by GARY FERRINGTON
Oregon arts outside Portland “don’t get,” as the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield might say, “no respect.” Or, at least the press coverage they should. Having grown up in Portland, it took me some time, actually until I moved to Eugene, to realize that the arts thrive elsewhere in the state and that we Oregonians have a rich cultural landscape to embrace and celebrate.
So it has been with little fanfare heard beyond the southern Oregon communities of Medford, Ashland, and Grants Pass, that the Rogue Valley Symphony orchestra has been enthusiastically celebrating its 50th anniversary. The nearly 70-member orchestra of professional musicians, formed in 1967 by Southern Oregon College (now University), conductor and violin professor Frederick Palmer, began its golden anniversary season in September under the musical direction of Martin Majkut. It has since performed four newly commissioned works (more than all of Oregon’s other orchestras this season combined) and concludes its season this week with its fifth, How Can You Own The Sky? by Southern Oregon composer Ethan Gans-Morse. The symphonic poem honoring native wisdom features poetry by Tiziana DellaRovere and narration, singing, and drumming by Brent Florendo, and the Dancing Spirit ensemble.
The orchestra wanted a new work that would “simultaneously celebrate the unique beauty and the people of Southern Oregon while also creating an opportunity for meaningful conversations to address urgent social questions in that community,” Gans-Morse told ArtsWatch. Social questions permeated Gans-Morse’s opera The Canticle of the Black Madonna, which premiered in September 2014 in Portland’s Newmark Theatre. (Read my ArtsWatch interview with Gans-Morse.) That opera’s social outreach efforts, which addressed the challenges of reintegrating and addressing the emotional wounds of veterans with PTSD, inspired recently retired Rogue Valley Symphony executive director Jane Kenworthy and music director Martin Majkut to approach Gans-Morse and his wife and collaborator Tiziana DellaRovere, to write a proposal for a symphonic work.
He and DellaRovere, whose non-profit Anima Mundi Productions’ mission is to “heal the soul of the world through the arts,” proposed an 8-12 minute piece about Native American history of the region, to celebrate the Valley while “honoring a population that is all too often invisible in our society.” Gans-Morse recalls. The orchestra counter-proposed that the work be 30-minutes long and stand alone as the opening portion of the April concerts, with Beethoven’s Symphony #9 after intermission.
Gans-Morse notes that there is some “precedent nationally for large symphonic works on Native American themes by both Native and non-Native composers, including Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears, Rob Kapilow’s Summer Sun, Winter Moon, and James DeMars’ Two World Concerto.” In naming his new piece How Can You Own The Sky? A Symphonic Poem Honoring Native Wisdom, the creative team wanted to create an opportunity for the southern Oregon community to honor the original inhabitants of the region, to seek them out and champion their presence in Oregon, and through music to facilitate “concrete actions to remedy what has been quite frankly a murderous history, which culminated with Oregon’s own Trail of Tears, essentially a forced death march to reservations hundreds of miles away.”
He describes How Can You Own The Sky? as a “journey in four stages, from the legend of creation, through the trials of the first peoples of Southern Oregon, into the devastation of the Rogue River Wars, and finally toward a more hopeful future of peaceful reconciliation, healing of past wrongs, and a return to Native American teachings of greater harmony with our world and all its inhabitants,” Gans-Morse told ArtsWatch. “Obviously Tiziana and I are not claiming to be part of the Native American community, much less to be experts of Native American culture. Rather, we have been clear from the beginning that we are two artists seeking to shine an artistic light on one of the richest and least-explored cultural resources of this beautiful part of the world. ”
Connecting with the Community
Working with the indigenous communities of Southern Oregon was essential to the project. To do that, the artists needed a Native American collaborator. They found one in Brent Florendo who has spent his entire career in Ashland as a professor of Native American Studies and Native Nations Liaison for Southern Oregon University.
The planning and research process took over a year, during which Florendo guided the artists on how to approach and honor the Native American community. He provided them with the research materials that enabled DellaRovere to base her narrative poetry on Takelma stories about the creation of local landscapes. Florendo also connected the team with living elders of the Takelma, one of the tribes that lived in the Rogue Valley for thousands of years before they were moved to the Siletz Reservation following the Rogue River wars of the 1850s. He even welcomed both to area pow-wow events and asked them to sit with his family around their drum, “which is a huge honor,” Gans-Morse noted.
Finally, Florendo wrote an original melody — or, as his tribal tradition would put it, “caught a song” — which he will sing, along with the Dancing Spirit ensemble, at the beginning and end of the symphony. Gans-Morse notes that he has worked in this melody throughout his composition, so that there “is a clear musical thread that connects all four movements of the symphony narratively with this theme.” Florendo will also play the role of the narrator/storyteller, reading DellaRovere’s poetry between each of the four movements. Florendo’s daughter Chava, a member of Dancing Spirit who’ll perform with the ensemble in the premiere, is a multifaceted artist who created the poster for the performance.
