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Resonance Ensemble: amplifying ‘Hidden Voices’

Vocal ensemble's collaborative concert features musical responses to experiences marked by racism and resistance

Matthew Andrews of Oregon Arts Watch

It’s a testimony to Portland choral group Resonance Ensemble’s sense of community that they collaborate with and share their concerts with other artists—sometimes several. At Resonance’s October 21 Hidden Voices concert, the choir shared the spotlight with journalist-turned-poet S. Renee Mitchell, BRAVO Youth Orchestra, and local gospel choir Kingdom Sound. Together, they performed music by a pair of composers both born in 1980: Australian Melissa Dunphy and Resonance’s own Damien Geter.

“Remain Hopeful”

Reverend Terry McCray-Hill welcomed the packed, restless audience to Northeast Portland’s Bethel A.M.E. Church, where the mix of Resonance enthusiasts and regular Bethel churchgoers made for a gathering more diverse—racially and religiously as well as across age and class boundaries—than most Portland concerts, an integrated solidarity which has become especially important in these fractured times. “I dream a world,” McCray-Hill said, “where hidden voices can find a comfortable place to scream out who they are.”

Resonance Ensemble’s founder and Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon described the group’s commitment “to presenting powerful performances of music that will, hopefully, make change happen in the world.” This season—their tenth—continues Resonance’s tradition of socially conscious music making, each concert spotlighting timely issues: upcoming concerts focus on women’s voices and the health challenges of childhood and parenthood, and Hidden Voices focused on experiences marked by racism and resistance.

“Today we celebrate artists of color, composers of color,” FitzGibbon continued. “We have some music today that is really challenging; I think music should challenge us,” she said, warning the audience of the presence of violence in the music, and closing with a promise of hope. “What a gesture it is to remain hopeful.”

She’s right: collaboration, consistency, and commitment are all acts of resistance against complacency, a way of meeting challenges and overcoming them.

Pearls of Great Price

It was wonderful, in a very churchy sort of way, to hear the kids of BRAVO Youth Orchestra, Portland’s El Sistema-aligned non-profit music program, play two pieces by American composer Florence Price. Her compositional voice—distinctly American, a little Ivesy—shone through in the orchestra’s enthusiastic performance of Adoration and the first movement of her Mozarty Symphony 1 in E minor, the string orchestra anchored by a strong, vocal tone in cello and bass.

The Kingdom Sound octet, led by Minister Derrick McDuffey, performed a total of five songs—nearly half the concert. H.T. Burleigh’s arrangement of the coded Jordan/Ohio spiritualDeep River” was one of two songs they sang with Resonance. On Patrick Lundy’s “Even Me,” the male trio sang high harmonies up in countertenor territory; when they sang low later they sounded like the Oregon Symphony’s splendid trombones. All eight voices were individually powerful, their ecstatic sonic blend not a matter of eliminating variance but of retaining each signer’s unique vocal quality while balancing all into beautifully tuned chords and a finely sculpted expressivity.

At the end of Donnie McClurkin’s “All We Ask,” soprano Jamelia Boney, tenor Emmanuel Henreid, and Saeeda Wright built up a complex, interwoven network of dazzling solos on the line “all we ask is teach us love indeed.” When they were done, I swear I heard an older man nearby whisper, with deep reverence, “shiiiiiiit!” Not too many choirs in town could come this close to stealing a show from Resonance Ensemble, which Kingdom Singers nearly did with the closing three songs, Charles Tindley’s “Stand By Me” and “The Storm is Passing Over,” followed by the Ben E. King version of “Stand By Me,” a promise and a challenge. Let’s hope they perform together again.

Taking Away Names, Taking Away Sins

As FitzGibbon was introducing composer and bass-baritone (and Arts Watch contributor) Damien Geter—at the start of the concert, just before he and Resonance performed his arrangement of “There’s a Man Goin’ Round”—she teased him a bit, saying, “we’re sharing him with Portland Opera; he rushed over here from a rehearsal!” That massive voice of Geter’s is no stranger to Portland audiences, and I’ll admit to being a part-time fanboy: just in the last year or so I’ve gone to hear him sing David Lang and Christopher Corbell, having been quite taken with his turn as the Devil on a Cascadia Composers concert some time back.

His opening solo was rich with heavy vibrato, a bold operatic tone, nothing folksy about it, a well-trained voice meant to fill a concert hall, intimidatingly beautiful in the small church, supported by the choir’s voices rising up on Geter’s dense, colorful chords. “There’s A Man Goin’ Round” is both art and artful warning, a catchy tune advising the hearer of trouble and danger afoot; it also serves as a dirge for all those whose names were — literally, brutally — taken them from them by The Man. I heard a few folks humming somberly along nearby, a melding of performer and audience that would continue with S. Renee Mitchell’s poem and recur throughout the concert.

