katherine fitzgibbon

MusicWatch Monthly: Labors of love

Opera on the lawn, cyborg music, and more clamouring

Today we’d like to shine light on some of the rose gardens Oregon musicians have been tending lately, from an outdoor opera in Newberg to a sci-fi surf bunker in McMinnville. But before we get to those labors of love, the roses need fertilizer–so we’d like to turn the mic over to fearless FearNoMusic Artistic Director and violist-composer-father Kenji Bunch, who has something to say on behalf of the City of Roses.

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Summer Streams

Chamber Music Northwest and Oregon Bach Festival lead parade of Oregon summer shows from onstage to online

Normally around this time, we’d be telling you all about Oregon’s two major summer classical music festivals, Chamber Music Northwest and the Oregon Bach Festival, both celebrating their 50th anniversaries this summer. But ‘normally’ scampered off awhile back, to return who knows when, if ever. So CMNW and OBF, along with many other festivals, orchestras, ensembles, and opera companies around the world that have turned to streaming live and/or archival video and/or audio as a substitute for suspended live performances. Anyone who’s been writhing in Zoom hell for the past few months knows that online can’t fully replace in-person experiences, but for now, all we have to do is stream, stream, stream. 

Screenshot from Chamber Music Northwest’s trio performance by Ida Kavafian, Peter Wiley and Steven Tenenbom.

Live and Archived

Beginning Monday, June 22 (the opening program is available through 11:59 p.m.Tuesday, June 23) and continuing through July 26, you can hear Chamber Music Northwest’s free Virtual Summer Festival, with three digital concerts appearing each week on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 7 pm and available through the next day at CMNW.org and on Chamber Music Northwest’s YouTube channel. It includes a mix of five all-new streamed performances featuring some of America’s most distinguished classical chamber players, all longtime CMNW/Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center vets who happen to be related by birth or marriage, and so able to perform together from their New York homes without fear of contagion — literally, hausmusik. The performances, prerecorded over the past two weeks, are preceded by introductions commentary by the artists.

Screenshot from Chamber Music Northwest’s Neubauer family concert

A baker’s dozen archived shows feature new music by some of America’s finest living composers (David Lang, Valerie Coleman, Kevin Puts and more), family-friendly fare both classic (Carnival of the Animals) and contemporary (Bruce Adolphe’s Marita and Her Heart’s Desire), a collaboration with Portland dance troupe BodyVox, a multi concert complete cycle of Beethoven’s magnificent string quartets by Austin’s Miro Quartet, a Peter Schickele tribute, an all-French concert, and a streamload of chamber classics from the 18th through 20th centuries — including a swan song starring longtime retiring artistic director and clarinetist David Shifrin.

Bright Sheng’s ‘The Silver River’ finally debuted at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Top recommendation: the July 6-12 presentation of contemporary Chinese American composer Bright Sheng’s gorgeous chamber opera The Silver River, one of the coolest things I’ve experienced in my decades of attending the festival. And stay tuned for more previews by ArtsWatch music editor Matthew Andrews.

My Bach Pages

The virus crisis has also forced the University of Oregon’s Oregon Bach Festival to celebrate its 50th anniversary by streaming archival recordings to replace its canceled 2020 edition — essentially a half century’s greatest hits. Hosted by Eugene’s own golden voiced classical music announcer Peter van de Graaff, the Radio Festival will be broadcast live on KWAX FM (over the radio and its website) from June 26 through July 10 and feature one-time (no online archiving) OBF performances recorded from 1979 through last year  — its Bach catalog, as it were. 

Traditionalists will swoon over staples like Bach’s St. Matthew (June 26) and St. John Passions (July 3, featuring the incomparable bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff), Monteverdi’s Vespers (July 1), Mozart’s Mass in C minor and Handel’s Messiah (June 29), Verdi’s Requiem (June 30) and so many more.

New music fans will welcome the chance to hear world premieres of contemporary commissions next month. Celebrated Scottish composer James Macmillan’s A European Requiem airs July 7, and Ralph M. Johnson’s short, sweet This House of Peace June 30, while the July 9 broadcast features selections from American composer Richard Danielpour’s The Passion of Yeshua (which debuted at the 2018 fest) and from Sven-David Sandström’s modern, moody Messiah update on Handel, along with the expansive Grammy-winning Credo by great 20th century Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who died earlier this year.

