Resonance Ensemble preview: questions of faith

Choral organization's 'Souls' concert is part of a season-long musical exploration of timely social concerns

“This year, a lot of us are feeling the need to make sure our art is responding to the times we are in,” says Resonance Ensemble founder and director Katherine FitzGibbon. On Sunday, the acclaimed choral organization presents a concert that revolves around religious conflict and misunderstanding — part of a season-long emphasis on music and other arts that revolve around pressing social issues.

‘Souls’ is the second of three concerts in Resonance’s 2017-18 season, whose programming explores contemporary concerns through art. “Resonance has always had a desire to do concerts that have themes that connect deeply with people,” says FitzGibbon, whether connected to social justice or personal topics. “Because we sing choral music where the texts are paramount, we get to overtly explore these questions.”

Resonance Ensemble performing in 2015. Photo: Alan Niven.

Actually, the ensemble’s intensified focus on social issues started earlier, immediately after last year’s presidential inauguration, with sharp political commentary in some pieces in the choral ensemble’s February 2017 “Dirty Stupid Music” cabaret show. Resonance’s next concert last June focused on grief and healing, with works by Portland composer Renee Favand-See and singer-songwriter Nikole Potulsky about the loss of children, and also an original song by Portland theater artist Vin Shambry about “the decline of compassion and other changes in the political climate and how he was experiencing it personally,” FitzGibbon recalls.

The ensemble then decided to organize this season around a trio of urgent social concerns. For November’s “Voices” concert, “we collaboratively explored a lot of music that’s not part of the canon so much,” she explains. “There’s nothing wrong with the canon, but we had to think critically why certain works are in the canon and others aren’t — which composers’ voices are underrepresented. Especially in the divisive political climate we’re experiencing, we need to be really mindful of whose voices who are — and aren’t — at the table in the arts and particularly in Portland.”

That fall show featured contemporary music by American composer John Adams related to Middle Eastern conflict, and arrangements of other topical songs by two composer members of Sweet Honey in the Rock and Suzanne Vega, a gospel tune, and more, including original poetry by Portland writer, occasional ArtsWatch contributor and activist S. Renee Mitchell that “managed to weave all those themes and ideas together,” FitzGibbon recalls. “I was really moved and asked her if she’d be interested in doing it again.” Now the ensemble’s poet in residence, Mitchell is writing new poems for the season’s two remaining concerts.

S. Renee Mitchell created poetry for Resonance Ensemble’s season concerts.

Social responsiveness continues with Sunday afternoon’s “Souls” show at downtown Portland’s First Presbyterian Church. Along with Mitchell’s poetry, the program also includes arrangements (most by Portland choral artists) of traditional and contemporary songs from African American gospel, Jewish, Orthodox, and Islamic traditions. The centerpiece, Where Everything is Music, is a new 30 minute cycle of twelve songs composed by Portland’s Theresa Koon using translations of Sufi and Hindu texts. “I was inspired by the ways in which the mystic poetry from many traditions seems to offer an opening,” she notes, “a place where differing beliefs intersect in expressions of shared humanity.“

Theresa Koon’s song cycle ‘Where Everything is Music’ highlights Resonance Ensemble’s Sunday ‘Souls’ concert. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar

In keeping with Resonance’s own traditions, the concert, part of First Presbyterian Church’s estimable long-running Celebration Works series, also features visual art, this time by Portland’s Ed Labadie.

Koon also connected FitzGibbon with community religious leaders from the Institute for Christian-Muslim Understanding, Muslim Education Trust, and Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, who’ve been involved in planning the concert, including posing thought-provoking questions about religious understanding that will be posted around the performance space. After the free, 70-minute concert, audience members are invited to join in conversation with the artists and religious leaders about those and other questions about compassion and faith.

FitzGibbon believes those issues are worth examining, even in what’s sometimes characterized as one of the nation’s least-churched regions. “Our intention is that there will be a way in for everyone,” she says. “We tried to structure it so it will resonate with people who come from a particular faith tradition. But also a lot of arts lovers might come to it more from an intellectual perspective, to learn more about Sufi traditions, for example, and how some of them seem similar to other religious traditions, in the way [American composer] Leonard Bernstein does at the end of Chichester Psalms,” the radiant 1965 choral work that blends Hebrew verse and Christian choral traditions. Its third movement closes the concert.

“The incredible poetry of the Sufi tradition, of Jewish mysticism, and of Christian faith have distinct voices and also a common vision,” she explains. “What if all people could dwell together in peace?”

Resonance Ensemble artistic director Katherine FitzGibbon. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar.

Resonance’s next concert this June, “Bodies,” centers upon another collection of pertinent social issues, gender and sexuality, and will be part of Pride Week.

FitzGibbon says Resonance’s audience welcomed the group’s topical approach.

“Our audience surveys after the November concert were glowing,” she says. “People felt like this was filling a need for them: to be able to listen to music that feels like a response to the world we’re living in right now, with all the harsh rhetoric and sense of some people’s voices being silenced. There’s a sense of joy and power in hearing voices represented that might otherwise go unheard, both from people who are in positions of power and also those who feel powerless.”

FitzGibbon says the positive response to this season’s artistic response to current social concerns has encouraged Resonance’s board of directors to devise a new mission statement that puts social concerns at the forefront.

“That’s one of the nice things about being a small organization — we’re nimble and can respond and tailor programs to things that are happening today,” she says. “We have a sense of what we can do as an arts organization to help people connect with each other. We feel like choral music is uniquely positioned to help people understand different perspectives.”

Resonance Ensemble and guest artists perform ‘Souls‘ at 2 pm Sunday, Feb. 25, at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church, 1200 S.W. Alder St. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/Oregon Live.

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