Riverside Chamber Symphony preview: River lullaby and seasonal abstracts

Community orchestra premieres new works by Oregon composers influenced by Oregon seasons and North American indigenous cultures


Editor’s note: Part of this preview originally appeared last month, when Rall’s piece was scheduled to be performed at the Riverside Chamber Symphony’s December concert at Wildish Theatre. That performance was rescheduled due to weather, so we’re reposting it now, and with additional news: The RCS will perform another nature-influenced work by another  member of the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance’s Oregon Composers Forum, Martin Quiroga, Jr. at its March concert. More information on that piece follows.

Oregon composer Justin Ralls has dedicated his newly composed chamber orchestral work, Water is Life, to the Standing Rock Lakota, who are engaged in an on-going effort to protect the tribe’s sacred lands and water supply from possible contamination by spills from an oil pipeline now under construction near their reservation.

Water is Life was inspired by the same values and indigenous American traditions as those expressed at Standing Rock. The new one-movement, 10-minute “river lullabye,” as conductor Philip Bayles calls it, receives its world premiere on February 3 by the Eugene/Springfield-based Riverside Chamber Symphony.

Riverside Chamber Symphony, conducted by Philip Bayles. Photo: Philip Bayles.

“It is an incredibly personal work,” Ralls says, “created from a spirit of healing, resilience, and solidarity” with the Lakota, who have been at the forefront of his thoughts since their Dakota Access Pipeline efforts began.

Indigenous Influences

Indigenous culture and music have long been interests of Ralls, whose music has been widely played by performers including New York’s Albany Symphony, Roomful of Teeth, Portland’s Third Angle New Music and Fear No Music, Jarring Sounds, Opera Theater Oregon, San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra, Estelí Gomez, Molly Barth and more. (Read ArtsWatch’s 2011 interview with Ralls.) Water is Life drew inspiration from Ida Halpern’s recordings of the Pacific Northwest Nu-chah-nulth (Nootka) tribe. For these coastal people, “songs belong to families, clans and lineages and can only be performed by those who have permission,” Ralls notes. “It was important to me to respect this tradition, so rather than merely arranging or appropriating a specific song, I opted to internalize the spirit of these songs and composed my own “lullaby” that becomes a kind of “river-song” — evoking all rivers and connections we have, through music and community, to our environment.”

The Columbia, known as “the big river” by indigenous peoples. Photo: G. Ferrington.

The orchestral lullaby, Ralls explains, “begins with an Adagio section subtitled ‘Hopes and fears,’ where motives and gestures organically emerge into a lullaby-like theme, marked in the score as River of Life, where the piece moves in perpetual motion.” This segment, he suggests, draws inspiration from Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony as well ideas of “continuous melody” and landscape music in the work of the great 20th century Northwest composer Alan Hovhaness.

The second half of the piece is inspired by a Modoc song sung by Taylor Tupper, a cultural leader in the Modoc/Klamath Tribe. Ralls first heard it at the end of an Oregon Public Broadcasting Oregon Experience episode detailing the Modoc War in southern Oregon.

As chance would have it, Ralls happened to meet and talk with Tupper during Michael Gordon’s Natural History performance at the Britt Festival Crater Lake event last summer. Tupper shared the song with him, noting that in sharing it with others, all are changed by the common experience.

River Runs Through It

That Modoc song also appealed to Philip Bayles, who’d become interested in Ralls’s work as an outstanding graduate student at the University of Oregon, where he is working on his doctorate in music composition under professors Robert Kyr and David Crumb. One day, Bayles emailed Ralls suggesting a tune he knew about that he thought would be wonderful to “arrange as a cantus firmus” for a composition for the RCS. It turned out to be that same Modoc song that Ralls had admired on the OPB episode. The two discovered a shared interest in ecological issues — including those related to the preservation of rivers and water sources.

Composer Justin Ralls. Photo: J.Ralls.

Ralls welcomed the possibility of working with a community-centered orchestra in the tradition of Benjamin Britten and Portland-born composer Lou Harrison, whom he observes had a long standing creative collaboration with non-professional groups. Many of the 30 advanced non-professional musicians from Eugene, Springfield and elsewhere in Lane County have outstanding training and performance experience having played in orchestras around the world. Founded in 2000, the chamber orchestra has premiered new work by Chris Prosser, Basil Clough, Victor Steinhardt, and Bayles himself, one of Oregon’s most important classical music figures whose track record includes co founding Eugene Opera and Eugene Concert Choir and serving as music director of Eugene Ballet, among many other posts. The Riverside performance gave Ralls the opportunity to compose in a “less virtuosic, complex style” that allowed him to explore harmony, melody, and texture in a “revitalized way.”

The Modoc tune rounds out Water is Life, as the melody is passed around the winds and strings, featuring “imitative counterpoint in a playful, contrasting section culminating in a textural, multi-voiced recap, a tapestry of melodies and motives of the whole piece,” he explains. This section is marked “We are all one people,” quoting the Native leaders at Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, whose message asks that Native and non-Native people unite to stand together to defend the planet as one community.

Ralls considers Water is Life a companion piece to his earlier transformational one-movement work Tree Ride (2013), which also translates nature to listeners through a metaphorical soundscape. 

Seasonal Abstracts

Water is Life stems from an informal collaborative relationship between the Riverside Chamber Symphony and the UO School of Music and Dance’s Oregon Composers Forum, which over the years has provided opportunities for selected graduate students to compose orchestral works for performance throughout the concert season. The RCS performs the next product of that collaboration, Martin Quiroga, Jr.’s Seasonal Abstracts, on March 9.

Martín Quiroga Jr. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Quiroga, a graduate student in the UO composition program, told ArtsWatch that his three-movement piece reflects the seasonal changes he has discovered upon his move to Oregon from Houston, Texas. In Oregon, he observes, “each season has its own character, influencing not just myself, but the people around me as well.”

“A Quaint Snowfall” is the darkest of the three movements about the whiteness of the snow and the unlimited life giving and destructive power it contains. “The Rolling Sky of a Grey October” is an orchestration of the second movement of Quiroga’s piano preludes (Three Scenes from Oregon). Inspired by the Parisian avant garde of the 20th century, the composer hopes to “catch the grey clouds that float above our heads and place them in the ears and hearts” of the listener. “A Springtime Waltz,” the final and loftiest of the three movements, is the composer’s take on a traditional dance form. “Modal and colorful, I imagined the rising and cresting events of the sun, and the daily journey that it takes,” he remembers. “What I hope to communicate to the audience is that beauty exists within the darkest of realms, whether it be through music, seasons, or the hearts of men.”

The Riverside Chamber Symphony premieres Water is Life in a free concert at 6 pm February 3, at the Eugene Public Library, and Seasonal Abstracts at 7:30 pm, March 9 at the Wildish Theater in Springfield.

Additional reading: Community orchestras like the Riverside Chamber Symphony are a valuable cultural asset in communities large and small, as outlined in an article by Shari Mathias, “Why Community Orchestras are Important” published online by the Parker Symphony Orchestra, Parker, Colorado. 

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.

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