Oregon Bach Festival co-founder Helmuth Rilling conducts a performance of Sven-David Sandström’s “Messiah” in 2009. Photo: Jon Christopher Meyers

You can also tune in to Quasthoff’s memorable, must-hear 1998 recital on July 8, in a segment that also includes festival fave pianist Jeffrey Kahane leading the OBF orchestra in Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto. Other concerts include Bach’s ever-popular Brandenburg Concertos on July 6 (a perfect intro for classical newbies and perennial for OG baroque fans), Mendelssohn’s delightful A Midsummer Night’s Dream July 2 and classics by Schubert, CPE Bach (June 30, from 2019, the most recent show), and, sprinkled throughout, cantatas by his dad, the festival’s namesake.

Most of these performances were conducted by the festival’s founding music director, Helmuth Rilling, one of the 20th century’s most respected Bach specialists. But the closing July 10 broadcast featuring maybe Johann Sebastian’s ultimate creation, the mighty b minor Mass, was conducted by Rilling’s successor, Matthew Halls. In that and the July 1 concert, he leads an orchestra of early music specialists playing on the instruments and in the tunings closest to what Bach intended — signaling Halls’s valuable transformation of the festival from so much older then, it’s younger than that now. So it’s at once the most historical performance in the lineup — and the most forward looking, and an excellent chance to compare Halls’ and Rilling’s very different approaches. We fervently hope the festival will continue the since-ousted Halls’s turn toward historically informed performances. 

Hands Across the Web

The pandemic diverted another significant Oregon contemporary classical music anniversary from live to streamed performance. Cascadia Composers’ 10th annual In Good Hands recital showcases talented student performers from the Eugene and Portland metro areas performing homegrown new solo piano music written by Cascadia Composers members David Bernstein, Daniel Brugh, Ally Rose Czyzewiez, Dianne Davies, John De Runtz, Adam Eason, Jan Mittelstaedt, Lisa Neher, Timothy Arliss O’Brien, Paul Safar and Nicholas Yandell. This excellent connector between contemporary Oregon music and the next generation of Oregon musicians streams live at 3 pm Saturday, July 11 and will be available on demand archived at Cascadia Composers’ web site.  

The organization was originally scheduled to be a big part of the annual New Music Gathering that this year was supposed to happen in Portland. It’s since moved online, but CC and Portland composers and performers still enrich the program, including:

• Resonance Ensemble artistic director Katherine FitzGibbon, Geter, and other composers talking about music and activism.

• Portland composer Jennifer Wright and her Skeleton Piano and an all-Cascadia “concert” assembled from earlier performances

• Portland composer Andrea Reinkemeyer’s Triptych, (libretto by  Patrick Wohlmut)inspired by local disasters including the Tillamook Burn, Vanport Flood, and the inevitable Really Big One

• Portland composer Scott Unrein’s bird drawn in the sky of light, whose title is also a line in a gorgeous composition, In Honor of Aphrodite, by the late, great Portland-born composer Lou Harrison that I’ve had the joy of singing several times over the years. Other upcoming Oregon appearances include Resonance Ensemble and Third Angle New Music (Friday), Portland composer Ryan Francis and FearNoMusic pianist Jeff Payne talking about the group’s valuable Young Composers Workshop, eminent new music pianist and Portland native Kathleen Supove, Portland State University Percussion Ensemble, Opera Theater Oregon, Portland new music violist Christina Ebersohl, Portland composer Timothy Arliss O’Brien, and even Portland composer and ArtsWatch’s own music editor Matthew Andrews, and some of the country’s most renowned contemporary classical musicians and composers. Performances, discussions, and talks continue through the month, and it’s all archived for on demand gazing and listening.

R. Andrew Lee plays Scott Unrein’s ‘bird drawn in the sky of light’ at this month’s virtual New Music Gathering.

Other Oregon summer music festivals are also coming to your screens and speakers. Portland’s Creative Music Guild switched its Outset series to streaming, with remaining shows featuring New Orleans percussionist Diamond Kinkade and Portland hip hopper Gohan Blanco (June 23), and Ixnay on the Icket-thay & Quarantet 2020 featuring audio and video by John Niekrasz, Maxx Katz, Benjamin Kates, Mack McFarland and more (June 30).

