Story, video and photos by GARY FERRINGTON
As the fall arts season opens, arts-loving Portlanders and other Oregonians seeking a relaxed, car-free weekend exploring dance, music, theater, and the visual arts can look 100 miles up river from Portland. Visitors arriving by train from Portland or points north will find most of Eugene’s cultural activities within walking distance of downtown lodging options — a healthy alternative to driving. If motor transportation is needed, the nationally award-winning LTD bus system and numerous taxi companies provide reliable travel about the city.
Amtrak Cascade train service makes rail passenger travel along the corridor between Eugene and Portland, with connections to Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., a comfortable coach or business class option for sitting back and watching the scenic Willamette valley roll by as sleek modern Spanish designed Talgo trains pass through a rural countryside not easily seen from the ever increasingly congested I-5 freeway.
The coming arts season offers some excellent opportunities for visitors to enjoy an arts-saturated weekend in Eugene. Read on for a guide to venues, dining options, exhibitions, performances, and discover some historical architecture along the way.
Saturday Morning Rail
A leisurely Eugene arts weekend begins with the 9:35 am Saturday departure from Portland’s beautiful 1893 Union Station designed with a blend of Romanesque and Queen Anne architectural styles by Van Brunt & Howe. Crossing over the Willamette River and then following it upstream to Oregon City, the two and a half hour ride, best enjoyed with a cup of bistro coffee and a danish in hand, provides big window views of some of the state’s richest farmland and small town communities. Classic stations line the route as the train pulls into the 1918 Beaux-Arts style station at Salem, then on to Albany and arriving in Eugene at 12:10 pm. Eugene’s recently renovated 1908 Southern Pacific depot (built in the classic Richardsonian Romanesque style) is centrally located to most art venues and within five blocks of the Hilton Hotel, Campbell House Inn, and Inn at the 5th with many others lodging options a short cab ride away.
Visual Arts Afternoon
Saturday afternoon is the best time to explore Eugene’s visual arts scene with most venues open until late afternoon. Regardless of interest, be it crafts or classical art, you’ll find many options to enjoy.
Frequent EMX rapid transit service to the University of Oregon and beyond leaves the downtown LTD bus station every 15 minutes on weekends for the five minute trip to campus – a walkable half mile option from central Eugene.
The University’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (about three blocks from the Dad’s Gate station on the EMX line) has undergone an expansion and renovation of its gallery spaces and hosts a diversity of touring shows as well as its extensive collection of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and American art. Currently, among many featured shows is Scrimmage: Football in American Art from the Civil War to the Present, which should appeal to the Oregon Ducks fans among the art enthusiasts. The exhibit looks at the history of football imagery by America’s prominent artists and photographers such as Winslow Homer, Catherine Opie and Shaun Leonardo. Other shows and events are listed on the Museum’s exhibit calendar.
The museum itself is a beautiful Victorian style building designed by Oregon architect Ellis F. Lawrence, dean of the UO School of Architecture & Allied Arts (1914-1946) who created over 500 projects. The museum is known for its exterior brickwork, decorative moldings and iron grillwork. It was originally built to house the 3,000 object Gertrude Bass Warner collection of Oriental Art and was opened in June, 1933. Ellis also designed the original sections of the Knight Library and School of Architecture and Allied Arts are worth checking out while on campus.
The non-profit Maude Kerns Arts Center, located in a bright yellow former church just east of the UO campus, and the Emerald Arts Center located across the river in Springfield are within easy walking distance of EMX stations. Kerns is currently featuring the Fast Forward: The Mayor’s Teen Art show through the end of the month. The Emerald Arts Center will feature the 24th annual Springfield Mayor’s Art Show, October 8 through 28th.
The 2007-2009 recession staggered the visual arts in Eugene as it did elsewhere. Many of the once-numerous art galleries have closed. Today White Lotus Gallery, which focuses on Chinese, Japanese, Korean and SE Asia artists, and Karin Clarke Gallery are two remaining commercial venues fully devoted to art on Willamette street in the heart of downtown. Karin Clarke represents some of best artists at the headwaters of the Willamette such Adam Goroswsky, David McCosh and Margaret Coe. Clarke is hosting a photography exhibit by the late Eugene artist and 1972 Pulitzer winner Brian Lanker on view through September 24. The Lotus Gallery currently features Journeys: Drawings and Paintings by Chinese artist Li Tie.