Stories and Symbols
In crafting her poetry, DellaRovere drew on interviews with, and the writings of, Agnes Baker Pilgrim, (Grandma Says Wake Up, World!) who is the oldest living member of her tribe, the Takelma, and granddaughter of Jack Harney, the first elected Chief of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz. She chairs the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, which resists “ the unprecedented destruction of our Mother Earth and the destruction of indigenous ways of life.”
Pilgrim inspired the allegorical character of the Grandmother in DellaRovere’s poetry. “The symbolism of the dragonfly in our piece alludes to the way she describes dragonflies as her ancestors returning to offer guidance,” Gans-Morse explains.
Despite his symphonic work’s origins in a specific place and moment in Oregon history, Gans-Morse hopes it will have broad appeal. While the symphonic piece celebrates a few specific landmarks that will be familiar to audiences in the Rogue Valley, “we believe that the broader themes of honoring the earth, coming together to acknowledge the pain of the past, and surrendering to the healing power of love are universal and will resonate with audiences everywhere,” he says. “If Native Americans who come to the concert feel that their world has been acknowledged, and if non-Natives come away from the concert thinking about, exploring, and seeking out more contact with indigenous Oregonians, then Tiziana and I will feel we’ve achieved the mission of the project. We would very much love to be part of a wave of projects across the American continent seeking to address and honor the journey of the First Nations.”
Martin Majkut regards How Can You Own the Sky? As part of a larger effort to reach broader audiences and address larger social and cultural concerns. “Like Beethoven’s Ninth, Ethan’s piece explores the idea of universal brotherhood/sisterhood,” he told ArtsWatch. “What binds Beethoven’s and Gans-Morse’s work is the appeal for the unity, peace and respect for the entire humankind. This performance should truly be a communal celebration. The goal is to reminisce about our past, cherish the present moment, and aspire to be the best possible versions of ourselves tomorrow”
The new work fits the larger mission of the orchestra’s 50th anniversary celebration. “I believe that in order to remain relevant as an art form, we have to, in addition to performing the best works of the past centuries, reflect on our time by talking about our own concerns and dreams, Majkut explains. “Commissioning five new works is, I believe, an unprecedented project for the orchestra of the size of the Rogue Valley Symphony. Two of the composers are local, the rest nationally recognized figures. There is a diversity of gender and age, as well as the diversity of compositional styles and genres.”
Along with commissioning the new works, the orchestra also laid the groundwork for audience appreciation. “We have worked with our patrons to introduce the new works, prepare them for these new experiences and explain our motivation behind this project,
Majkut says. “I paired all premieres with some of the most beloved music from the past eras. The response has been overall very positive.”
The first of its 50th anniversary commissioned works was performed in October with the premier of I’lana Cotton’s Cantus for Orchestra. Cotton, who moved to Medford from California in 2003, continues a distinguished career as a composer who has written works for a broad range of genres, including solo piano, small chamber groups, and large choral and instrumental ensembles.
In November the RVS premiered a Violin Concerto by Philadelphia based David Ludwig, whose earlier choral work, The New Colossus, was selected as the opening music for the private prayer service for the second inauguration of President Obama. Performed by guest artist Bella Hristova, a 2013 Avery Fisher Career Grant winner, Ludwig’s concerto was commissioned by a consortium of orchestras including the Rogue Valley Symphony.
The third commissioned work, Love Song to the Sun, was composed by acclaimed Nashville electric violinist Tracy Silverman, lauded by the BBC as “the greatest living exponent of the electric violin.” The former first violinist with the innovative Turtle Island String Quartet was named one of 100 distinguished alumni by New York’s Juilliard School.
The new year started with February’s premier of Rogue Sparks, an overture by Baltimore-based Jonathan Leshnoff, which The Mail Tribune called “a beautiful and exciting piece that engaged every instrument of the orchestra.” Leshnoff’s works have been performed by more than 50 orchestras worldwide and he has been been described by The New York Times as “a leader of contemporary American lyricism.”
The League of American Orchestras has recognized the orchestra’s accomplishments and has invited Majkut to present about this season with its rich array of commissioned work to speak at its annual conference in Chicago in June. “My goal is to encourage other regional orchestras to take on such projects,” he says.
Majkut sees the 50th season as transformational for the orchestra. “We will be looking back at this year as the time of transformation, of the maturation of our symphony, when our mission came to a sharp focus, when we gained a national recognition and made the strongest case yet for our reason to exist in the wonderful place that is Southern Oregon. We will reap the benefits of this season for years to come.”
Masterworks 6 by the Rogue Valley Symphony takes place in Medford: Friday, April 20 ♦ Medford: Saturday, April 21 ♦ Grants Pass: Sunday, April 22. Pre-Concert Talks: Conductor Martin Majkut will give a half-hour pre-concert talk beginning one hour before each Masterworks performance. Tickets online.
Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.