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What makes that spirit still so strong: Eugene Symphony Celebrates an Oregon Legend

Saturday’s multimedia concert pays tribute to track star Steve Prefontaine.

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Steve Prefontaine.
Steve Prefontaine.

Although he’s been gone nearly half a century, University of Oregon track star Steve Prefontaine’s spirit keeps on running in his home state. Even though he never won an Olympic medal, his visibly gritty, all-out approach won the young Coos Bay native — and his then-obscure sport — nationwide attention and admiration. His heartbreaking fourth place finish in the 1972 Olympics at only age 21; his tragic death at age 24 in a car wreck three years later, before he could fulfill his unquestionable potential; his efforts on behalf of his fellow runners and others beyond the track — all combined to make Prefontaine an unforgettable figure in sport and beyond.

“You can’t go anywhere in town without seeing him, 47 years after his death,” Eugene Symphony executive director Scott Freck said. “Why is that? What makes that spirit still so strong?”

So when Freck was looking for a way to deepen his orchestra’s connection with its community, he hit upon maybe its single most iconic figure, Ken Kesey fans notwithstanding. With the World Athletics Championships coming to Eugene this month — the world’s second biggest sporting event this year, and the largest in Oregon history – celebrating Pre’s legacy seemed an ideal choice for the orchestra’s season-ending program.

On June 4 at the Hult Center, Eugene Symphony premieres David Schiff’s new composition, Prefontaine, with the music interwoven with stories about its subject narrated by actors from Eugene’s Oregon Contemporary Theater, and projected imagery of Eugene’s favorite young son, who never got the chance to grow old. And Freck thinks he and his creative team found the answer to that question: what makes Pre’s spirit keep on running in the memories of Oregonians? Why does the long-ago fallen star still shine so bright?

Steve Prefontaine.

Lasting Legend

When Freck was growing up in Portland in the 1980s, he had heard of Prefrontaine’s legend but was too young to have experienced it, as he was seven years old when the young star died in a car wreck.  

But when Freck moved to Eugene, there was no avoiding Pre’s lasting presence. Pre’s Trail (where he ran) and Pre’s Rock (where he died) are both internationally known local landmarks, and his alma mater has kept his profile visible (including sponsoring the tribute concert) in the city where he earned his reputation and set more than a dozen American running records. Eugene’s annual Pre Classic just wrapped up last weekend, held since 1975 in the same place where he ran so many laps. He was that rare figure who in his too-brief sojourn could bridge the divide between jock culture and counterculture that defines Eugene, then and now.

“There is no Track Town USA, no Hayward Field without that sense of civic pride inspired by Steve,” Freck says. “He helped put us on the international map. He’s one reason why the world’s second largest athletic competition is happening here in a town of 150,000 people.” Pre helped put an appealing face on the then-surging sport of running itself, and still embodies it.

Celebrating the local icon fit Freck’s vision for making a mid-sized city orchestra feel special. Rather than merely rehashing hoary 19th century European classics, Freck sought local connections, including a 2019 concert featuring projected images of the McKenzie River crowdsourced by locals, a recent performance featuring orchestra musicians performing in hallowed local outdoor spaces, and a series devoted to community creativity.

“We don’t want cookie cutter programming,” Freck says. “The core of the orchestral repertoire still matters, but we want to focus our programming on local interests, mixed in with timeless classics. We want to be the orchestra that can only exist here, in this time, in this place, with these people. We want to reflect the people, values and things we care about here.” 

Multimedia Tribute

But how to turn civic devotion into music? Freck and his creative team—including music director Francesco Lecce-Chong, consultant sports journalist Curtis Anderson, OCT artistic director Craig Willis, and Prefontaine’s sister Linda—didn’t want to present a docu-drama (there’d already been two features films and a documentary about him). Instead, they decided to highlight the spirited determination — apparent in so many photos and videos — that made Prefontaine so indelible. Over the past three years, they developed a multimedia production “to invoke and celebrate that indomitable spirit,” Freck said.

The visual element includes projected images of Pre in action and quotations from him. In between musical segments, six actors from OCT will read quotes from people who knew Prefontaine, as well as crowdsourced passages from others who responded to a call issued last fall for anyone who felt inspired by him. More than 100 tributes poured in from all over the country, as far away as Maine, Texas and Virginia. “People told us how they were inspired to run, how Steve’s spirit helped them in their lives in general,” Freck says. “One said he found the will to survive cancer,” thanks to Prefontaine’s example.

Eugene Symphony executive director Scott Freck.

The celebration’s centerpiece is a 45 minute composition the orchestra commissioned from Schiff, maybe Oregon’s best known classical composer, who embarked on extensive research into the runner’s life, including touring important places in the runner’s coastal childhood. (Read Angela Allen’s ArtsWatch feature about Schiff’s bountiful summer of new music, and my 2019 ArtsWatch profile of the composer on the occasion of his retirement from his long tenure at Reed College.)

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“We saw where he was born,” Schiff recalls. “We saw the first track he ran on. We saw his high school. We saw where he was buried. We toured all over Coos Bay. And we saw landscapes, places where he ran, the sand dunes where he ran to build up his leg muscles. All of my impressions of that day, including the actual drive from Eugene to Coos Bay and back and having this tour and getting a sense of how important he is for both ends of that trip, all of that was tremendously inspiring.”

The opening movement, “Terrain,” musically evokes natural imagery — the south coast dunes and bay, timber mills, the changing landscape between Coos Bay and Eugene to the Cascades. A visit to Marshfield High School inspired Schiff to draw on his own New York high school memories of playing in marching band to create a fictional school ‘anthem’ that develops into the second movement, “School Days.” 

“I wanted to include a movement that was about the birth of that calling,” Schiff says. “I read a lot about his emergence; his realization that he had this gift and that he had to do something with it, starting from just a kid who was told he was too short for most of the teams.”

Portland composer David Schiff.

Schiff structured the last movement, “5K,” as a sequence of 12 fugues that represent the number of laps in his signature 5,000-meter race Prefontaine never lost during his UO years, each featuring a different group of orchestra players, and musically tracing the emotions — from exhausting endurance to exhilarating victory – of a runner surging to the finish line.

Freck says Schiff’s celebratory score, which contains some of his trademark jazzy touches, also reflects Prefontaine in another way. “It’s very athletic, a real workout for the orchestra!”

For Freck, the diverse art forms all converge on a single idea, a phrase that Schiff used as a kind of musical “motto” for his composition. “If you know anything about Pre, you know this quote: ‘to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift,’” Freck says. “That’s the nucleus of why we remember him. He gave his all every single time because he felt it would have been disrespectful not to. It’s not just about being able to run fast. Whatever your gifts, don’t throw them away.”

Eugene Symphony performs David Schiff’s Prefontaine and classics by Beethoven and Leonard Bernstein at 7:30 pm June 4 at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

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Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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