Just off Willamette on the walkable shopping boulevard of East Broadway lies the Out on a Limb Gallery opened in 2011 by Tim Boyden. Along with showcasing a new guest artist each month, the gallery regularly features work by a cadre of participating artists including Drew Parrish, Tim Neun, Jeff Bandow, Beverly Soasey and Boyden, all specializing in unique handmade wood furniture and art pieces.
Eugene’s Saturday Market, the oldest open-air crafts market in the United States, is the perfect place in Eugene’s downtown park blocks to discover locally made clothing, jewelry, art and a variety of live music on the Market’s performance stage or from wandering buskers while enjoying lunch from one of many food vendors. It’s also a great place to people watch as Eugene is known for its local color and hippie-era culture that continues to live on at the market.
Eugene Weekly’s gallery calendar lists an extensive selection of visual art exhibits, many now hosted in local business throughout downtown Eugene and Springfield.
There is a cornucopia of pre-theater dinner options in Eugene. The Eugene Weekly’s Chow is an excellent guide to restaurants throughout downtown, and nearby, for every taste to explore. The Register Guard’s Readers Choice shares the locals’ favorite options for dining.
Among many recommended downtown choices, the beautiful Oregon Electric Station located a block from the Amtrak depot continues the vacation by rail weekend theme and appeals to eyes as well as appetites. Designed by one of Oregon’s most renowned architects, Albert Ernest Doyle and built in 1914 as the terminus for the Oregon Electric Railroad, it has served many other purposes over the years including the Eugene location of the Southwest Museum of Science and Industry. When the museum, now named Science Factory, moved to Alton Baker Park, the station was restored, renovated and became a fine dining restaurant where dinner is served in converted vintage passenger cars. The station is a classic example of the Georgian Revival architecture and like the Eugene depot, and other buildings noted in this article, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Performing Arts Evenings
Eugene provides numerous performing arts options for the visitor on Saturday night, with many also showing matinees on Sunday. Live theater at the Oregon Contemporary Theatre and Actors Cabaret of Eugene provide a full schedule of performances throughout the theater season. OCT is offering six plays this season including the two-time Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning The 39 Steps in January. The season begins September 16th with The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson.
Actors Cabaret’s dinner theater oriented season includes the Northwest premier of the Tony Award winning musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert that opens September 16th.
A short cab away, the Very Little Theater has been producing community productions since it was founded in 1928. The VLT’s season begins October 7th with early 20th century Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.
The University of Oregon Theater, just steps from the Dads’ Gate EMX line station, has a full season through June beginning with a November production of Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey’s Tony Award winning musical James Joyce’s The Dead.
Led by a former arts journalist, Fred Crafts’s Radio Redux is a unique theater experience in which classic plays from the golden age of radio are recreated as they would have been performed before a live audience in the 1930-1950’s. In April, Radio Redux will stage radio pioneer Orson Welles’s imaginative interpretation of H.G. Wells’s science fantasy, The War of the Worlds. This 1938 Mercury Theater classic will feature, as do all Radio Redux productions, character voice actors, mechanical sound effects, and live music. The season opens with Radio Daze: Comedy Capers with Damon Runyon’s Butch Minds the Baby (1940) and James Thurber’s whimsical The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). The show runs September 23-25. (Read my April Radio Redux article.)
Eugene Opera celebrates its 40th anniversary with the upcoming 2016-2017 season. Weekend productions include Hector Belioz’s Much Ado About Nothing (October 28/30) Leonard Bernstein’s classic West Side Story (March 10/12) and Bizet’s Carmen (May 5/7). Operas are staged in the Hult Center for the Performing arts and include expansive sets, beautiful costumes, and full orchestra performances. Sunday matinees are available for weekend visitors. Those interested in a New Year’s Eve venture to Eugene will find An Opera Trio with fully staged portions of Aida, Dialogues of the Carmelites and Die Fledermaus.
Eugene Ballet Company and Ballet Fantastique offer a full schedule of Friday, Saturday and/or Sunday performances. The Eugene Ballet will perform this coming spring the world premiere of Toni Pimble’s Snow Queen with music by Oregon composer Kenji Bunch performed by Orchestra NEXT. Between now and then is Giselle (October 28-30) The Nutcracker (December 16-18), which returns to Eugene after an extensive Northwest tour, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (February 11-12).
