“One of the most common questions I get is ‘what is pride?’,” said Pride Northwest Executive Director Debra Porta at the Q&A following Resonance Ensemble’s June concert, Bodies. “It’s difficult to put into words.” This echoed Porta’s words from the beginning of the concert (an official Pride Week event), when she praised the pride and perseverance of those who “broke the universe into pieces” to be who they are and concluded that “Pride is a verb.”
The Cerimon House stage was lit with splashes of color, a rainbow of lights arrayed along the wall, a doubled Roy G. Bv coruscating out from central violets to perimeter reds. The concert commenced with Dominick DiOrio’s The Visible World, a sort of modern madrigal treating the struggle for marriage equality with a quilt of texts ranging from Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis” and a love poem by Catullus to quotes from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and civil rights activist Paul Barwick. The title comes from Théophile Gautier’s quote “I am a man for whom the visible world exists,” but the piece was dominated by a line taken from a poster spotted outside Seattle City Hall in 2012: “Sorry it took so long.”
That phrase spooled out through the ensemble in a Proverb-type canon that immediately put me in mind of Renaissance counterpoint, Meredith Monk, Caroline Shaw, David Lang. The harmony often veered into very chromatic realms, not dissonant (if the word even means anything anymore) but those dense, jazzy, Manhattan Transfer jazz chords that Resonance knows how to sing better than anyone else in Portland. Wolfe-style post-minimalist pulsations and flashes of Gabriel Kahane’s populist lyrical sensibility elevated quotidian lines like “The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives” while two millennia of queer poetry intermingled over drones and semitone shimmers and cascades of “sorry it took so long.”
DiOrio’s dense, emotional, poetical patchwork stood as a sort of invocation, a visibilizing of the concert’s animating spirit of gender diversity. The invocation was completed by a reflection, a new poem written and performed by Resonance’s Poet-in-Residence, S. Renee Mitchell, who originally came to Resonance as a serendipitous replacement for Vin Shambry at last fall’s Voices concert, and began her residency in February with Souls. For each concert, Mitchell has written original poetry interweaving texts from the concerts’ pieces, together with commentary and her own personal perspective. Another quilt. Another invocation.
Mitchell’s voice is strong, impassioned, a little wry, like a well-played viola. Some lines that stood out to me (you can read the whole thing here):
bodies bodies bodies
arms legs collarbone shoulder
each limb holds thousands of portals
that all long for the tender touch of another
think back, if you will
to the resonance of fresh oxygen
filling your lungs for the first time
how you reminded all within earshot
that you have arrived
we will celebrate
how living for pleasure
made Oscar Wilde
That last one got a good laugh, which turned out to be the final ingredient for the afternoon’s proceedings: a bit of gaiety to liven the spirits, a reminder of what we struggle for when the noise of what we struggle against becomes all too overpowering.
The whole concert was like that, as Resonance artistic director Katherine FitzGibbon announced at the outset: “a tribute and celebration of the hard work, struggle, and creativity of the LGBTQIA community.” In “To Know,” from Laura Kaminsky’s chamber opera As One, mezzo Beth Madsen Bradford and superhuman Damien Geter portrayed two sides of As One’s hero(ine) Hannah, tempering loneliness and frustration with the solitary joys of self-discovery and puns about the Transvaal War. The women of Resonance sang Carol Barnett’s “Song of Perfect Propriety,” on a poem by Dorothy Parker, words and music vivid and good-humored with a witty, determined rage, a song of roving and drinking and riding, darkly chromatic in a Weimar cabaret sort of way, as if Lotte Lenya were the famous composer and Kurt Weill her eccentric accompanist.
The first half ended on Melissa Dunphy’s “What Do You Think I Fought for at Omaha Beach”—another fine choral setting of everyday speech, this time the testimony of WWII veteran Phillip Spooner, who told the Maine Senate:
“I’m here today because of a conversation I had last year when I was voting. A woman at my polling place asked me, ‘Do you believe in equality for gay and lesbian people?’ I was pretty surprised to be asked a question like that; it made no sense to me. Finally I asked her, “What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?” I have seen so much blood and guts, so much suffering, so much sacrifice. For what? For freedom and equality. These are the values that make America a great nation, one worth dying for.”
In the second half, mezzo Lisa Neher’s rendition of Jake Runestad’s simple, elegant, classic “Under This Tree” and soprano Vakare Petroliunaite’s mature, confident longing in Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” (so strange to hear the verse!) balanced Stephen Marc Beaudoin’s trio of songs on the theme of “pretty”—two by Leonard Bernstein (“I Feel Pretty” and “So Pretty”) and Ned Rorem’s wistful “Boy with a Baseball Glove.” Beaudoin gave us a little history, discussing Bernstein and Barbra Streisand, Vietnam and the AIDS epidemic, and the strain of coming out at 14 and never feeling pretty. Beaudoin was funny, sure—Grindr swipes and selfies “in that mirror there”—and heartbreaking in the anti-war ache of “So Pretty.” His effortless charm reminded me, again, of what we struggle for, the physicality and pleasure that give freedom its meaning.
Frankly I found Craig Hella Johnson’s “All of Us,” from his oratorio Considering Matthew Shepard, almost too much to take. Not that the music or performance were lacking; far from it. Johnson’s big, churchy harmonies flowed from the main ensemble and a trio up in the balcony (Petroliunaite, Catherine van der Salm, Susan Hale), and that big chorus “Only in the Love, Love that lifts us up” threatened to stick in my head and undo me.
Shepard was only a year older than I am, and shared my first name; the fall when he was murdered, I had just started college at an evangelical Christian school, and as I became slowly and painfully aware that I was nearly the only person I knew who identified with Shepard in any way, I understood for the first time how terribly and physically real bigotry and hatred can be.
I hadn’t thought about any of that in a long, long time, and if it weren’t for Cyndi Lauper I probably would have started bawling right there in Cerimon House. Matt Brown’s arrangement of “True Colors” closed the show on a positive, determined, encouraging note: “your true colors are beautiful like a rainbow.”
During the the post-show discussion Porta answered the question so often posed to her. “After hearing this concert?” she said. “This is what Pride is. It’s something we do.”
Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.