Editorial: Oregon’s stupid University is seriously damaged

Editorial: Oregon’s stupid University is seriously damaged


norman lebrecht

September 17, 2017

If anyone in Eugene, Oregon, thought the university could fire an internationally known music director and no-one would notice, they have been rudely awakened by the outcome.

Some classy, dogged local reporting – here’s the latest report – has been followed up by outrage in UK-based media, starting with Slipped Disc and followed by the Daily Telegraph and now the Spectator,  a weekly political magazine which has probably never mentioned the University of Oregon before in its 189-year history.

All agree that the University has been less than transparent and possibly downright dishonest in sacking Matthew Halls from the Orgegon Bach festival, and then covering up the reasons.

A false allegation of racism has not only muddied the waters, but cast aspersions on the music director’s integrity and (we hear) seriously upset a fine counter-tenor who got caught in the flak. The University has offered Mr Halls a paltry $90,000 to shut up and go away. A halfway decent New York lawyer could extract a tougher settlement.

But that’s not the point. Throughout these proceedings, the University has behaved like a village idiot who has been caught stealing from the sweet shop. Its default look is guilty, its denials lack credibility and its reparation offer is ridiculous.

A ‘flagship research university’ has been left looking like a college for dummies.

Here, on the basis of our local sources, is what we think happened. The festival has been losing money and shedding audiences. It renewed Mr Halls at a six-figure salary and then panicked. A hyped-up Provost, hired at vast cost from Michigan and unfamiliar with local loyalties, ordered Halls to be sacked. Then all hell broke loose.

What now? If the University comes clean, it can still redeem something of its reputation. If not, the festival is dead and the University is both culpable and foolish. Don’t even go there.





  • Mark Henriksen says:

    There is overreaction and a compulsive need to find a boogy man here that seems to be obscuring the obvious points. Halls couldn’t fill the shoes of the conductor who put the festival on the map so he is out. They paid him to leave because it enabled them to legally breach the contract. I would guess that the Provost, who started in July, was given the job of taking care of this problem. There were likely donors and granting agencies involved who were less willing to give money to a sinking ship. The music festival, went from being a cultural asset to a financial and artistic liability for the university….so, captain overboard. Where is the mystery?

    • EricB says:

      The “mystery” is that you don’t invent totally bullshit stories to cover up for other reasons, how “justified” these may be….
      MH couldn’t “fill Rilling’s shoes” ? But honestly, who could ? And would be willing to go to Oregon, and spend 3 weeks on a yearly basis ?

      • Mark Henriksen says:

        If you read the article, the University states that the non-“incident” had nothing to do with his buyout. This is totally believable because rainmakers get away with a lot (read about the ex-med school dean at USC). If this conductor was successful, he would still be clutching a baton in Oregon.

        • Olassus says:

          Dread to think what your idea of “successful” is in a conductor.

        • EricB says:

          “If this conductor was successful, he would still be clutching a baton in Oregon.”
          Interesting comment…
          Did you realize that merely weeks before this happened, his contract as “unsuccessful conductor” was extended through 2020 ?
          Do you realize that the OBF is no Met nor Salzburg Festival, and that it won’t interest any world-renowned “successful” conductor, who’d have to commit to an annual 3 week presence at the other end of the earth ?
          I’m really impatient to hear the new names the Festival must be thinking of to replace MH….

    • Amy Adams says:

      The search for a successor to Helmuth Rilling was not undertaken lightly. Matthew Halls filled the role with skill, scholarship and personality, and gave donors and patrons confidence in the festival’s future.
      Too many questions remain.
      If OBF was really going to head in a new direction, why bother renewing his contract through 2020?
      And why bother scrubbing his name and presence from the OBF website? That seems not only unwarranted, but excessive, personal and spiteful.

    • chris ester says:

      This is, frankly, an uninformed and incorrect opinion.