Since early April, Oregon’s scintillating Pickathon music festival has raised over $140,000 for MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund via its A Concert A Day series of videos drawn from its vault of never-before-seen multi-cam, post-edited, and mastered footage of festival performances over the past decade. Proceeds support the artists who were scheduled to perform at this year’s now-scuppered festival. The organization has now extended the fundraiser through June, streaming sets from Wolf Parade, Langhorne Slim, Charley Crockett, Open Mike Eagle, Blind Pilot, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

• Bend’s  Sunriver Music Festival has suspended its August concert series, and moved its annual Festival Faire fundraiser to an online auction August 6-12, including a virtual Beethoven birthday party August 8 that includes a video premiere, online chats and performances by scholarship recipients. The festival still hopes to award $35,000 in scholarships to classical music students for next school  year.

Lost in Streamland

We may be stuck at home, yet it seems like there’s more music available to us than ever. I’ve been enjoying streams, some live, some archived, from Oregon musicians: 45th Parallel Universe and its Portland Social Distance Ensemble, Resonance Ensemble (ArtsWatch contributor Damien Geter’s The Talk and Agnus Dei, both on All Classical FM’s Played in Oregon show, available for two more weeks, along with an interview with Geter on the station’s State of the Arts show), Juneteenth (a jazz and hip hop-oriented celebration streamed from Portland jazz club Jack London Revue), Musica Maestrale, Cappella Romana, and more, including CMNW’s series of past performances airing on All Classical. 

I’ve also tuned into new music from beyond Oregon from Bang on a Can Marathon 2020, Minnesota Opera (Doubt, based on the Broadway hit play), Seattle’s Music of Remembrance, Metropolitan Opera (the magnificent recent productions Philip Glass’s Akhnaten and Satyagraha, and lots more. I recommend checking out this Friday’s 45th Parallel stream featuring poet Micah Fletcher and Pyxis Quartet, reprising some of the powerful words and music from their extraordinary 2019 concert at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. On Wednesday afternoon, KBOO FM will stream Portland composer Ezra Weiss’ fierce, ambitious big band composition We Limit Not The Truth of God, recommended in our recent round up of jazz-oriented Oregon recordings. And next Thursday, June 24, All Classical Portland’s Thursdays@3 program features sometime Portland composer Andy Akiho, with that episode available for streaming online for two weeks.

Stay tuned to ArtsWatch for more previews of upcoming Oregon performances. Until we can meet again in person, obey the wisdom of Aerosmith and stream on, y’all.

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Want to tell ArtsWatch readers about other streaming Oregon music? The comments section below is open for business.

There’s a man going around

Damien Geter’s An African American Requiem: a three-part interview with the composer

This is the final installment of a three-part interview. Click here for part one, “Black music is the centerpiece of American culture.” Click here for part two, “Tired of having conversations.”

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African-American composers play an important and all too often overlooked role in America’s musical history. William Grant Still and Florence Price were the first major black symphonic composers in America, and Still’s Afro-American Symphony was widely played across the country in the early twentieth century. Ragtime composer Scott Joplin and jazz composers like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis wrote some of the most popular songs in American history. The late twentieth-century avant-garde music of Anthony Braxton, Julius Eastman, George Lewis, and Pulitzer winner Henry Threadgill explores the limits of musical performance, notation, and improvisation.

As we discuss with Portland composer and singer Damien Geter in our interview below, the relationship between an individual artist’s identity and their musical language is complex and multifaceted. The interaction between the European classical tradition and the American folk traditions of spirituals and the blues is equally complex, and has led to some of the most enduring works of American classical music—including not only the work of Still and Price but also Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Copland’s Clarinet Concerto.

