katherine fitzgibbon

Becoming Welcome: giving center stage to all artists

A contentious review sparks a critical conversation about Portland arts


Editor’s note: ArtsWatch invited Mary McDonald-Lewis to write this essay based on a meeting at Artists Repertory Theatre of members of Resonance Ensemble and others with our editors. She speaks for herself and the group in her response to ArtsWatch’s original review of the Resonance concert, ArtsWatch’s subsequent response to complaints about it, and the ongoing implications of both.

The Circle Gathers

Studio 2 at Artists Repertory Theatre was tense. It was a hot day on the last Friday in July, and the air was close, but that wasn’t why.

Mary McDonald-Lewis

In an uneven circle, 11 people, many strangers to one another, arrive in ones and twos to review a tough month in Portland’s arts world. Entering the room are a mixed group from varied backgrounds and professions, but they all have one thing on their mind: a review that caught fire on the virtual pages of Oregon ArtsWatch, and that continued to spark controversy and division in the arts community.


Resonance Ensemble review: Risks rewarded

Portland choir excels in challenging program of music about war and peace


Portland has waited a long time to hear two of the masterworks of choral literature side by side. Hearing both French composer Francis Poulenc’s and Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg’s greatest choral works Saturday night helped confirm something for me: choral music in Portland has progressed markedly during the last few decades, and Resonance Ensemble’s concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall last Friday was proof of just how far we’ve really come.

Resonance Ensemble sang music of war and peace in Portland last weekend.

Resonance Ensemble sang music of war and peace in Portland last weekend.

Pairing the two major 20th century works, Francis Poulenc’s double choir cantata Figure Humaine (The Face of Humanity), with the final tonal composition of Arnold Schoenberg, Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth) was daring in the extreme. Appearing first, Figure Humaine would by itself be a daunting challenge for any choir, and the Resonance singers met it head on.


Music Review: Resonance Ensemble sings Britten, incandescently

Celebrating composer Benjamin Britten's 100th anniversary, Resonance creates a birthday high


Resonance Ensemble sang Benjamin Britten's music at Portland State University. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar.

Resonance Ensemble sang Benjamin Britten’s music at Portland State University. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar.


Benjamin Britten would be 100 years old this year, and his music seems well positioned to outlive the powerful segments of American and European musical establishments that resolutely ignored him during the heyday of 20th century modernism. He’s long been popular in his British homeland, of course, and his operas are performed more than any other composer born in the 20th century. Reflecting its creator, Britten’s music has a certain toughness and resilience that defy expectations and categorizations.

In celebration, Portland’s Resonance Ensemble presented a selection of his choral and solo vocal works a week ago last Sunday, performing for the first time in the live yet intimate ambience of Room 75 in Lincoln Hall at Portland State University. They dove right in with the meaty “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” on a poem written at Britten’s request by W. H. Auden. Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon gave a short, lively talk on the backstory beforehand.

Auden was deeply attracted to Britten, and seems to have taken the opportunity for one last attempt to make Britten return the interest, using all his considerable poetic ability. He wrote a series of arresting images, initially on topic but eventually casting all pretense and double meanings aside, by turns flattering, pleading, scolding, and bullying.(“… O hang the head, / Impetuous child with the tremendous brain…”). But when have those tactics ever worked? Britten was hardly unaffected—the music is some of his finest, rich with harmonic and contrapuntal color, and often intensely expressive—but his inspiration was primarily the patron saint of music, whom he had long wanted to honor with a major vocal work (not least because he was born on November 22nd, St. Cecilia’s Day). He even chopped up Auden’s poem, extracting the last quatrain of the first section to make choruses for the following two sections, to keep the focus on Cecilia and, no doubt, his own unwavering artistic purposes. He and Auden became estranged soon afterwards.

The music stands apart, not only from mid-20th century high modernism but also much of later choral practice, which has avoided that modernism so assiduously as to fall into the bland and saccharine. There is nothing bland or saccharine in this work, whose delightfully off-kilter harmonies may be inspired by Stravinsky but are much refined through Britten’s own highly individual sensibility. The easy lyricism of the individual voices and the unabashed expressivity are also worlds away from any Stravinskian model. Still, it can’t be much easier to sing.


Choral climaxes

In Mulieribus, Resonance Ensemble and PSU Chamber Choir embark on wide-ranging musical explorations

Anna Song led In Mulieribus's singers up the aisle to open the ensemble's May 5 concert.

