Dutch cellist Jaap ter Linden was thrilled to be invited to conduct a concert at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival, an event at which he says he has never before performed.
But almost as soon as he was asked to lead the musicians of the festival’s Berwick Academy at a performance scheduled for July 3, he found himself suddenly dis-invited.
OBF Executive Director Janelle McCoy withdrew the festival’s invitation on Jan. 30, ter Linden says, shortly after Eugene Weekly published a blog post revealing that he had been fired from a temporary conducting post at Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory in 2015 over a racial epithet he used during a rehearsal there.
“Janelle told me they were very, very sorry, but in light of the situation in the university having to do with last year’s events — it’s a very sensitive situation regarding these matters — they were withdrawing [the invitation],” he says.
Ter Linden may have become collateral damage in last summer’s sudden firing of OBF Artistic Director Matthew Halls, who was let go without a clear explanation amid vague charges of racist and sexist behavior.
Ter Linden doesn’t deny using the epithet in the 2015 rehearsal, but in an email and subsequent telephone interview this week he described a broader context for what happened.
At the rehearsal, he says, he was commenting on the fact that, because of scheduling problems, increasing numbers of student musicians were absent from rehearsal each day. On the day in question, he says, he was missing half his musicians, including the entire cello section.
He quipped to the students that it reminded him of a Dutch children’s book called Ten Little N—–s, which was also the original name of an Agatha Christie murder mystery published in in Europe and the U.S. in 1939. It was later republished under the titles Ten Little Indians and And Then There Were None. Both the children’s book and the mystery use the idea of disappearing people as a story device.
Ter Linden, 70, says that in the Netherlands, where he still lived in 2015, the objectionable word doesn’t carry near the cultural weight it now does in the U.S.
“In an effort to lighten up the atmosphere I uttered the fatal sentence: ‘You know, this situation reminds me of a Dutch children’s book I read as a child,’” he wrote in an email. “It was called ‘Ten Little N…’ I then went on explaining what the little book was all about and that I saw a parallel with what was happening here. No reaction from the students. I went on with the work in what I think was the friendliest way.”
No one complained at the rehearsal, he says. But ter Linden was later contacted by the dean of the conservatory, he says, and told not to continue working with the students because a Title IX complaint had been filed against him.
“This was quite a shock for me, a European guy who quoted the title of a book, with yes, an unpleasant word in it, but which for him did not even come close to the loaded meaning it has in the USA,” he wrote.
He explained to conservatory officials what had happened and offered a written apology, he says, but when days went by with no response from the conservatory, he resigned.
Ter Linden moved to Ohio a year and a half ago and is now married to an American musician. He is, he says, clearer about the problem. “I am not a politician. I had no sensitivity for these things,” he says. “I have now seen what the situation is in this country, and my sensitivity has grown, of course.”
Looking back, he says, Oberlin handled the situation badly, offering him little chance to explain himself or apologize to the students. In fact, he says, he was told not to talk to news media about what happened.
As for the Oregon Bach Festival, he’s saddened but not angry.
“I am disappointed in their choice. But I understand it,” he says.
OBF’s McCoy and Dean Brad Foley at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance, which oversees the festival, have not replied to requests for comment about canceling ter Linden’s invitation.