Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Thought-provoking new work tackles homelessness at Oregon Symphony concert

A couple of years ago, the Oregon Symphony reached way outside the box when it thought up the idea of asking a composer to write an orchestral work on homelessness. The orchestra then asked singer-songwriter-composer Gabriel Kahane to create such a work for its “Sounds of Home” series. Kahane took the commission very seriously and went so far as to volunteer at a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, New York (see my interview with Kahane for The Oregonian here). His experience there was undoubtedly a factor in the emergency shelter intake form for orchestra, soloists, and chorus, which received its world premiere on Saturday, May 12th at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Kahane’s emergency shelter intake form proved a thought-provoking piece. Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman posed most of the questions from an intake form, such as “Where did you stay last night,” “Have you ever been evicted,” and “Have you ever been denied a loan or a lease?” The chorus of inconvenient statistics, consisting of vocalists Holland Andrews, Holcombe Waller, and Kahane, offered replies and supplied some statistical information that probed the loss of housing by low income people during the last recession. In “Certainly we can all agree,” Waller reminded us of how much we all want lots of housing for everyone, but we aren’t will to pay for it nor house the homeless near where we live (with the refrain of “not in my backyard”), which he finished off eloquently with baroque-styled filigree. In the ballad, “A brief history of the subprime mortgage loan crisis,” Kahane sang of the machinations of Wall Street and how it worked especially well against people with lower incomes.

Brueggergosman sang with incisive emotion and her voice worked well with the trio of Andrews, Waller, and Kahane. The trio sounded smooth and tight, but Andrews needed to sing louder for the balance. All were amplified as were the members of Maybelle Community Singers, who had the last word in the piece: “Thank you for completing this form.” The orchestra, a full-sized contingent that also included accordion, banjo, and guitar, deftly accompanied each of the 13 movements under the direction of Carlos Kalmar. One of the most striking movements featured whispering strings as Brueggergosman sang “Do your co-workers know that you have lost your home.”

The message that suggested the responsibility of the wealthy for homelessness probably caused a few patrons to leave the hall before emergency shelter intake form was performed and a few got up and left while it was performed. Kahane’s piece didn’t explore the role of divorce, drugs, mental illness, and other factors that have added to the homeless. But he didn’t hammer a Western-European-net-answer either. His emergency shelter intake form was his genuine take on the problem on homelessness, and it caused the audience to reflect in a positive way.

Just to push this a little further, it should be noted that many composers have upset the wealthy and powerful. For example, censors demanded that Verdi’s Rigoletto be changed so that it didn’t mention a king even though it was based on Victor Hugo’s Le roi s'amuse (The king amuses himself), which was based on the scandalous and behavior of the King of France and was subsequently banded for 22 years.

An opera that was not fondly received by Hitler was Paul Hindemith’s News of the Day. It was labeled by the Nazi’s a degenerative art and backlisted. The Oregon Symphony played the opera's lively Overture, which contained a number of thematic passages that flitted blithely about.

All-star violinist Joshua Bell appeared in the first half of the concert to play Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium). Bell’s superb performance showed off his incredible skill and artistry over the five moments that reflected various aspects of love.. He was ably supported by the orchestra, which had an equally demanding role. After concluding the piece, Bell especially recognized principal cellist Nancy Ives for her exquisite playing with him at the beginning of the fifth movement.

Bell followed the thunderous applause from the audience with an encore, the romantic and lyrical theme by Nigel Hess for the movie Ladies in Lavender. Bell played it impeccably and received another round of extended heartfelt applause. Bell, by the way, joined the audience to hear Kahane’s piece in the second half of the program.

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