Anna Song led In Mulieribus’s singers up the aisle to open the ensemble’s May 5 concert.

by Bruce Browne

 “The Spectacular Now” is the provocative title of an upcoming movie. It can also apply to the “now” of the time we are sitting in a concert hall. Last Sunday, it did exactly that for this listener.
I had no misgivings about the experience of hearing In Mulieribus on Sunday, May 5; I know many of the singers to be absolutely first rate, and this ensemble has sung together for a while. But I wondered: would it be too much of a good thing – for example, monochromatic, ancient music?
I was soon relieved of any concerns: the music, although drawn from a relatively narrow period of music, displayed a variety of differences in texture, style, color, and rhythmic activity.
The space, St. Stephen’s Catholic Church, is ideal for this type of small group singing. The only deterrent there is the pew I was sitting in: hard as a rock, and unyielding. Not so the singers. They made stimulating use of the space, singing first from the rear, then moving in front, and often changing formations and numbers of singers. And, unlike my pew, they were plastic and malleable.

Sing Awakening: Portland’s flowering choral landscape

The City of Roses is also a city of choruses.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble at Portland's YU Contemporary in March.

Katherine FitzGibbon conducted Resonance Ensemble at Portland’s YU Contemporary in March.

Editor’s note: this is the second in ArtsWatch’s spring look at contemporary choral music. See Jeff Winslow’s analysis of today’s choral compositions here.


“There is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and make new ones like them.” – Marcus Aureluis ‘Meditations’

A happy insight came to me indirectly last spring, from an event where hundreds of choral musicians appeared together, representing eight choirs. All Saints Catholic Church was the venue for an outpouring of spiritual and financial support for one of our own, Brian Tierney. Reflecting afterward on the variety of sounds that we had heard, I became aware of the several changes that had come about in six years my family had been gone from Portland. And in that time, Portland had cultivated a new choral landscape. Significant. Dramatic.

There are new faces in front of two of Portland’s heirloom choirs. Oregon Repertory Singers and Choral Arts Ensemble have new directors, Ethan Sperry and David DeLeyser. And these two join a cadre of new, smaller choirs conducted by energetic new talents who have blossomed on the scene: Katherine Fitzgibbon, Resonance Ensemble; Anna Song, In Mulieribus; Patrick McDonough, The Ensemble; and Ryan Heller, Portland Vocal Consort.

These new, downsized groups are what I would call “boutique choirs,” not at all a pejorative insinuation. I think it’s a good word that meshes with Portland’s boutique-y wine, beer and visual arts scene and general quirkiness, as seen on say, “Portlandia.” With these newbies comes the infusion of new ideas and styles. And they share similarities.


The Creation of the Stars and Planets, (or, given the position of the figure on the left, perhaps a more appropriate title would be The Moon and the Sun), as depicted on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. Credit: Wikipedia Commons


This weekend, the Oregon Symphony and Portland Symphonic Choir perform one of the great choral orchestral sacred music works, Joseph Haydn’s 1798 oratorio, The Creation. Based on the Biblical story of humanity’s origin, with additional text from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, it uses music to evoke images of animals, different weather conditions (including those Oregon is enduring now), and other events and descriptions. In this podcast, Oregon ArtsWatch writer Brett Campbell talks to Lewis & Clark College music professor Katherine FitzGibbon, a specialist in German choral music who’s conducted The Creation herself, about what makes Haydn’t masterpiece both moving and fun for all kinds of listeners.

OAW Audio: Brett Campbell and Katherine FitzGibbon on “The Creation” by Oregon Arts Watch

Katherine FitzGibbon knows the score

Katherine FitzGibbon conducts the Lewis & Clark College Choirs and teaches music history, choral music education, and conducting. She is also Artistic Director of Resonance Ensemble and Head of Faculty at the Berkshire Choral Festival in Sheffield, Massachusetts, and Vancouver, British Columbia. A lyric soprano, Dr. FitzGibbon is a frequent recitalist, having performed with Friends of Rain, Clark University’s Faculty Recital Series, the Boston Secession Artist Series, Cornell University Mid-Day Music, and recitals at the Berkshire Choral Festival.

Here’s the oratorio’s greatest hit, which she describes at the end of the interview.

The first episode described how a veteran Portland community music ensemble, Venerable Showers of Beauty gamelan, decided to take on a difficult but potentially enormously rewarding new set of repertoire and performance challenges for its 31st anniversary concert, which transpired last month at Lewis & Clark College. In this episode, the stakes involved grow and the preparations intensify to meet the challenge.

Venerable Showers of Beauty 30th Anniversary Concert November 2010

So far, the November concert was shaping up to be like our breakthrough 30th anniversary concert last year — a whole new set of more sophisticated traditional Javanese repertoire than we’d ever faced, and a major new (to us) Lou Harrison work (we played two smaller ones last year, with Lewis & Clark faculty musicians on horn, viola, and flute) that also required working with Western classical music soloists.

This year’s program would have been seemed daunting a year ago, but having surmounted those challenges in a sold-out concert featuring two dozen musicians onstage (including our old teacher from Java leading us), it now looked like a perfect next step for the band.