The unification of these two musical worlds is apparent in Geter’s An African American Requiem, which was scheduled to have its premiere this spring in an Oregon Symphony concert that has been pushed back by pandemic closures to Jan. 22, 2021. There are clear historical precedents for Geter’s approach to the genre: Penderecki, in his Polish Requiem, combined the usual Latin liturgical texts with other text related to tragedies throughout recent Polish history, including the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising, and the Katyn Massacre. On Monday, we discussed how Geter includes contemporary American equivalents, notably the last words of Eric Garner.

In An African American Requiem, the original liturgical texts mostly remain untranslated, with the exception of the “Kyrie” (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison) which is set in English: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.” Choosing to translate the first movement after the introduction prompts the listener for further use of English in the Requiem and serves to make the meaning of this particular liturgical text clear to the audience. Many of the new texts are interwoven with the liturgical ones through contrapuntal overlaying or juxtaposition.

The “Liber Scriptus” movement is juxtaposed with the spiritual “There’s a Man Goin’ Round Taking Names,” highlighting God’s judgement upon death. The contrast of Ida B. Wells’ speech “Lynching is Color-Line Murder” with the “Libera Me” invokes parallels between the past and the present, showing how the lynchings of black men and women throughout American history continue to this day in a new form. The vengeful words of the “Libera Me,” combined with the desire for retribution at the end of “Lynching,” connect the spiritual and the material costs of violence.

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In part three of three, ArtsWatch talks with Geter about the nature of programmatic music, his new Justice Symphony, and the role of black music in American traditions. The interview was conducted by phone May 20, 2020, and has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow. The complete interview, with musical analysis and score samples, will be published next month in Subito, the student journal of Portland State University’s School of Music and Theater.

Oregon ArtsWatch: What are some of the new challenges, or conversely things that were easy for you, building up a large-scale work?

Damien Geter: It hasn’t been hard. I’ve gotten five commissions since this. I count myself to be very lucky, and I’m thinking that I should’ve done this all along. My path as a composer has been very personal, so when I revealed myself it became something that people were interested in. When people ask me, I say that I’m in the commissioning phase. I have things that I don’t advertise, because I don’t know if they’re good or not. I’m just starting from this point and building on.

AW: How did you approach the work’s technical side, things like combining blue notes with contemporary harmony and counterpoint?

DG: Sometimes I build music off of very specific ideas. For the “Lacrimosa,” I was thinking about how Renaissance composers would use chromaticism to indicate weeping, so I used a lot of chromaticism in that particular piece. That was the guide in that one. Some of these are based on things that already exist, and I kinda play around with those. Like in the “Liber Scriptus” and the “Man Going Round” I play around with the melody a bit.

Sometimes if I’m working on a piece, if I’m singing or at a show, it’s not uncommon for whatever composer that is to creep in. I was listening to a lot of John Adams when writing the “Recordare,” so there’s a lot of minimalism there. I was working on Porgy and Bess while writing the “Ingemisco,” so there’s some Gershwin there too.

The last concert I went to was the Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony, which is one of the best I‘ve been to. And I was writing my symphony at the time, so it sounds just like Shostakovich—but I’m not going to change it! When I’m doing oratorio works, I like to sit in the orchestra to hear all those colors and hear how those instruments work. I got a chance to do that, and it changed the way I was writing.

AW: We were talking about the influences of spirituals and the blues in the musical language, and it does seem like there are very different perspectives on counterpoint and harmony that aren’t intrinsically tied to classical music.

DG: We all go to school and take all these theory classes and ear training and it’s helpful, but when you become a big person you just write what sounds good. I’m not thinking about if it’s a Neapolitan sixth chord that resolves in a particular way. I mean, I have this training that’s innate within me, and I’m not thinking about those things. Sometimes I think about a chord progression to figure out how to get from point A to point B so it has some kind of flow.

I don’t like my music to sound too wonky. I just write whatever I feel like. It goes back to all those influences. If I’m writing something and I flatten the fifth, I mean I got it from somewhere and I probably didn’t get that from school.

AW: Are there any particular artists you grew up with who you have a particular nostalgia for? 

DG: For me it’s Anita Baker, and Luther Vandross. I get very nostalgic and I listen to them all the time. Earth Wind and Fire. I mean those are the folks I remember listening to as a kid, and as I was making my own musical decisions I listened to Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Madonna. Remember the band Bush? I used to love them. And remember Poe? I used to love her!

