soweto gospel choir

MusicWatch Weekly: freedom songs

Socially conscious sounds highlight this week's Oregon music

In focusing on the music of the past, classical music programming has too often ignored the concerns of the present. But over the past couple years, some Portland classical music organizations have focused on issues of social and especially racial justice — none more conscientiously than the all star choir Resonance Ensemble, which devoted last season to music and poetry related to some of today’s most pressing social concerns.

Resonance Ensemble performs Sunday.

Sunday afternoon’s Hidden Voices concert continues that commendable emphasis by taking the music out of the usual concert halls and bringing it to Bethel A.M.E. Church, 5828 NE 8th Ave., Portland’s oldest continuously operating black church, and also Oregon’s only African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Composer Damien Geter sings with Resonance Ensemble. Photo: Kenton Waltz.

With help from BRAVO Youth Orchestra (Portland’s version of Venezuela’s groundbreaking El Sistema program that brings classical music training to kids who otherwise couldn’t afford it) and Derrick McDuffey and the gospel ensemble Kingdom Sound, they’ll perform the world premiere of a movement from Resonance singer (and ArtsWatch contributor) Damien Geter’s Requiem, which sets texts by African-American men killed by police, and the West Coast premiere of American Dreamers, a piece by young Australian-American composer Melissa Dunphy (whose Gonzales Cantata was performed last week by Portland’s Big Mouth) that sets texts by five Americans who came to the U.S. as undocumented children. Resonance Poet in Residence S. Renee Mitchell contributes another original work.

• The 20-member Soweto Gospel Choir, which performs “Songs of the Free” Wednesday night at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, often mixes traditional and popular music from around Africa with exuberant American gospel styles and even pop music arrangements by African diasporites like Jimmy Cliff, Otis Redding and Bob Marley. Winner of top gospel music awards and Grammys, the choir has scored a world music chart-topping album, worked with members of Queen and Bono, and performed for Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Composed of some of the finest singers around Soweto and Johannesburg, its concerts present a striking visual as well as auditory experience, replete with multi colored traditional costumes, high kicking synchronized dance moves, and accompanying percussion such as the djembe drum. Even when they sing Xhosa and a half dozen other languages, the ensemble supplies English explanations of the stories behind the songs.

Portland Taiko at its fall 2016 concert. Photo: Brian Sweeney.

• Another Portland music institution whose programming has recently responded to today’s social concerts, FearNoMusic, joins Portland Taiko in music that responds to the American government’s brutal imprisonment of innocent American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II. In Sunday night’s Sticks + Strings concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, 1620 S.W. Park Ave., the new music group accompanies the Japanese percussion ensemble’s drummers in the premiere of Dango Jiru for taiko, flute, violin, and cello, a new work by FNM artistic director Kenji Bunch, Portland’s hottest contemporary composer, who’ll also play his haunting solo viola, Minidoka, inspired by his visit to one of those concentration camps. Portland Taiko will also perform one of their own pieces on that subject and other works.

Kenji Bunch plays his own music with Portland Taiko.

Orchestral Highlights

• Portland Baroque Orchestra’s weekend concerts at Portland’s First Baptist Church and Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium not only present some of the standards of baroque music — Vivaldi’s Op. 3 violin concertos — but also some of the Red Priest’s equally ebullient music for singer (this time, Czech soprano Hana Blažíková) and orchestra: In furore iustissimae irae, RV626 and Nulla in mundo pax, RV 630.

• Another historically informed band, Emerald Chamber Orchestra, with singers Phoebe Gildea and Trevor Cook perform J.S. Bach’s fun Peasant Cantata (featuring a farmer and a tax collector) and his famous Orchestral Suite #2 at Eugene’s Christian Science Church Auditorium at 14th and Pearl Streets.

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