Mystery Around Conductor’s Firing Hurts Everyone

Matthew Halls has been fired, leaving the Oregon Bach Festival without an artistic director. That’s about all we know for sure, at this point, and that’s too bad for everyone involved — including thousands of local supporters, whose pride for the festival is both deep and deserved.

Without the Oregon Bach Festival, Eugene can be caricatured as a Hippie town devoted to football. We know our story is more complex than tie-dye and Nike, but outsiders need help to see our other sides. Winning a Grammy didn’t hurt.

News of Halls’ dismissal broke after a Sunday morning phone call between the conductor and local arts reporter, Bob Keefer, who covered the Festival for this newspaper and now as Arts Editor for Eugene Weekly. News of his departure has ricocheted around the Internet. If that was all, this column wouldn’t be necessary — but that’s not all.

News of Halls’ departure is being mixed with all sorts of speculation about what caused such an abrupt move. Halls claims he doesn’t know why he was fired. The Festival’s advisory board was not told until after Halls had been terminated. So far, the university has been tight-lipped about why — but even about who made the decision.

When how much we care outstrips how much we know, we find ways to match the two. Rumors and innuendo fill the gap. Conspiracy theories breed in the darkness of not knowing.

Was Halls kicked to the curb because ticket sales slid since Helmut Rilling retired? Was he shown the door because of a racially insensitive remark that he made during a public reception? Was he the victim of a power struggle within the Festival, or with the university’s administration?

The Festival only made things worse, with a ham-handed press release that awkwardly acknowledged that Halls had been fired. The release announced that the Festival “is moving forward in an exciting direction….” So-called “guest-curators” will replace the artistic director.

Note to those who wrote the release: When making lemonade from lemons, don’t forget to measure the sugar.

We can’t break down this matter too much until more of the people involved go on the record, but we can do a little bit.

Most who heard Halls’ blithe remark about a London gala that was set in a “Gone With the Wind” style was not offended by it, and that includes the singer Halls was teasing, who is black. Even in our hypersensitive campus environment, raw from rampant micro-aggressions, no one who heard the comment publicly called for his resignation.

It’s certainly odd that Halls was not given a more gracious exit. But he spoke to the media first, so he may not have been pleased with how those negotiations were going. Difficult departures usually offer a face-saving story.

The Festival’s own recent history provides a good example. When Executive Director John Evans left, it was a shock, but hey — he missed his British homeland, and he stayed in Eugene about as long as he had always intended. We never learned more.

It’s doubtful that declining ticket sales could have caused Halls’ firing, at least not in isolation. Halls was responsible for making beautiful music for attendees, and nobody has suggested he failed. Attendance figures fall more on the shoulders of Executive Director Janelle McCoy and the Festival’s staff.

It’s also not likely that McCoy could have pushed Halls out. The Festival’s organizational chart has changed since Rilling reported to Executive Director Royce Saltzman. McCoy was not Halls’ boss. Both McCoy and Halls report to the provost’s office in Johnson Hall. Jayanth Banavar just replaced retiring Scott Coltrane., so neither provost would have known and cared enough to do battle with Halls.

One point of order may be relevant. Halls, like Rilling, was engaged as a contractor — not as a university employee. Halls is now an ex-contractor. It’s not clear whether the university’s personnel policies for confidentiality apply here. If the administration is protecting a whistleblower, that’s a different matter altogether, but they should say so.

Where does all this leave us? We have less than when we started. And that’s progress.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.