of a Legacy
You don’t have to travel far in any direction in Oregon to find a statue or a memorial to legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine. His presence is felt all over the state—from statues erected at Nike headquarters in Beaverton and Portland and the exhibition in the Prefontaine Gallery at the Coos Art Museum in Pre’s hometown to one of five icons gracing the panels of the 10-story landmark tower at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field or Pre’s Rock in Eugene, the solemn site of the athlete’s untimely death in 1975 where fans from around the world still leave behind tributes to their hero.
And now, Pre is being memorialized through music. On June 4, Eugene Symphony will present PREFONTAINE, a multimedia presentation sponsored by the UO, featuring Oregon Contemporary Theatre actors and an orchestral work written in the athlete’s honor by renowned Oregon composer David Schiff.
When the retired Reed College professor and composer, who has traveled the world and written more than 20 works for Chamber Music Northwest, was approached by Eugene Symphony, he set out to learn everything he could about the seven-time NCAA champion, who set 14 American records and was a 1972 US Olympian—starting with a road trip led by Pre’s sister Linda Prefontaine.
“We saw where he was born. 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,” Schiff said. “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.”
As a result, Schiff aptly captured Pre’s drive, spirit and fortitude in a large orchestral work set in three parts.
“Terrain” embraces Oregon—the trees, the ocean, the scenery along the drive to Coos Bay, where Pre’s from, to Eugene and Hayward Field, and the connection between the two cities.
In Pre’s own words: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift,” struck a chord with the composer. The second movement called “School Days” pays homage to the birth of his gift, the high school, his town, his drive and determination.
“I wanted to include a movement that was about the birth of that calling. 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.”
Special rate of $20 for any seat in Silva Concert Hall at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts for this concert. Enter discount code GOPRE! on the Hult Center’s website.
The final movement, “5K” sets Pre’s most famous race to music. “I wanted this to be a celebration of a legacy, and what I love about that quotation about the gift is that everyone has a gift, and we all try to make the most of that and to live up to that. It might be running. It might be composing. It might be taking care of people. There are all sorts of things that statement could apply to.”
Showcasing the musician’s gifts, Schiff applies the idea of the “concerto for orchestra,” best known by the works in that form by Bartók and Lutoslawsky, in which every member of the orchestra has a solo moment.
Schiff’s work is preceded on the program by Leonard Bernstein’s upbeat “Overture to Candide” and culminates with the stirring codas depicting heroic struggle in Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5.”
“David was chosen for this project because he writes in a very virtuosic way,” said Eugene Symphony Music Director and Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong. “He shows off the instruments. He knows how to push the players. He knows how to push the conductor. You can sense the energy off the page. It’s going to have tremendous impact. This is a huge orchestra. It is relentless when it wants to be relentless and it’s epic when it needs to be epic, so it’s going to be quite the journey.”
Intertwined with the music, the presentation will feature actors from the Oregon Contemporary Theatre delivering tributes submitted by Pre’s fans. Projected on a big screen behind the stage will be images, courtesy of UO Special Collections and University Archives.
“The images that run behind the music lay down place to give that spaciousness of the story,” Lecce-Chong says. My hope is that it will feel musical.”
The tribute, which will follow the annual Prefontaine Classic, also falls on the eve of the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 (July 15-24), which will bring thousands of running enthusiasts and fans to Eugene.
“Steve Prefontaine was never going to be told how he had to do something. And there was such emotion all around how he did his art,” said Lecce-Chong. “That was the thing, it was an art form for him. It’s not only that he’s from Oregon. I think this may be the only athlete that really should have a symphony written about him. And to be able to approach the one who clearly was so in love with the emotion, not only his, but what he wanted to inspire in the people who watched him. That’s kind of exactly what we do in music.”