FitzGibbon described Geter’s “Agnus Dei” as “the only a cappella movement” of his An African-American Requiem, which will ultimately consist of twenty movements for choir, orchestra, and vocal quartet. The complete symphonic choral work, modeled partially on Britten’s War Requiem and described by Geter as “a commentary on the war of racism,” will merge the traditional Latin Requiem with a variety of texts from other sources (civil rights activists, spirituals, Eric Garner’s dying words). Resonance performed Dominick DiOrio’s The Visible World—which uses the same technique, which Gabriel Kahane calls“palimpsest” —this summer. It’s one of the best things about choral music: its capacity for layering levels of meaning across time, space, genre, language.

The “Agnus Dei” movement was all in Latin, the familiar “qui tollis peccata mundi” (“who takes away the sin of the world”) vibrating through Geter’s call-and-response melodies and contemporary choral harmonic sense (big open chords, tight close dissonances), with bits of tricky imitative counterpoint worthy of Haydn. This was my first time hearing Geter the composer, and I was pleased to discover that he writes the way he sings: with dramatic, powerful tenderness. I can’t wait to hear the whole thing in 2020.

“Drink up, DREAMers”

As a composer, I often go to concerts just to hear new composers. I like Resonance Ensemble anyways, and if all they ever sang was Samuel Barber I’d still be at every concert, but their commitment to living composers is an inspiring example of their “programming with purpose.”

Resonance’s West Coast premiere of with Melissa Dunphy’s eight part American DREAMers dominated the second half of Hidden Voices. After shimmery majory-minory humming on the word “dreammmmmmm,” the choir moved through texts by five poets affected by the difficulties of immigration to the U.S.

American DREAMers (the title refers to the DREAMer movement) showed a poppier side of Dunphy’s voice than her fairly straightforward polyphonic choral piece, “What Do You Think I Fought for at Omaha Beach,” which Resonance performed in June’s Bodies concert. This is why it’s especially exciting to hear the same ensemble sing the same composer across multiple concerts.

In four of the sections setting Marlene Rangel’s story of migration, assimilation, and education, four Resonance singers sang solo melodies atop sparse accompaniment from the rest of the choir. The other four sections set poetry and testimony by Javier Zamora, Janine Joseph, Julia Montejo, and Claudia D. Hernández. On “Dancing in Buses,” vocal percussion grooved against rhythmic whispering on “pretend a boombox blasts over your shoulder,” Roches-type vocal harmonies giving way to driving chants as dancing turned into dodging bullets, an explosion of violence and chilling lines like “Face the mouth of the barrel” and “Do the protect-the-face-with-hand” and “Don’t scream.” At the end of the enchanted “More milk, milk makes it better,” the big brilliant ending on the line “It was worth all my work in the world” evoked a bunch of “Woo!”s. The closing strains of “#UnitedWeDream” got complicated and spiritual, with overlapping text layers and big lush resolutions on “RESIST! RESIST!”, a haunting ending reminiscent of Peter Gabriel’s wistful “drink up dreamers, you’re running dry.”

Musically and thematically, this was the most challenging part of the concert, an act of solidarity and illumination of hidden, marginalized, internalized voices. Dunphy’s music flowed gracefully from sorrow to joy to terror, hints of the U.S. national anthem (that iconic descending trumpet call) turning sour and grief-stricken. Whenever the music was not itself outright provocative, it was transparent to let the text’s poignancy come through and do the challenging. Marlene’s story was told clearly and plainly, using the same basic musical technique as Cappella Romana’s Heaven and Earth composers—for the same reason, and with the same spiritual result.

“Keep Listening”

FitzGibbon described Resonance’s poet-in-residence S. Renee Mitchell as “somebody I admire more than just about anyone.” It’s relatively uncommon for a choir to have its own poet-in-residence, collaborations usually running more in the composer-poet direction. But Mitchell isn’t a common poet any more than Resonance is a common choir: she’s a journalist, in fact, a former writer for The Oregonian who says art saved her life.

Early in the concert, Mitchell read her customary concert poem, quoting from and reflecting upon the concert’s choral texts and themes. “We are in a black church,” Mitchell began, “so if I ask you a question—please respond!”

We still got all those characteristically punchy Mitchell lines, like “intoxicated with the nostalgic aroma of hate” and “spiritual acts of defiance / Against hostile words both spoken and imagined,” but we also got to engage in a good old fashioned call-and-response routine, flowing crescendos of verbal interplay building to a liturgical quilt of social bonding and ritual interlocution:

Mitchell: Will you stand by me / Despite my faults and my failures?
Audience: Yes!
Mitchell: Will you understand / The times when I need to just catch my breath?
Audience: Yes!
Mitchell: Will you watch with me / As the storm passes over?
Audience: Yes!
Mitchell: Will you hear our hidden voices?
Audience: Yes!
Mitchell: Will you pay attention to the world of possibilities?

And throughout the entire poem, the refrain:

Mitchell: Are you listening?
Audience: Yes!
Mitchell: Keep listening.

Mitchell seems to be settling into a comfortable role with the ensemble, her poetry now a regular routine quickly becoming a true tradition. Her contributions are always a highlight of the show, and I think she has gotten better at each concert since I first heard her do her thing at February’s Souls concert. I hope they keep her on for the next decade.

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