    • Amy Adams says:

      Mark Henriksen, this is not an overreaction.
      The search to replace Rilling was not undertaken lightly, as I’ve said before. I was on the search committee.

      Helmuth Rilling, as beloved as he is, and as closely identified with the festival as it’s possible to be…needed a successor. He’s in his mid-80s. And we found Matthew Halls filled the role beautifully.

      His abrupt termination is even more mysterious given that his contract had just been extended through 2020. And the removal of his name, virtually all vestiges of his presence from the OBF website….that’s downright retaliation, and seems quite personal.

      Answers are called for.

      • EricB says:

        And you haven’t been called on the search committee for MH’s replacement ? Well that’s kind of strange… 😉 😉 😉

      • Mark Henriksen says:

        The festival appears to have quickly become an economic liability to the university. Its a state school which means they have to please a whole contingent including state legislators. The timing of renewal and firing? Possibly the previous provost didn’t want to do it on his way out and left it for the new one. Your questions sound very valid and I don’t doubt that he was the best choice at the time. But the claim of the solvency of OBF doesn’t match what I’ve read.

        • EricB says:

          “But the claim of the solvency of OBF doesn’t match what I’ve read.”

          If it REALLY is a question of solvency or “economic liability” to the UO (which I don’t believe one second…), then why not say so, admit the will to end (or rather kill !) the Festival, instead of blaming someone who’s not responsible, and furthermore, with ridiculous “reasons” ?

          • Mark Henriksen says:

            Here are quotations from a NY times article and a local Oregon paper citing OBF financial reports.

            “Helmuth Rilling wasn’t the only individual who retired in 2013, so too did many of his most loyal and passionate supporters…and the donor, corporate, foundation, audience, and ticket revenue figures bear this out”

            “During the transition from Rilling to Halls…attendance dropped by over 50 percent.”

          • EricB says:

            Well, OK, you answered point 1. But what about point 2, which seems to me at least as crucial as point 1.

  • jenya444 says:

    “A hyped-up Provost, hired at vast cost from Michigan”

    from Maryland

  • Leslie Dawn Knowles says:

    Rilling indeed left big shoes to fill and it’s hard to say how it could even be done. The times I have played for him have been absolutely magical, definitely among the highlights of my career so far. Unless things were already going badly before he left, they might have been smart to try and continue along a similar path which made audiences happy. Obviously they didn’t and got into trouble and probably thought by screaming racism – anyone who knows Matt knows this is ridiculous – they would get a free pass on dumping Matt. Sad situation

  • Anonymouse says:

    The ‘New York lawyer’ would have to first, of course, take the Oregon Bar Examination…

  • Stephen Hammer says:

    Norman, your scenario sounds pretty likely but another factor seems obvious–the Faustian bargain implicit in the relationship between modern-day American orchestras and festivals and their often-European conductors. The maestro gets lionized and doesn’t have to worry about where the money comes from but in return has to make the suits happy by filling the seats and respecting the sometimes reactionary-seeming desires of the community. The Golden Rule of the Arts and Sciences: he who has the gold makes the rules.

    Paul Goodwin, another great British exponent of Baroque style who directs the Carmel Bach Festival, has navigated successfully by guiding the enterprise while compromising where it seems prudent; a decade into his tenure the group still plays on modern instruments with many of the personnel he inherited. Math Halls on the other hand changed everything about the OBF all at once and, no doubt, stepped on many toes in the process. This, along with declining ticket sales and the new provost and executive director with their own agendas, made his situation untenable. Sad, but not really surprising.

  • Warren Shapiro says:

    I hardly think $90,000 is a paltry sum. And if he got a “NY Lawyer”, his or her services would cost many times that amount. If the festival had been losing money and audiences it would make a lot of sense that they move in a different direction management-wise. Of course I don’t have any information other than what you provided here but to me it all seems quite speculative. In the corporate world if you are not successful you get told to move on. Why should it be any different for a music director?