I definitely went through a Nirvana grunge phase, but at the drop of a hat I’d listen to Dr. Dre and Tupac, Snoop Dogg. I’m more of a Biggie than a Tupac person, though. I felt like the East coast was smoother. I really did love Public Enemy. One of my absolute favorite albums is The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I think my version of hip-hop is in a few of these movements.

AW: American classical music is so indebted to European classical music and American folk music; it seems we’re just taking from these traditions without trying to create a distinctly American music.

DG: Aaron Copland was focused on creating the American sound, and he took from black culture to create his own musical voice. Black music is the centerpiece of American culture. I can think of no form of music that has not been influenced by black music. Maybe groups like GWAR?

AW: Even there. It’s still rock music.

DG: Rock, country, everything. It’s all centered around black music. 

AW: If you were interviewing yourself what would you ask? 

DG: Since there’s such a central topic to this piece, I would ask if all of my music is centered around these kinds of topics.

AW: So is your symphony going to be programmatic?

DG: Well I’m glad you asked! Most everything that I’m writing these days has to do with the black experience. The symphony is called the Justice Symphony, from music of the Civil Rights movement. The first movement is a fantasy on “Eyes on the Prize,” the second is “Precious Lord,” and in the last I used “O Freedom,” “We Shall Not be Moved,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” And everything that I write pulls from the Black Diaspora.

I wouldn’t call the Justice Symphony programmatic, in the sense that there’s not a program or story that goes along with it. Actually I don’t think anything that I write is programmatic.

AW: It raises the question of whether these lines are irrevocably blurred. Even if it’s a Brahms string quartet, then it’s still about something. 

DG: I don’t know if Brahms would say that. I think it depends on the person. It could be based on a memory. I was having a discussion the other day about art. People pay millions of dollars for a piece of art, and there are people who would never pay that much. It just depends on what you value and what you have in your head. So if you create a story around a piece, then sure it can be programmatic, but if that wasn’t the composer’s intent it’s hard to say whether it is.

It would be interesting to see in a hundred years if this thing has any legs, whether we think of this as nationalist music, or programmatic music, or music for music’s sake. Is what I’m doing nationalism? I’m not very patriotic. I think I’m doing the opposite at this point. 

AW: Perhaps dissent is patriotic.

DG: That’s true. 

AW: I’ve heard people say that the history of black liberation is one of taking the principles of freedom and equality our nation was founded on seriously, where it can’t just be for land-owning white men, it has to be for everyone.

DG: I think that’s true absolutely. I do use the national anthem in a minor key, in the “Lacrimosa.” So maybe that’s nationalism.

Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch

Tired of having conversations

Damien Geter’s 'An African American Requiem': a three-part interview with the composer, continued

This is the second installment of a three-part interview. Click here for part one, “Black music is the centerpiece of American culture.”

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An African American Requiem includes, alongside traditional liturgical texts and contemporary poetry, several direct references to recent police killings of black men. Stephon Clark was a 22-year old man who was shot dead in 2018 in his grandmother’s Sacramento backyard; Jamilia Land, a close friend of his family, is a member of California Families United 4 Justice, a community organization dedicated to supporting the victims of police violence and their families. Land’s words, “we are living in communities that are like war zones,” become the text for the soprano recitative of the third movement. Antwon Rose was seventeen years old when he was fatally shot by a Pittsburgh police officer in 2018. Geter sets a repeated line from a poem Rose wrote for his tenth-grade Honors English class: “I am confused and afraid.”

Eric Garner was killed by an NYPD police officer who choked Garner to death on a Staten Island street corner in 2014. His death was filmed by bystanders and widely distributed, becoming one of the major catalysts for the Black Lives Matter movement. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a common phrase heard during BLM protests. As we go to press in June 2020, Geter tells us that he plans on updating the work to honor the recent death of George Floyd, whose final words on May 25 so hauntingly echoed Garner’s.

