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Eugene Symphony premieres multimedia concert to celebrate Steve Prefontaine

Steve Prefontaine, the champion UO runner, died in 1975 at age 24 in a car crash in Eugene.
Eugene Symphony
Steve Prefontaine, the champion UO runner, died in 1975 at age 24 in a car crash in Eugene.

On Saturday, June 4th, the Eugene Symphony will present a world premier featuring original music by Oregon composer David Schiff honoring Steve Prefontaine. The track star and Olympian grew up in Oregon and was a University of Oregon champion who set 14 American records in distance running.

KLCC’s Rachael McDonald spoke with Eugene Symphony Music Director and Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong. He explained why they’re celebrating Pre.

Lecce-Chong: I think one of the great things about the Eugene Symphony, and this is kind of a tradition before I even came here, is really this focus on the community. And wanting to celebrate all the unique things that there are about Eugene. I mean after all we are the Eugene Symphony. And as much as we love performing the classics, there is this drive of innovation that i think is in the city in general, but it also inspires a lot of the arts groups. And I think the Eugene Symphony is no exception to that. So in kind of searching for something really unique that would kind of broaden what we can say as an orchestra, there’s this idea to celebrate the legend, the athletic legend of our city, Steve Prefontaine. And it’s been really, such an incredible project that has, honesty, broadened my views and understanding as well of the track & field world and how it relates to the arts.”

McDonald: And this is a collaborative project. It’s a multimedia project. Can you share a little bit about how that works and what the collaborations are?

Eugene Symphony Music Director and Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong in the KLCC studios.
Rachael McDonald
Eugene Symphony Music Director and Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong in the KLCC studios.

Lecce-Chong: Yeah, so you know it’s a project that is in some sense intensely local in how it’s being put on. We’re working with Oregon Contemporary Theatre, based here in Eugene, and Portland-based composer David Schiff is our composer of this really epic. I mean it’s a 35-minute work for orchestra that really kind of shows off everything we can do. I mean if you’re going to talk about an athlete that was such an inspiration you want to have music and an orchestra that really gets to show itself off in the music. So, between having David and Oregon Contemporary Theatre and even working with Pre’s sister, Linda Prefontaine, to kind of help us shape the story, it’s really been a wonderful project to, maybe even on a national level to bring people into the fold, and learn about our community.

McDonald: And how are the actors part of the show?

Lecce-Chong: What we’ve actually done is collect a lot of tributes, historical tributes to Pre, but also we crowdsourced. We asked people, honestly, anywhere to talk about how he has maybe affected their lives and been an inspiration to them. So, not only do we obviously have a lot of tributes that will be read from people in our community, but actually across the US. And, I think that will be such a wonderful part of this project. It’s not going to be music with narration. That’s actually the acting part and the spoken tributes will take place outside of the actual music. So it’s kind of going to have its own centerpiece, if you will, within the music.

McDonald: And the music itself. Can you describe a little more about what it will sound like?

Lecce-Chong: You know, one of the really exciting things is we don’t really know of course. And it’s certainly what makes a world premiere so exciting, especially one of this scope is that the orchestra and I will have time to delve into this work, being the major piece on the program, along with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, one of the great works, but that’s a piece that we know quite well. So we’ll really be able to focus time on David’s piece. And it really will push us. The great thing about having him work with us is David does write music that’s incredibly virtuosic. It’s very showy. It’s very exciting. And it’s very evocative. He’s created a piece that takes in the landscapes that would have been around Pre when he was like training, and captures those early days in school and all the way to kind of a musical representation of a race. You know it’s all in there. So I think David has really captured something that will be exciting and inspiring and also just a big showy work that kind of shows off how an orchestra can tell a story and sort of paint a picture.

McDonald: Can you talk a little bit about, the Symphony has been back in the Hult Center and doing concerts, the pandemic has been really hard on the arts community, can you talk about what it’s been like to be back doing in-person performances?

Lecce-Chong: It truly means the world. I mean in case we needed any reminder of how music binds us together and is this kind of universal connection… we didn’t need that reminder, but we certainly got it. And I will say there is a unique feeling in the hall. And I don’t know if it’s something that will always be there from now on. I mean certainly in many generations and lifetimes, we never thought something like this would be taken away from us and so there is a fragility to how we make music but also there’s this outpouring of everything we have stored up and everything that we want to say. And I love it. I’ve always been the kind of musician that, I want us to always push the edges, to take risks, to be able to express everything that we can. In many senses that’s why the story of Prefontaine is so inspiring to me, because he ran the way I want to make music-- which is put it all out there. Yes, you rehearse and you are calculated about what you want to do. But in the moment, when you’re performing you go all out. And you do whatever it takes to give that transcendent experience to the viewers or the listeners in our case. And that feeling is more present than ever in the hall. Because we know that every moment we get to perform is the best moment. And we are just so grateful to be able to welcome our community back in and be able to share these moments together.

Francesco Lecce-Chong is Eugene Symphony Music Director and Conductor. Prefontaine is at theHult Center in Eugene Saturday night, June 4, at 7:30.

Note: The Eugene Symphony is a KLCC underwriter.

Copyright 2022 KLCC.

Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s host for All Things Considered on weekday afternoons. She also is the editor of the KLCC Extra, the daily digital newspaper. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000.