After hitting a trough in the years following Midiyanto’s departure, VSB was clearly on an upswing, handling more and more sophisticated repertoire and adding several new members even in the year since the anniversary concert. One was a composer who had worked for Harrison and played in his gamelan in California in the 1980s. Another was a member of Gamelan Pacifica who had moved to Portland and was familiar with the Double Concerto and other Harrison works — I’d seen Adrienne perform with Gamelan Pacifica in Seattle and was glad to add her to the team.

A superb pianist, Adrienne could read Western music, and so we assigned her one of the gamelan parts in the second movement. The other went to another rookie member, Matt, a trained percussionist. Both would need to read the Western music score the classical soloists would be using. The rest of us would use the Javanese cipher notation we were used to, with only a few wrinkles added by Harrison.

Two Plus One: Mass Appeal

Then came the third challenge. Our music director, Mindy Johnston, returned from a conference in London, where she’d looked in on a gamelan ensemble there. They happened to be rehearsing the world premiere performance of a brand new work written by the English composer Neil Sorrell, author of the most popular textbook on gamelan and an old friend of Midiyanto’s. Although Mindy much preferred traditional to contemporary gamelan music, she was transfixed by the beauty of Sorrell’s Missa Gongso, a six-movement work that set the Latin Mass to a gamelan accompaniment. After we heard the rough recording she made there, so were we.

Mindy asked Sorrell if we could play the American premiere, and he agreed. Then she asked L&C’s director of choral programs, Katherine FitzGibbon, if she’d be willing to let her community choir take it on with us. Dr. FitzGibbon, who already required her students to sing some works outside the narrow Western European tradition, was all for it — but since she was going on sabbatical, the only chance to perform it would be in the upcoming November concert that was already overloaded with tough new material. We gulped — and decided to add the Mass to an already packed and difficult (for us, not the audience) program. We didn’t really realize what we were getting into.

Composer Neil Sorrell

Missa Gongso posed challenges of the sort the group had never faced. Gamelan music is directed aurally — by a drummer who signals section and tempo changes, and permutations of irama, a difficult concept to translate to Western music that has to do with the rhythmic density of the piece. Western orchestras and choirs, in contrast, rely on visual cues from a conductor, but sometimes the gamelan and chorus actually perform in different rhythms. So we would have to look up from our scores and switch from being guided by our ears to FitzGibbon’s hands — not as easy as it sounds for amateurs who’ve never done it. Moreover, the piece contained all sorts of gestures and effects, a few of them very fast, utterly unfamiliar in traditional gamelan music. But again: it was a rare opportunity too good to pass up.

Lewis & Clark College Director of Choral Studies Katherine FitzGibbon. Photo: Gina Emerson Photography

Musical Community

The stakes were high. The group’s decision to take on these three challenges reflects a common conundrum among Portland amateur musicians: Do we stand comfortably still, or push ourselves to move up to what the sports cliche machine calls the next level?

On one hand, there’s a real pleasure in just gathering with your friends and sharing familiar tunes in a low-pressure situation, whether it’s picking guitars on the porch, singing shape note songs or even joining a church or amateur choir.

That’s especially true in gamelan, a quintessentially community form of music making in which the interweaving parts, not the solo contributions, are the key. The music’s extremely collaborative nature served as a kind of metaphor; it was more important to Midiyanto that everyone get along than it was to play a piece perfectly at the expense of the group’s comity.

The pressure of public performance of difficult music could threaten that relaxed vibe. I’d seen VSB and my previous group lose members when we pushed to perform publicly more often and raise our musical standards.

But for me, Mindy and others, there’s an even greater pleasure in sharing the music we love with the public, exposing them to beauties that never fail to bewitch them. (It’s not really about us as performers; the music itself is so shimmeringly beautiful that it sells itself.)

Moreover, performing live, especially challenging repertoire, forces you to get better, to sharpen your skills and amplify your engagement with the music. And taking on more ambitious repertoire brings its own pleasure, the reward for effort expended, like adding a mile to your run every year. New works and new kinds of music also keep the experience fresh, and that means we attract and keep members who’d be bored by simply repeating familiar repertoire in our studio every week.

Cultural Clash

We trusted Mindy to make those decisions for us, after some informal discussion.

“In some ways, not having the experience of being professional musicians, maybe they’re more willing to take risks,” she wrote in an email. “Because we have such an amateur group, most of them don’t really know how challenging something is or is not, and I’m the one who has to decide if we’re going to do it or not. So ultimately I can jump into something that maybe we’re really not cut out for — but maybe nobody knows if we are or not (and the people who DO know are up for the challenge, generally!)… and I just plow ahead as if we are, and then we do it!”