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Black music is the centerpiece of American culture

Damien Geter’s "An African American Requiem": Part One of a three-part interview with the composer

Portland-based choral group Resonance Ensemble named its eleventh season after its motto “Programming with Purpose,” an ethos that fits right in with other Portland ensembles that take inspiration from social justice (FearNoMusic being one notable example). The season’s first two concerts—Beautiful Minds and Safe Harbor—featured music dealing with issues of mental health and immigration, and showcased music by Pauline Oliveros and Sarah Kirkland Snider alongside new works by local composers Theresa Koon, Joe Kye, and Brandon Stewart.

Composer and vocalist Damien Geter, performing with Portland Concert Opera.

The season’s final concert–a collaboration among Resonance, local gospel choir Kingdom Sound, singers auditioned from around the area, and the Oregon Symphony–was to be the world premiere of An African American Requiem by Oregon composer and bass-baritone Damien Geter, a full-length choral and orchestral work commissioned by Resonance Ensemble. When the symphony cancelled the remainder of its season due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the premiere was rescheduled for January 22, 2021.

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Music Notes: transitions & triumphs

Summer roundup of recent news in Oregon classical and jazz music

Oregon’s leading classical music public radio station All Classical Portland has launched a brand-new second radio network, for children. The International Children’s Arts Network (ICAN) is a 24-hour radio service and, the station announcement says, is the first of its kind in the US. Designed for young listeners, the network features music, poems, and literature from around the world, locally produced and curated by All Classical Portland. “ICAN provides an audio destination where kids can be inspired to listen, dance, color outside the lines, and create their own adventures,” ICAN Program Manager Sarah Zwinklis said in a press release. “Much of the content on the network will be presented by children – we believe in the power of these young voices.” Listen online at allclassical.org/ican or through an HD Radio.

The station also operates a free arts journalism mentorship program that selects three high school age (ages 15-18) students from Oregon & SW Washington to be Youth Roving Reporters each year. From September – June, they’ll learn how to use recording equipment in the field, attend two arts events, conduct interviews with artistic leaders or performers, and learn to produce their interviews for radio broadcast. As ArtsWatch has previously reported, it also operates JOY: an Artist in Residence program, which includes a young artist residency.

Laurels & Shekels

• Speaking of All Classical Portland, Metropolitan Youth Symphony presented the station its 2019 Musical Hero Award in April. The station’s On Deck with Young Musicians program has featured dozens of MYS musicians in performances and interviews with All Classical Portland host and producer Christa Wessel.

• The Oregon Symphony presented its 2019 Schnitzer Wonder Award to Mariachi Una Voz of the Hillsboro School District. Launched in 2010 and including strings, brass, and singing, the group’s mission is to promote cultural understanding and community unity through music education and performance. Participation is free and open to all Hillsboro middle- and high-school students. It has performed on more than 100 school and community events, performing in venues as diverse as the Portland’5 Centers for the Arts theaters, the Moda Center, major regional cultural festivals, and schools, libraries and hospitals.

“Every child who wishes to learn to play a musical instrument should have the opportunity,” said founder and manager Dan Bosshardt in a press release. “The students that find their way to our group have inspiring personal stories. They have very supportive families that often do not have the financial means to provide transportation, instruments, lessons, or private instruction.”

• ArtsWatch congratulates a pair of Portland choral music leaders who just scored major national awards from Chorus America. Resonance Ensemble artistic director Katherine FitzGibbon won the 2019 Botto Award named after Chanticleer founder Louis Botto. She “has captained a bold organizational shift—from its original mission exploring links between music, art, poetry, and theatre, to a new focus exclusively on presenting concerts that promote meaningful social change.”

Katherine FitzGibbon leading Resonance Ensemble

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Music makes the message come alive

Resonance Ensemble concert features all women singers and composers

The first movement of Melissa Dunphy’s new choral composition LISTEN sets texts from Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, with lines like “I thought he respected my work” and “When I was asked, I had to tell the truth, I could not keep silent.” In February’s Portland performance by Resonance Ensemble, which commissioned it, chants on “he-he-he” and “no-no-no” formed a rhythmic and harmonic canvas across which stretched long, tortured, almost Lutosławski-esque melodies. The second movement took this sound world even further, setting lines from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s 2018 testimony with a thicket of dense dissonant counterpoint, ending on “my responsibility is to tell the truth.”

