Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

Persistence reborn: Resonance Ensemble with composer Darrell Grant, writer A. Mimi Sei, and Oregon Remembrance Project’s Taylor Stewart

The March 17 concert featured commissioned work by Grant and Sei alongside music by Joel Thompson, Rosephayne Powell, and regular Resonance collaborator Melissa Dunphy.

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Katherine FitzGibbon conducting Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Katherine FitzGibbon conducting Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Joe Cantrell.

Birds and soaring songs flew by during Resonance Ensemble’s powerful concert March 17 at Alberta Rose Theatre. No surprise the company of well-balanced voices (there were 19 for this performance), founded by visionary choral director Katherine FitzGibbon, has stuck around for 15 years. Once again, Resonance let us in on poetic, socially conscious music, this time by Black contemporary composers, that inspires us to fly a bit higher.

Going forward with hope–rather than dwelling in trauma, broken promises and pain–was the theme of the 90-minute performance that featured, among other songs, two eloquent bird-anchored pieces by Joel Thompson. The first, “Hold Fast to Dreams” linking mid-20th-century Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” and “Dreams,” was illustrated by childlike drawings, birds included, projected behind the choir:

Hold fast to dreams,
For when dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
that cannot fly.

Shohei Kobayashi conducting Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Shohei Kobayashi conducting Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Joe Cantrell.

Thompson’s second piece, programmed after intermission, was based on Maya Angelou’s well-known poem, “The Caged Bird Sings for Freedom.” Dissonance surfaced in this somewhat mournful composition, with clarinetist Barbara Heilmair playing the part of the bird. In the onstage background brilliantly colored illustration, the bird appears to be crying. I’m sure the bird is crying. As the text goes:

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

(Thompson’s music was featured in this month’s Portland Opera’s The Snowy Day, a world premiere at Houston Grand Opera in 2021. Thompson is a composer becoming more and more visible; he spent the last couple of years as Houston Grand Opera’s first full-time composer-in- residence.)

The final “bird” piece was composed by Portland jazz musician Darrell Grant in collaboration with Sierra Leone-born Portland-based writer A. Mimi Sei, titled From the Book of Sankofa: She Would Have Us Know. As Grant, a music professor at Portland State University, explained in the program notes about the Resonance-commissioned world premiere:

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Sankofa is a Twi word from the Akan tribe in Ghana that literally means to ‘go back and get it.’ Often represented by the symbol of a bird with its head turned backward, carrying an egg in its mouth, it represents the idea of looking back at our past to learn from it and move forward.

Shohei Kobayashi conducting Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Shohei Kobayashi conducting Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Joe Cantrell.

The piece, directed by high-spirited Resonance Associate Conductor Shohei Kobayashi, was the most complex and sophisticated of the concert, accompanied by Sei’s forceful poetry, which she read in a rich, sonorous voice. As a compelling spoken-word artist, she sometimes uttered single words instead of a stanza or a phrase, and with stellar musician Nancy Ives on the cello representing the bird and cuing tricky pitches, and talented pianist Hannah Brewer playing the score, this was truly a multimedia presentation.

Grant’s musical depth and range reach farther than jazz, though he is often called a “jazz composer.” He names a plethora of sources that inspire his compositions, including Herbie Hancock, Thomas Tallis, Caroline Shaw, Franz Schubert, Bobby McFerrin and Maurice Ravel, “among others,” he adds. If the music was challenging to follow, the composition and poem told a story beginning with “a sacred longing” to ”a soul drenched in battle” to “a sweet haven for dreams laced in song” to the final stanza, “I am master of my soul… Persistence reborn.”

Composer Darrell Grant with Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Composer Darrell Grant with Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Writer A. Mimi Sei with Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Writer A. Mimi Sei with Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Joe Cantrell.

Melissa Dunphy’s six-part Amendment: Righting our Wrongs was another notable but far more straightforward composition than Grant’s, with some text by Georgia political leader and voting-rights advocate Stacey Abrams. The text is taken from many standard revered government documents and given wry and potent twists by Abrams, Francis Bellamy, Astrid Silva, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells and other activists. In the “Identity Politics” movement, the authors write:

Our rights depend:
On whether we live in the right state,
On where we were born,
on how or when our families arrived,
on whether we can afford valid ID,
on whether that ID matches our gender,
on the lawyers we can afford

Katherine FitzGibbon conducting Resonance Ensemble in Melissa Dunphy's "Amendments: Righting Our Wrongs." Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Katherine FitzGibbon conducting Resonance Ensemble in Melissa Dunphy’s “Amendments: Righting Our Wrongs.” Photo by Joe Cantrell.

The final piece by Rosephanye Powell, “I Dream a World,” was based on another Langston Hughes poem. The ultimately upbeat composition ends with: 

Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind –
Of such I dream, my world!

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Despite the explanation point, the piece avoids sentimentality, going from good dream to nightmare, from consonance to dissonance, and ending with chords that indicate the dreamer has awakened.

Nancy Ives performing with Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Nancy Ives performing with Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Joe Cantrell.

Oregon Remembrance Project’s Taylor Stewart didn’t sing or compose but he brought his truth and reconciliation endeavors to light on stage in his three-part speaking piece, “Reflection.” At first I thought: Is this a public service announcement, a lecture, a mini Ted Talk amid a swirl of music? Later I changed my mind after hearing him.

Locating and excavating injustice, and discovering and uncovering ways to heal its damage, is part of Resonance’s mission and that of the Remembrance Project, so Stewart’s presentation, if not musical, was well attuned to the concert.

Oregon Remembrance Project's Taylor Stewart with Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Oregon Remembrance Project’s Taylor Stewart with Resonance Ensemble. Photo by Joe Cantrell.

Stewart talked about one of the ORP’s most significant local efforts: memorializing Alonzo Tucker, a Black man lynched in broad daylight in 1902 in Coos Bay. Stewart mentioned the astonishing statistic that from 1865 through 1950, 6,500 lynchings occurred in United States, making post-Civil-War hangings an extension of slavery. Taylor, who considers himself an ordinary guy from Oregon who is making extraordinary things happen, had a lot to say: “We can’t change history, but we have the power to rewrite the endings.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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