigned at the conclusion of the season over a disagreement with the board. The Sacramento Chamber Orchestra never gave another concert, and eventually disbanded in debt. The musicians were never paid for the final pair of concerts—a situation Hačko credited to the board.

During the summer of 1997, Hačko launched the Sacramento Philharmonic—a full-sized orchestra that filled the void left by the bankruptcy of the old Sacramento Symphony that same year. Hačko led the Sacramento Philharmonic for a little over a year, departing in January 1999. The Philharmonic’s board said Hačko was fired; Hačko said it was a “forced resignation.” (The Philharmonic went on to hire conductor Michael Morgan, who is now in his third year with the orchestra.)

Hačko then proposed another orchestra—the Sierra Philharmonic, with financial backing from Roseville pistachio grower David Fiddyment and others. Hačko then expanded that proposal to include a concert series in Sacramento under the name “Sacramento Symphony.” This touched off a behind-the-scenes struggle for the rights to the name between Hačko and representatives of the Sacramento Symphony League, a surviving subunit of the old Sacramento Symphony, which continues to fund classical performances.

Music critic Robert Commanday, formerly of the San Francisco Chronicle, entered the fray at that point with a lengthy editorial about Hačko titled “Trouble in River City,” which was published in August 1999 on the Web site San Francisco Classical Voice (and is still available through the archives at

Commanday wrote: “Hačko’s ability to keep creating new musical organizations, one in the wake of another, always landing on his feet, has been remarkable. … Several Sacramentans independently dub him ‘Music Man,’ referring to the title role in Meredith Wilson’s musical. Well-meaning music-lovers in town have wanted so badly to see their city’s symphonic life restored that they were only too readily persuaded to jump in and back these plans, and so eagerly and incautiously that they didn’t do their homework.” Commanday also pointedly criticized the Sacramento Bee for carrying a story announcing Hačko’s proposed new Sacramento Symphony with only minimal references to his past involvement with the Sacramento Chamber Orchestra and Sacramento Philharmonic.

In the end, the controversy over the proposed new orchestras came to naught. Hačko’s new board reconsidered its plans, and neither the proposed Sierra Philharmonic nor the new Sacramento Symphony ever gave a concert.

Other start-ups with which Hačko was associated include the California Vocal Academy (a short-lived organization that featured former members of the Theater of Voices—a group that had recorded several CDs for the Harmonia Mundi label under Paul Hillier, a UC Davis faculty member during the early 1990s); a Mozart Academy (which never gave a performance); the Music Society of St. Cecilia (a chamber music group that has given several performances and is still in existence) and the California Bach Festival.

Along the way, Hačko has recruited and parted ways with numerous board members, several executive directors, and no small number of musicians.

Flutist Matthew Krejci, who played under Hačko with the Sacramento Philharmonic and now teaches at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, said he hasn’t seen Hačko display competence as a conductor. “That’s it, in a nutshell. My standards are higher than he can provide.”

Bassist Thomas Derthick, who played under Hačko with the Philharmonic and continues to play under Morgan, said, “I hold him (Hačko) in not very high musical regard, and even lower personal regard. And he’s set back classical music in this town at least five years.”

Testy relationships between orchestra musicians and conductors are at least as common as tension between pro athletes and team managers, though such remarks aren’t always offered in a public forum. When contacted by SN&R, Hačko in an e-mail termed the musicians’ comments “sour grapes.” To which he added: “The measure of my art, and for that matter any artist, is not based on the opinion of the local orchestra players.”

Several musicians and former associates also spoke of Hačko’s sometimes hot words. But conductors—great and small—are famous for losing their temper at times. Hačko said of himself, “as a European conductor I am passionate and intense.”

Michael Anderson is the concertmaster of the Sacramento Philharmonic. He has played under both Hačko and Morgan, and would have joined Hačko at the new Sacramento Symphony, had that organization progressed to the point of giving performances. Anderson offered a more appreciative view of Hačko as a musician than some of his colleagues. “He has a deep and abiding love for music. He’s very passionate about what he does. I think he’s trying to promote music in Sacramento, but I think he’s not the person for it.”

In any case, Hačko said he does not intend to employ many local musicians in the California Bach Festival. “None of the (Sacramento) Philharmonic players are Baroque specialists, so none of them have been asked to play. The orchestra for the Bach Festival [will be] composed of players from all over the country who either play period instruments or modern instruments with a thorough knowledge of the Baroque style. … Plus, knocking on the ‘door of the former spouse,’ so to speak, is not a good thing.”

It is fair to say that there is little love lost between Hačko and the leadership of the local musicians union. In a reference to the many organizations Hačko has founded, Joe Benson, secretary/business agent for the American Federation of Musicians Local 12, told SN&R that he has spoken with the executive directors of the area’s other classical music groups, and “all of them said that Hačko’s presence has reduced the amount of contributions and money available to the performing arts.”

That point was also made by Clark Mitze, longtime classical music reviewer for Capital Public Radio. “The one skill [Hačko] has mastered is to convince people, non-musicians, that he is a genuine musical authority and deserves their backing, both financial and personal. He has seriously injured the fund-raising abilities of current orchestras because of the enormous hard feelings that have resulted from his efforts,” Mitze said.

Mitze has watched Hačko conduct performances by the Sacramento Chamber Orchestra, Sacramento Philharmonic and Camellia Symphony. Mitze’s assessment: “He does show ability to conduct choral music—but the orchestral efforts were well below average.”

Christina Richter, now executive director with the Sacramento Philharmonic, worked under Hačko briefly in 1999, when the conductor was trying to launch the Sierra Philharmonic and the new Sacramento Symphony. Richter—who was new in town at the time, said, “Being new to the area, I had no idea of Hačko’s background. I had no idea what had happened with the Sacramento Chamber Orchestra or the Sacramento Philharmonic. Had I known, I wouldn’t have considered joining him.” Hačko, for his part, wrote in an e-mail that he was drummed out of his job with the Sacramento Philharmonic during a “ ‘reorganization’ imposed by a board ‘gone psychotic.’ “ He said that the reorganization “for all practical purposes was equivalent to the Cultural Revolution in China.”

In the same e-mail, Hačko offered the opinion that “Sacramento is a difficult and highly political community. The arts have always been a possession of a privileged few here,” he said, suggesting that the Philharmonic board members who sent him packing “wanted a symphony as a private toy.” Hačko also referred to “the persecution I have endured” in recent years.

In the e-mail, Hačko offered this observation on musicianship: “Personally, for me, the ultimate measure is how close I come to the ideal of the sacred fire that burns within me and what is reflected back to me by a few, trusted, professional, accomplished artists and friends.” Hačko told SN&R’s Jones that he is the object of criticism “because I have introduced the kinds of standards and demands that are unheard of here.”

Hačko declined to meet for an interview, citing personal and professional reasons, and offered no further comments on the future of California Bach Festival, which now shares a phone number with the Music Society of St. Cecilia. "Really there is no story to tell," Hačko said in a May 30 e-mail. "When you need to talk to me about artistic matters, I will very gladly meet with you."