Ballet Fantastique dance ensemble, which recently become a Hult Center resident company, offers innovative dance performances throughout the year, all with live music such as its March production of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with DaXun Zhang and the Oregon Mozart Players. Pride and Prejudice opens the season in October with The Book of Esther: A Rock Gospel Ballet in December and Aladdin in May.
Although Eugene Symphony normally performs only on Thursday evenings, the orchestra plays the soundtrack to the Academy Award-winning film Amadeus in a special Sunday show December 11.
The weekend devotee of classical and contemporary music will find that the UO’s School of Music and Dance offers an array of programs in its three concert halls on weekends. The Event calendar lists one of the world’s most sought-after ensembles, the Emerson String Quartet performing on October 2nd. Oregon Bach Festival’s Matthew Halls conducts the UO Choirs in November and Future Music Oregon with guest Chinese composer Zhang Xiaofu performs in November. Student and faculty recitals and ensembles perform throughout the year.
The outstanding Eugene Concert Choir, Oregon Mozart Players chamber orchestra, Delgani String Quartet, Chamber Music Amici, Concerts at First, and other local ensembles round out possible weekend listening opportunities, usually an easy walk or bus ride from downtown.
A jazzier side of music and theater can be found at the John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts, a non-profit performing arts company and educational venue in Eugene that presents an amazing array of events featuring international and popular Northwest musicians from many different genres, especially jazz and roots music. Visiting artists this year include Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (October 11th), and Grammy and Emmy nominated pianist/singer Michael Feinstein (November 10th). The Shedd also regularly stages classic musicals such as Oliver!, which opens September 16th.
The Hult Center for the Performing arts, Eugene’s principal concert venue, hosts resident companies such as Eugene’s symphony, ballet, and opera. It also presents traveling Broadway performances and guest artists of all entertainment genres (with one recent exception, as Rachael Carnes notes). The Center’s calendar provides varied options for a weekend visit to Eugene. In October, Heart, Humor and Home with writer Bob Welch and friends presents music, poetry and humorous stories spun by Eugene’s own Garrison Keillor-style host. Classic Christmas music fills the Hult when the Eugene Concert Choir performs its Festival of Carols in December.
While Portland’s jazz scene has recently dwindled, jazz is alive in Eugene and nurtured by the Lane Community College and University of Oregon’s Jazz studies programs. Eugene’s Jazz Station, an exciting downtown venue on Broadway, hosts weekend performances by local and visiting musicians from all over the country. Oregon composer/pianist Paul Safar and singer Nancy Wood are joined by trumpeter Dave Bender and bassist Nathan Waddell as they host their CD release party of “The Warbler Sings,” an evening of original compositions on Saturday, October 8th. Another popular jazz venue, Roaring Rapids Pizza on the bank of the Willamette river in Glenwood, is easily accessible by EMX rapid bus service. Its summer jazz by the river series has just ended and fall programming has yet to be announced.
Eugene’s version of the Hollywood Bowl is the Cuthbert Amphitheater. Beautifully located on the edge of Alton Baker park, the venue offers a variety of music from rock, jazz, country western to the Eugene Symphony. With beer garden, food booths, and a capacity of 5,000, the Amphitheatre is a popular place for summer outdoor concerts. With two rock concerts left for the summer on Friday nights, Cuthbert might be put on your summer schedule for next year.
Check Eugene Weekly’s Music Listings to find the popular culture side of Eugene. Numerous downtown area clubs and venues such as the WOW Hall, Cozmic/Whirled Pies, Hi-Fi Music Hall, Sam Bond’s garage and many more offer a variety of nightly music by soloists and bands. Eugene is a popular stopover for many groups traveling I-5 between Seattle and Los Angeles.
Returning to Portland Sunday morning on the 9:00 am train provides a relaxing journey home for travelers not attending an afternoon matinee or just lingering on for a leisurely day in Eugene. Although the Hult Center is only a couple of blocks from the train station, most of the mid-afternoon opera, ballet, and theater shows let out just before the 4 pm departure of the last train of the day and visitors may feel a bit rushed. An alternative: take the 5:30pm Amtrak Cascades Bus arriving in Portland at 8:25pm. These special buses are very comfortable and offer wi-fi. And if Eugene’s surprisingly rich arts offerings tempt you to linger one more evening at the headwaters of the Willamette, catch the 5:30 am train to Portland on Monday arriving at 8:05 am, just in time for work.
Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.