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New UO documents show Matthew Halls firing stunned OBF board members

Minutes from a meeting of the Oregon Bach Festival “Friends of the Festival” Board of Directors called last summer confirm previous reports that University of Oregon administrators fired popular artistic director Matthew Halls without once consulting the board, whose members were furious when they read of the firing in Eugene Weekly.

Halls, a popular British conductor, had been brought in to lead the 47-year-old festival into a new era following the retirement of founding artistic director Helmuth Rilling. His unexplained termination on Aug. 24, later publicly connected to suggestions of sexual impropriety, caused an international uproar in the music world after EW broke the story on Aug. 27.

The minutes were among hundreds of pages of board documents released Friday, Dec. 8, by the University of Oregon to EW in response to a public records request. Though the board is advisory only, its members include politically powerful community members and donors.

OBF co-founder Royce Saltzman said he felt “ready to resign from the board” in the wake of the firing, the minutes of the Aug. 28 meeting show.

And board chairman Brad Stangeland said at the meeting he didn’t trust the UO administration, didn’t feel trusted in return, and questioned whether he could continue to serve as chairman.

UO Provost Jayanth Banavar and Deputy General Counsel Doug Park talked at the meeting about Halls’ termination and an Aug. 27 news release from the UO that laid out a completely new artistic direction for the 47-year-old music festival.

The release, since widely mocked in the music world, suggested the festival would go forward without a single artistic director, saying simply it was “parting ways” with Halls and would use “guest curators” in the future.

Saltzman demanded  to know why the board hadn’t been consulted in advance of the firing or the announcement. Park said the board’s charter gives it authority to advise only over hiring, not firing, and keeping the board in the dark protected members from liability. UO administrators had planned to meet with the board to explain the firing, he said, but EW broke the story before that happened. “UO could have done better in its response,” Park is quoted as saying.

Stangeland said that music festival directors around the country “are generally astonished” and said the UO’s statement of a new artistic vision did fall under the board’s authority.

Park replied that the UO “made the decision to put out the statement they did to protect OBF, the university staff and the board.”

The minutes offer few new insights into what may have led to Halls’ termination. Phyllis Berwick, a board member and major OBF donor, said at the meeting that Halls was “given a warning a year ago.”

OBF executive director Janelle McCoy also said at the meeting that then-Senior Vice Provost Doug Blandy issued Halls a reprimand last year. There was no follow-up as there would have been for an employee, she said, because Halls was an independent contractor.

The reprimand may have come after an acrimonious dispute between Halls and McCoy at the board’s 2016 retreat that EW has previously reported.

Park said at the meeting, without further explanation, that “some of the behavior” for which Halls was terminated “did not occur during the festival.”

Again without adding details, the minutes show that Banavar told the board that “the complaints reached a level where the UO had to respond.”

Banavar also defended the initial statement the university put out about the firing because “something had to go out immediately,” the minutes say, but “now he understands that the statement was inaccurate and wrong.”

Park told the board that the UO chose not to terminate Halls immediately, for cause, because “that would require revealing the identity of the complainants.”

The minutes suggest that unnamed “investigators” met with at least one complainant against Halls and interviewed others by telephone. “UO investigators researched the complaints,” the minutes quote Park as saying. “The type of contact at issue may have been seen before.”

After his firing, Halls signed a non-disparagement agreement with the UO and has been unwilling to comment on the situation.