Finding hope through music

Southern Oregon’s Anima Mundi Productions continues to challenge audiences about cultural and social issues through music

By GARY FERRINGTON

A new concert series dedicated to bringing world-class musicians and composers to southern Oregon with the purpose of musicially addressing challenging social issues was inaugurated this October when Anima Mundi Productions co-founders, composer Ethan Gans-Morse and poet Tiziana DellaRovere, launched The Heart of Humanity program. This annual series of three concerts per year (fall, winter, and spring), often programed with “extra-musical” and “beyond the concert hall” elements that proactively engage the wider community, is focused on giving a compassionate voice to marginalized people and turning the concert hall into a venue for renewed hope, mutual understanding, and communal healing.

Malek Jandali Trio opens Ashland’s The Heart of Humanity series. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy Anima Mundi Productions.
Malek Jandali Trio opens Ashland’s The Heart of Humanity series. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy Anima Mundi Productions.

The Heart of Humanity is the fourth Anima Mundi project in which Gans-Morse and DellaRovere have focused on the mission of creating musical performances that inspire the soul, inform the mind, and foster community.

Their first production, The Canticle of the Black Madonna (2014), was a fully staged, Portland-premiered event about combat PTSD and the environment. A chamber opera,Tango of the White Gardenia (2018), addressed issues of bullying and body perception and went on tour around the state.The Rogue Valley Symphony commissioned Anima Mundi’s third and most recent collaborative effort, How Can You Own The Sky? (2018), a symphonic poem exploring the Native American legacy of Southern Oregon through poetry and orchestral music with indigenous musical influences.

Collaborative premiere

The Heart of Humanity project represents a shift by Anima Mundi to a concert series model. It is an ambitious effort, Gans-Morse told ArtsWatch, made so by the organization’s commitment to bringing all-professional talent to Ashland and southern Oregon. This has been facilitated by the recent hiring of Jane Kenworthy as Business and Development Manager. She brings with her 40 years in orchestra and performing arts management, including serving as Executive Director of seven orchestras and most recently the Rogue Valley Symphony, from which she retired in 2017.

For the Heart of Humanity premiere, Anima Mundi brought internationally recognized pianist Malek Jandali to the recital hall at Southern Oregon University for a program centered around the theme of Peace through Music. Jandali, along with Oregon-based musicians Michal Palzewicz on cello and David Rogers on oud (a Middle Eastern ancestor of the lute), performed Jandali’s music, which is inspired by the ancient melodies of his Syrian heritage which have become imperiled by the on-going Syrian Civil War.

As a lead up to the first Heart of Humanity concert, Anima Mundi Productions partnered with Jandali’s Pianos for Peace project to launch an Oregon site based on a model Jandali has pioneered elsewhere that involves placing decorated pianos around a city to inspire and unite people in the community through shared “values of beauty, truth and harmony,” according to the project’s web site.

Spontaneous street performances. Photo courtesy of Anima Mundi Productions.
Spontaneous street performances. Photo courtesy of Anima Mundi Productions.

For its part, Anima Mundi brought together a group of local professional artists, high school students from nearby Phoenix, Oregon, and community leaders who hand-decorated two pianos that were then placed at sites around Ashland. Those passing by the pianos were delighted to hear the spontaneous music performed by other members of the community. The student piano now permanently lives at the Armadillo Technical Institute in Phoenix, and the other continues on at the Phoenix Civic Center, a new community space in downtown Phoenix.

Among community events celebrating the kick-off of the Pianos for Peace Oregon project was a short community musical program by Jandali, composer Michael Silversher, and the Rogue Valley Peace Choir at Ashland’s Thalden Pavilion. Jandali also provided media interviews and held discussions at the piano sites about searching for peace through music and his own efforts to preserve Syria’s musical heritage.

The season continues

With a successful fall program complete, Gans-Morse and DellaRovere are looking forward to winter and spring events. In January, baritone Christòpheren Nomura and pianist Daniel Lockert will perform a program of classical and popular works that explore the pressing topic of “healing the wounds of war and restoring compassion.” The concert’s theme–With Malice Toward None, With Charity For All–is reflected in the world premiere of new music by Southern Oregon Repertory Singers resident composer Jodi French and original art songs by Ethan Gans-More and Tiziana DellaRovere.

Nomura, Lockert & French. Photo courtesy of Anima Mundi Productions.
Nomura, Lockert & French. Photo courtesy of Anima Mundi Productions.

The season ends on April 26 with the world premiere of Gans-Morse and DellaRovere’s Dreams Have No Borders, a narrative song cycle for three singers and string quartet. Based interviews that Gans-Morse and DellaRovere conducted with Oregon migrant families, the new work uses music, narrative poetry, and original images by Latinx artists to narrate a harrowing journey by a young mother in search of a better life for her family and herself.

Featured artists include Grammy winner Esteli Gomez (Soprano), Cecilia Duarte (Mezzo-Soprano), Rafael Moras (Tenor) and the Delgani String Quartet. The project was funded in part by an Oregon Community Foundation Creative Heights Grant which provided the opportunity for Gans-Morse and DellaRovere to spend a year interviewing Latino immigrants in the Rogue Valley and those community service organizations that advocate for them.

Vocalists Gomez, Duarte & Moras. Photo courtesy of Anima Mundi Productions.
Vocalists Gomez, Duarte & Moras. Photo courtesy of Anima Mundi Productions.

According to Gans-Morse, DellaRovere prefers not to adapt existing texts: “Tiziana takes full advantage of the opportunity to base her poetry and librettos on the lives of real people she meets through a process of integrating herself into the community whose story we’re telling. This was the case with the Native American and veteran communities when working on How Can You Own The Sky? And The Canticle of the Black Madonna, respectively.”

Both Gans-Morse and DellaRovere found the community interview process an extraordinary opportunity, because each of their interview subjects “recounted absolutely harrowing experiences of trauma, vulnerability, and ultimately resilience (and, in certain cases, triumph against all odds) in sharing their experiences of escaping severe hardship and making new lives here in Oregon,” Gans-Morse observed. Often the participants confided experiences they had told only those close to them as they relieved some of their most difficult memories. “This open-hearted display of raw humanity touched us very deeply.” It is that experience Gans-Morse and DellaRovere have been working to share with audiences through poetry and music. 

Delgani String Quartet: Jannie Wei, Wyatt True, Kimberlee Uwate, Eric Alterman. Photo courtety of DSP.
Delgani String Quartet: Jannie Wei, Wyatt True, Kimberlee Uwate, Eric Alterman. Photo courtety of DSP.

Looking ahead

The artistic programming for the second season is already well underway. Gans-Morse told ArtsWatch that Anima Mundi would like to establish long term partnerships in Eugene and Portland so that each of its program productions could travel up I-5 for repeat performances, and although he can’t name the artists until everyone has signed, he did tell us that Anima Mundi is planning to present “some very well established and impressive artists based in Portland.” Gans-Morse added that their second year will be focused entirely on environmental themes, “broadly defined as issues concerning the care of the earth and specific narratives about preserving endangered places and animals.”

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