Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival Portland Oregon

Worth a crowd’s attention: A review of David Schiff’s ‘Prefontaine’

Schiff’s latest, a tribute to the esteemed runner, was premiered by the Eugene Symphony.

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Steve Prefontaine.
Steve Prefontaine.

Portland composer David Schiff’s much anticipated Prefontaine premiered with the Eugene Symphony June 4 at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Oregon. The concert was not sold out at the cavernous 2,448-seat Silva Concert Hall, a big place to fill. But the stunning music was worth a crowd’s attention.

Schiff’s three-movement piece is about Steve Prefontaine, the speedy shaggy-haired Olympic athlete from Coos Bay who ran for University of Oregon and died in 1975 in a Eugene car wreck. The gritty-spirited “Pre” remains a hero to the city, which continues to honor him by hosting the prestigious Prefontaine Classic track meet. 

Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, who directed the piece and has been with the symphony since 2017, was a quick study on Prefontaine and embraced the energy he generated, though the runner is long gone. His direction was as energetic and charismatic as the late Prefontaine.

Schiff’s deftly constructed three-movement piece—many-layered, multi- textured and complex—reflected the excitement and exhilaration that Prefontaine brought to the track and to the community. A third non-music movement,“Tributes,” quoted such notables as Olympic marathoner and Sports Illustrated writer Kenny Moore and former U of O track coach Bill Bowerman—and many everyday amateur runners who looked up to Pre. Six actors dressed in black from Oregon Contemporary Theatre under Craig Willis’ stage direction read the tributes.

I appreciated that the spoken words weren’t interspersed with the music. There was no underscoring: words and music stood alone. I could have done without the tributes, but this was a big production meant to draw in all kinds of people, including those who know more about sports than music.

Onstage big-screen video and photos reflected the music. Because Schiff is a prolific published music writer, his program notes are too good not to quote:

The first movement, `Terrain,’ can be heard as the changing impressions of mountains, woods, streams, dunes, bay and ocean that I encountered on the drive from Eugene to Coos Bay and back. It is written in the form of a passacaglia—variations on a repeated ostinato (a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm)—but I inverted the usual texture of this form, placing the ostinato in the upper register rather than the bass. The listener can think of the repeated treble figure as an image of the Cascade Mountains, the defining spinal column of the Oregon landscape. I wanted the music to evoke and celebrate the environment that shaped Steve Prefontaine’s entire life. 

Just as the musical texture turns the usual pattern of a passacaglia upside down, the music reverses chronology, moving from death to life. The musical journey begins at the site in Eugene known as Pre’s Rock where so many people have left memorial tributes ever since Prefontaine’s tragic death in a car crash on May 30, 1975, then traces the way to the Oregon coast, where he was born and grew up.

David Schiff conducting Third Angle in 2015. Photo by Tom Emerson.

The second movement, “School Days,” featured a tuba (!)–reminiscent of Schiff’s days as tuba player in his New Rochelle, NY., high school marching band. And there was much more besides the tuba, including whistles and chants of “Go Pre.” The movement was robust and animated, capturing Pre’s determination and magnetism, and leading up to the thrilling final movement. 

The last and most intricate movement, “5K,”is named for the race most closely connected to Prefontaine, which the runner never lost in his four years at the University of Oregon. As part of Schiff’s program notes, he writes that the movement “is organized as a sequence of 12 compact fugues that represent 12 laps in a 5K race, each one approximating Steve Prefontaine’s actual best timings, and each scored for a different group of players, beginning with small ensembles and gradually building to include the entire orchestra. Each lap has its own theme and character, ranging from exhilaration to exhaustion to final victory.”

So you hear high woodwinds, trumpets, xylophone, and marimba for the first lap; trombones and percussion in the second; woodwinds, the third; brass for the fourth; violins, the fifth; low woodwinds, strings and percussion for the sixth; pitched percussion and pizzicato strings for the seventh, etc. The full orchestra takes over in the final 12th lap.

This music was riveting to listen to as the timer in the onstage video marked the seconds of each lap. You were there, running with Pre or cheering with the crowd, imagining yourself flying with the Oregon breeze around the track. Matching Pre’s relentless and determined running so precisely with ever-building music was a brilliant idea of Schiff’s.

New music lives

It’s evident that composers, especially Schiff, have been very busy during Covid. He has another premiere in July with Chamber Music Northwest called Vineyard Rhythms, commissioned by Oregon winery-owner Susan Sokol Blosser in honor of her late mother, a violinist. His delightful four-part jazz piece, Homage to Benny, which clarinetist and former Chamber Music Northwest artistic director David Shifrin (who commissioned a number of Schiff pieces during his tenure from 1980-2020) played with the Miro Quartet, premiered in early April at Portland’s The Old Church. 

Aside from Schiff’s work, lately I’ve heard a number of live premieres by other Northwest composers, including Nancy Ives’ compelling Celilo Falls: We Were There presented by Portland Chamber Orchestra in early June. The late-April Imani Winds’ triple-premiere concert featured Seattle’s Miguel del Aguila’s Blindfold Music, Portland’s Yuan-Chen Li’s A Railroad to Dreams and composer/singer/Portland Opera co-artistic advisor Damien Geter’s I Said What I Said. And Geter’s African American Requiem premiered in May. 

As live concerts open up, it has been a long-awaited treat to hear so much new music in all kinds of concerts, including one like the Eugene Symphony’s. When Ludwig van Beethoven’s familiar Symphony No. 5 in C Minor–that piece and Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide” comprised the first half of the program–are paired with Schiff’s Prefontaine, it’s clear that mainstream orchestras still cater to listeners partial to the old faves, but it’s heartening that the Eugene Symphony is fearlessly opening ears to new and challenging music that reflects our world.

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We’re waiting for Prefontaine to come to Portland. No word yet.

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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