On the screen above all this were pictures taken at both testimonies. Hill looking over her shoulder. Ford looking straight ahead, hand raised, terrified and determined. At a certain point it felt like a horror movie, and a reminder of the ways in which our actual reality has become a horror movie. I’ll tell you another time all about the gasps and tears in the room, during this piece especially, and about the way we all held each other afterwards and reassured each other that it was okay to feel afraid and angry and helpless and mortified and terrorized.

Resonance Ensemble reprises its popular concert featuring women singing music by women.

It was a cool misty February at Cerimon House in Southeast Portland, the local vocal group Resonance Ensemble was starting its concert Women Singing Women, and up on the screen above the stage was an old black-and-white photo of Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, fists raised. Over the course of the next 90-odd minutes, a few hundred photographs of women would appear on that screen, from Amelia Earhart and Barbara Bush to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Portland’s own Ursula K. Le Guin, ending (spoiler alert!) with a return to Steinem and Pitman-Hughes, 40 years later, fists still up.

The sold-out concert was, as the name suggested, an afternoon of women singers performing music composed and arranged by women (they scheduled an encore, which also sold out). As we’ve previously discussed the Bechdel-Wallace effect in music here, we’ll limit ourselves to quoting Steinem, who wrote (in her 1992 self-esteem book Revolution from Within):

Each of us with hearing and vocal cords can sing, yet many of us have been embarrassed out of this out of this primordial pleasure by self-consciousness and shame at the sounds we make. Our critical, conscious self literally stifles our voice. And, as with any other human capacity, the less we use it, the less we believe it to be worth using.

It’s a theme I often hear from women working in classical music, and especially composers. At the post-concert Q&A, the composers Melissa Dunphy and Portland’s Stacey Philipps both described themselves as latecomers to composing. Philipps talked about the long history of women composers being ignored or married off, and Dunphy said “a lot of women are late-comers to composing.” Resonance Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon added that she was not able to find a female conducting teacher until she was working on her doctorate. It’s not just women who experience this, of course—that Steinem quote perfectly pierced this male heart—but it’s usually women leading the way in doing something about it. We need concerts like this. It’s nice when they sound good too.

The singing at Cerimon House started with Ruth Moody’s “One Voice,” Resonance soloists Brittany Rudoi, Sarah Maines, and Cecily Kiester singing “This is the sound of one voice…This is the sound of voices two…This is the sound of voices three”—a clever bit of musical wordplay in physical space leading to the rest of the choir coming in on “This is sound of all of us,” a beautifully resonant sound in the sonically spacious but physically close and intimate room.

FitzGibbon stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s very important you hear my voice today.” She described the concert’s theme as “exploring the ways women’s words are sometimes silenced, sometimes heard, something needing to be heard.” She also offered what would prove to be very necessary trigger warning about the concert’s content: “these are difficult things to hear, but important to hear.”

Resonance Ensemble conductor and Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon. Composers Melissa Dunphy Stacey Phillipps. At Cerimon House for February 3rd Women Singing Women concert. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.
Melissa Dunphy, Katherine FitzGibbon, Stacey Philipps. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.

It’s become all too easy to do Social Justice Music. Our time (by which I mean this era in which we can communicate and organize with anyone, anywhere, anytime) has come to be defined by a broad range of social issues all stemming from the simple fact that we can discuss and organize around subjects and experiences that were previously invisible to polite society. Some of the big examples would include the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter (started by three women), #metoo (started by one woman, amplified by another, and then by so many others), the rise of international corporatism and global fascism (and their opponents), and other such difficult and important topics.

Clearly all of this is a good thing, terrifying and overwhelming though it all may be at times (we’ll come back to FitzGibbon’s trigger warning), and in many ways our era fits the old sense of the word “apocalypse”—an unveiling. All of this should be talked about, and it should appear in our art. Our music should address it, because our music is our lives and our lives cannot be separated from the great movements of our time.

This being Portland, Social Justice Music concerts have been springing up like wildflowers in May rain, and sadly the majority of these concerts have been boring and lazy, leaning on their social relevance as a crutch for inferior art. And it ends up cutting both ways: if you’re not going to make good music to support your social justice message, you’re going to undercut the message itself.

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