A Healing Journey Through Song

Baritone Christòpheren Nomura and Ashland’s Heart of Humanity series

By ALICE HARDESTY

At the end of a recent concert at Southern Oregon University, some of the audience left in tears. Certainly, all were deeply moved by baritone Christòpheren Nomura’s voluptuous rendering of a program spanning the centuries from early Romantic to the present moment. The January 12 concert, “With Malice Toward None, With Charity For All,” was the second in the three-concert Heart of Humanity series presented by Anima Mundi Productions, a non-profit arts organization in Southern Oregon.

Baritone Christòpheren Nomura with accompanist Daniel Lockert at Hearts of Humanity. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy of Anima Mundi.
Baritone Christòpheren Nomura with accompanist Daniel Lockert at Heart of Humanity’s January concert in Ashland. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy of Anima Mundi.

The organization’s mission is to “create, promote, and produce new musical works that harness the power of the arts to stir the soul, foster community, and address urgent social and environmental problems.” Co-founders composer Ethan Gans-Morse and poet Tiziana DellaRovere believe that the arts provide a vehicle for healing, and that when a person’s soul is healed and their heart is touched, a piece of the entire world is healed because we are all connected. 

Oregon ArtsWatch contributor Gary Ferrington has written about the first concert in this series, Peace Through Music, as well as the composer-librettist team’s two operas (see Ferrington’s “Finding Hope Through Music” and “Composer Ethan Gans-Morse: Music as Social Voice.”) 

Toward intimacy on the concert stage

This concert series represents a shift away from large performances like opera to the concert stage, which the producers have designed to be more intimate and interactive than the usual concert setting. Mr. Nomura accomplished their intent skillfully with humor and charm, chatting about the music between numbers and leaving the audience lights part-way up so that he could see faces. He talked about several of the pieces and told relevant stories, some of them self-deprecating anecdotes from his own life. At the end of the concert there was a discussion period, for which most of the audience stayed.

One of America’s most popular baritones, Nomura is known for the warmth and clarity of his voice, which displayed great flexibility, from powerful triple fortes to the most delicate, chill-inducing soft notes. Throughout his performance, it was obvious that communication and connection are paramount for him. Not only his voice, but his facial expression and gestures showed that he was deeply involved in every piece he sang, and that every word mattered.  

Nomura’s accompanist Daniel Lockert displayed his chops as a fine pianist and sensitive accompanist, as did Jodi French accompanying Nomura during her composition. Each group of songs progressed through the healing journey from “Conflict” to “Questions & Answers,” to “Transformation,” and finally to “Reconciliation.”

I. Conflict

In the very first piece–“Litany,” by the contemporary American composer John Musto based on a poem by Langston Hughes–one could hear shades of the warm, lyrical voice of Nomura’s teacher, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In the next two songs, by Xavier Montsalvatge, Nomura sounded distinctly Spanish. Then he became warlike in “I Hear an Army,” Samuel Barber’s rendition of the James Joyce poem, only to become thin and pathetic for the heartbroken lines at the end.

II. Questions & Answers

Next on the healing journey, Nomura chose Brahms’ “Vier Ernste Gesänge” (“Four Serious Songs.”) He quoted Fischer-Dieskau, who told him, “as you grow, you will find out how important they are.” He also told the audience that his Japanese grandmother had sung these songs in German to her daughter, who, in turn, sang them to her son, Christòpheren–still in German! Nomura had the honor of singing them at Fischer-Dieskau’s U.S. memorial service in 2012. Each of the first two songs sets biblical passages from Ecclesiastes; the third sets text from the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (or Jesus Sirach); and the fourth quotes the famous letter from St. Paul to the Corinthians about love.

Brahms composed these songs in the last year of his life. Clara Schumann was dying of cancer and Brahms was most likely aware of his own final illness. The songs themselves, flowing from minor to major keys, traverse the emotional range from bitterness and despair to transcendence. In these pieces Nomura has given us quintessential Brahms in his themes of love and death—intense, dramatic, and tender.

III. Transformation

After the intermission, Nomura performed two world premieres: “Dragons into Angels” by Ethan Gans-Morse with poetry by Tiziana DellaRovere, and “The Legend of Leaving” composed by Jodi French with poetry by former Oregon Poet Laureate Lawson Fusao Inada. As an introduction to the first piece, DellaRovere, who was born in Milan, spoke to the audience about her poem and the devastation to the Italian cityscape after WWII. “The houses had been bombed,” she said. “There was no nature. There was no green except in the fields.”

