Given its laid-back vibe and idyllic setting in western Oregon’s lush Willamette Valley, Eugene hardly appears a place of extremes. But even a casual sometime visitor like me can’t help but note massive contradictions. The city boasts one of the best systems of urban bike lanes in the world, a network of one-way streets in which two-wheelers are accorded as much roadway as Humvees; indeed, cyclists are granted more rights than their internal combustion competitors, even if enjoying rather less physical protection. But the place has got its car-happy malls, too. Eugene also appears a paradise for small-scale organic agrarians and farm-to-table localivores, as well as brewpub hipsters with a taste for drinking indigenous ales and discoursing on IBUS, ABV, top-fermentation and heirloom hop varieties. Yet the approach to the city along I-5 is made through vast grass farms that send their seeds around the world to beautify suburbs and do other dark aesthetic work.
This tension is most apparent at the University of Oregon, a bastion of big-time athletics that is equipped with a glitzy high-tech stadium, basketball arena, and training facilities, as well as many other buildings like the law school and the library that were given by, and often bear the family name of, Nike co-founder Phil Knight. Last year Knight, a U of O alum and his alma mater’s greatest benefactor, gave the largest donation ever made to a public university—half-a-billion bucks for the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact; its mission is “to fast-track discoveries.” It’s hardly surprising that the university press releases announcing the initiative adopt the language of running—acceleration, fast, track. As for “impact,” that works for the perennially disappointing Ducks football team (currently undefeated), clad and shod in ever-changing, ever-more-sumptuous Nike designs.
Nike set the fast-track record in the race to globalization. The plunder continues to rain down on Eugene like so much life-giving precipitation rolling in from, indeed all the way from the far side of, the Pacific. However, vibrant local consciousness may be, Eugene is pound for pound and dollar for dollar the most globalized town on the planet.
This global perspective, and the local tensions beneath the glitz and lucre, made international news this past week in a seemingly unlikely realm far from the Eugene’s vaunted athletic venues: music.
Since 1970 the university has hosted the Oregon Bach Festival, founded by then-professor of choral music, Royce Saltzmann and the celebrated German conductor, Helmuth Rilling, a figure noted for his emotive interpretations of Bach’s masterpieces. The festival achieved international standing not only for presentation of Bach’s music, but also its commissioning of new works and for its invitations to young European musicians, many of whom made their north American debuts in Eugene and then went on to international careers. Rilling later established Bach festivals in his native Stuttgart in Germany, and a more short-lived outlet in Toronto that ran between 2004-2008.
It can be uplifting, but also sometimes unsettling, to see and hear the famed, silver-haired maestro do his thing—Bach cantatas rendered in the august traditions of the nineteenth century with modern orchestral instruments and outsized choruses. Rilling commands these forces with a spiritual intensity inherited from German Romanticism in which Bach’s sacred music was elevated to kind of religion unto itself. I played an organ concert and delivered a lecture at the 2005 Toronto festival, where I had the chance to sit in on an open rehearsal during which Rilling browbeat his young choral charges for not investing enough feeling in a four-part Bach chorale, chastising his singers for not focusing their minds and throats so as to channel the divine genius of Saint Johann.
In 2010 I played and spoke in Eugene in a series of events sponsored by the Oregon Bach Festival, my address given at the Browsing Room of the Knight Library. I also gave an organ concert at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church, home to a landmark instrument from 1976 constructed along antique principles by the local builder, John Brombaugh. There is no Nike swoosh to be seen in the gracious decoration and classical proportions of its façade. The organ’s musical richness offers enduring visual and sounding proof of the primacy of the local: an object of this quality cannot be imported from an Asian sweatshop—at least not yet.
Rilling retired from his post as artistic director in 2014 at the age of eighty. Last month the Oregon Bach Festival was thrown into turmoil when his successor, the dynamic young British conductor Matthew Halls was peremptorily sacked. The local press reported that Halls was fired after he was overheard at a festival reception affecting a southern drawl in an exchange with the African-American countertenor, Reginald Mobley. To the New York Times, which reported on the controversy this past week, Mobley denied that Halls had unwittingly insulted to him: the pair often joked around, Mobley speaking in bad English accent, Halls in an even worse southern one. But Mobley’s remarks to the Times seemed to suggest the possibility that well-healed eavesdroppers could have taken offense, and perhaps also seen the opportunity to get rid of Halls, a proponent of a leaner, lively, historically informed approach to the performance of Bach’s music than that practiced by Rilling.
The Bach pioneers in the Oregon Territory quickly circled their wagons. The Cockburnian axiom applies here: the festival administration’s denials that it dismissed Halls for racial and cultural insensitivity only tend to confirm suspicions that this is precisely what happened. As for Halls, he exercised a quintessentially English poise in demise, casting his dismissal “as for the best.” His composure was doubtless shored up by a $90,000 severance deal and the requisite non-disparagement clauses. There are mutterings that Halls lively music-making was not to the tastes of the old-guard supporters devoted to Rilling over a span of more than four decades. The furor was fanned by the British press as the latest American outbreak of political correctness.
The Festival will be far worse off without Halls, who, in spite of this setback (perhaps even because of it), will continue on his rapid upward trajectory. Back when Hall was still an Oxford undergraduate, one of my colleagues there raved about his intellectual gifts and musical talent. In 2003, when Halls was still in his twenties, I happened into a production Handel’s opera Alcina at the Comic Opera in Berlin. While these entertainments are all about the singing, it can nonetheless be argued that the most important musician at a baroque opera is the harpsichordist, who energizes the rhythmic drive with improvised chordal accompaniment in the overture and arias, and, even more crucially, who singly supports the stretches of rapid speech-like song known as recitatives. Much of an eighteenth-century opera is made up of these recitatives that drive the story and are essentially duets between individual characters on stage and the harpsichordist in the pit.
It’s a job whose importance was recognized by Handel himself, who directed his operas from the harpsichord, and once, when still a teenage phenom, even fought a duel when he refused to yield the position to a slightly older colleague. In that clash in front of the Hamburg opera house after the evening’s performance, the eventual composer of Messiah was spared a premature death when his opponent’s blade was prevented from piercing Handel’s breast thanks to a large button on his frock coat. If surviving portraits and the inventory of his estate are any indication, Handel dressed to kill—or at least to save own his life.
From the harpsichord for that Alcina in 2003 in Berlin came the greatest three-hour stretch of operatic keyboard playing I have ever heard: precise, tasteful, inventive, drawing just enough attention to the accompanists’ own wit, but always spurring and enlivening the singing from above. When the lights came up at intermission I hurried down to the edge of the orchestra to congratulate the harpsichordist, who turned out to be Matthew Halls. When I returned to see the same opera later that season I could tell as soon as the overture started that someone else was at the harpsichordist. The Handel magic had gone home with Halls.
However locally-minded many in Eugene are, there are certain imports and exports beyond those sporting the Nike swoosh that this university town just can’t do without. It’s a lesson the Oregon Bach Festival might well come to learn the hard way.