Her father wouldn’t let her play in the fields because of landmines, but he would take her for walks around the edge of the field. One day they discovered a carpet of violets, representing nature’s power of renewal after the destruction of war. The poem is in the voice of her father:

And never, never play in the fields
Where death hides among the weeds.
The flaying dragons of war have laid their eggs, full of fire,
To scorch the soil and eat the limbs of little children.

Heart of Humanity librettist Tiziana DellaRovere. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy of Anima Mundi.
Heart of Humanity librettist Tiziana DellaRovere. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy of Anima Mundi.

During the discussion session Gans-Morse explained that the poem preceded the music. He likened the process of composition to that of a sculptor chiseling away at a block of marble, and the artistic creation appears by the guiding power of the poetry.

In the music, Nomura’s voice and the piano wove around each other, then increased in speed and volume to reflect the joyful sweetness of the violets. His voice built to a soft and pure high register before dropping an octave for the ethereal ending.

Introducing the next song, composer and pianist Jodi French remarked, to the amusement of the audience, “if you’ve never written a piece for Chris Nomura and had him sing it in your face, I highly recommend it!” She selected the poem from Inada’s book of poetry, Legends From Camp, describing his experiences as a Japanese-American interned during WWII.

Nomura told the audience that he had studied Inada’s poems to prepare for his role in the Broadway show Allegiance. He explained how scary it must have been, not only to be rounded up and imprisoned, but later to be forced actually to leave the camp, the community where the young Inada had lived for five years. “And this is happening right now,” Nomura added, “and with children!”

Composer Jodi French accompanied Nomura. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy of Anima Mundi.
Composer Jodi French accompanied Nomura. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy of Anima Mundi.

The text of Jodi French’s piece begins with five lines from a 12th-century poem by the Retired Emperor Sutoku, sung in Japanese, followed by Inada’s poem in English. A hint of Japanese harmonies is evident in these delicate first lines. After that, the music artfully describes the wistful farewell of a Japanese-American boy to the dusty fences, towers, and rows of barracks where he has spent the last five years. 

At first it is the song of a boy playing “king of the walled city” with his friends, marching to “Head of State, Head of Fence, Head of Towers, Head of Gate.” Portions of the poem are spoken, then declared in one-note repetitions like instructions, after which the boy’s sadness is revealed in soft, tender passages: 

Let’s have one last look
as I leave
this morning, evening.

All my belongings
are gathered.
All my connections
are scattered.

What’s over the horizon?
What’s left to abandon?
What’s left to administer?
Will anyone ever need
another Camp Director?

The last two lines of Inada’s poem, eerily prescient, are spoken. Then the baritone repeats the Sutoku poem and the song ends in a quiet peace.

Left to right: Jodi French, Lawson Inada, Daniel Lockert, Tiziana DellaRovere, Christòpheren Nomura. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy of Anima Mundi.
Left to right: French, Inada, Lockert, DellaRovere, Nomura. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy of Anima Mundi.

IV. Reconciliation

For the final section, Nomura chose songs by more American composers: Aaron Copland, Stefania de Kenessey, and Allegiance composer Jay Kuo. Nomura gave robust performances of Copland’s spiritual, “At the River,” and “The Dodger,” which, as he said, he “couldn’t resist including.” In an odd digression toward nostalgia, he chose “A Curse on Geographers” by the contemporary composer de Kenessey, setting the words of traditionalist contemporary poet Dana Gioia

Nomura’s final piece was Kuo’s very fitting “Gaman,” from Allegiance. Nomura explained that “gaman” is a Japanese word meaning to persevere and hold strong, critical concepts for the Japanese Americans during their long imprisonment in the camps. He personified the concept as he sang, hands clasped in front of his chest for the first several measures, and then arms outstretched with the lines: 

Come take my hand as together we stand squarely and plain
Our spirit restored and through a shared fortitude
For we know what we forego and what we sustain
We know that there’s no turning back
Gaman.

“Good will come”

At the close of the concert, composers, poets, and performers came on stage to answer questions and join the audience in a lively discussion tying together the themes of the performance. In today’s crisis atmosphere, the songs of this healing journey provided not only balm, but a stirring call to action. “We have a mission,” Nomura reminded everyone. “We need to send the message out far and wide. People should hold strong and persevere. Good will come.”

Ethan Gans-Morse, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Tiziana DellaRovere. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy of Anima Mundi.
Gans-Morse, Inada, and DellaRovere. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy of Anima Mundi.

Alice Hardesty is a writer and music enthusiast living in Ashland. Her most recent book, Walking with Bacho, Four Seasons in Portland, is published by Bacho Press.

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