VSB music director Mindy Johnston and Midiyanto at rehearsals for the 31st anniversary concert

 We quickly realized that our standard weekly two-hour practice wouldn’t be enough to handle the complex new repertoire. Individual practice is much less of an option in Javanese music than in Western music. Western classical musicians can practice a piece at home with their own instrument and notation and are less dependent on group rehearsals to learn the notes. Conversely, in Java, gamelan musicians learn by playing over and over again together until every member of the group really gets it. Except for a couple of virtuosic instruments, practicing individually is less helpful because the real challenge is integrating your part with the whole, and the instruments (ours are owned by the college) stay in the studio. Everything depends on listening and responding to what’s going on around you, and that ultimately requires a lot of confidence gained from frequent practice with the group.

“Playing gamelan, especially for a performance, is an enormously challenging process in so many ways,” Mindy, who’s a trained violist, explained, “and it requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness and patience. It is really about the group, not about individual desire, so I understand why it pushes buttons for some people. It really is hard to go through this process and is different than Western music precisely because it relies on the group for the learning to happen.”

“And that’s different than Western musicians,” she continued. “They wouldn’t rehearse nearly as much as we rehearse. With semi-professional musicians, there’s an expectation that you’ll put in a lot more rehearsal time by yourself, but we can’t do that, so we need more time getting comfortable by rehearsing a lot together. It is hard to put the group needs first and maybe let go of the place you think you should be. But ultimately, it offers great rewards and I think can be a very positive experience for everyone if you can let go and surrender to that process.”

The extra rehearsals added pressure. “It being a community based group, we draw so many kinds of people to the group who have different scheduling issues,” Mindy wrote. “All of that feeds into how much we can do. This year we also had a bunch of new people to add at the last minute, and a couple of members worried that we were biting off more than we could chew. That kind of questioning throughout the process also adds a lot of extra work in getting them caught up, and puts a lot of pressure on the group.”

We wound up scheduling a half-dozen extra rehearsals leading up to the show, and we needed every one of them.

Three to Get Ready

We had less than three months to prepare three major concert components: the half-hour, three-movement Harrison Double Concerto; the six pieces of new Javanese music; and Sorrel’s half-hour Missa Gongso.

We spent the most time on Sorrel’s mass, mostly because it demanded extensive stop-and-start sections with lots of fast cues as the gamelan alternated with and then accompanied the singers — nothing like the leisurely, cyclical songs we were used to playing. We had a choral score in Western notation and a gamelan score in cipher notation, but no master score to see how they lined up!

So we relied on the recording and Mindy’s ability (along with that of a few of our other players with Western music experience) to bridge the gap. Much of the music had to be mastered by sight reading and practice, because it didn’t conform to the standard Javanese techniques we’d honed over the years and relied on. The new Javanese music and the Harrison concerto basically used techniques we already knew, just at a higher level. But performing the mass would involve learning a fundamentally different kind of playing.

“Even something as simple as figuring out where to start, where you have to stop — those are time-consuming things if you’re dealing with Western music and gamelan together,” Mindy pointed out. “Getting things in sync with both Lou and Neil’s pieces, dealing with Western scores — that was a challenge.”

The bonang barung and bonang panerus often play beautiful interlocking elaborating parts

We thought we were doing OK until October, when our first run through with the L&C Community chorus (itself an amateur community group that had convened for the first time only a few weeks earlier and had never worked with a gamelan) revealed that we weren’t even close to being able to play the piece in real time.

Rehearsals immediately became a lot more intense. For instance, I had to switch six times among three instruments in the course of the piece. Those parts were hard enough, but it wasn’t until dress rehearsal that we figured out how to make that work without distracting the audience, in part by positioning the instruments so I could turn around and play one of the bonangs upside down for several measures before returning to the other. New challenges spark new solutions. The piece teemed with similar uncertainties, and some parts were just hard to play.

Also, we were extremely lucky to add two new members with extensive Western musical training; Bonnie and Amelia became our “ringer singers,” running the soprano choral lines with us in rehearsal so we could hear how it all fit together.

In our few rehearsals with them, the community choir struggled with some of the writing in Sorrell’s piece. But with a constantly upbeat attitude yet crisp and precise instructions, the cheerfully unflappable FitzGibbon gave the amateur choristers as much as they could handle through each run — and no more. Though rough patches remained even at dress rehearsal, I was impressed at how adroitly she managed to fix each difficult section, one by one, keep the singers’ spirits high, and give both groups exactly what we needed simultaneously.

Lewis & Clark Community Chorale and Venerable Showers of Beauty rehearse Missa Gongso

Watching her work out these cultural translations and collaborations with Mindy (who has a master’s degree in mediation) made me think that if we could turn over the world’s diplomatic problems to these smart, cooperative artists, the world would be a much more peaceful place.

The Javanese material also proved harder than expected, especially for us singers. We didn’t have a good recording of how a couple of the songs were supposed to sound. Eventually, Mindy asked our generously patient instrumentalists to play easy (for them) sections for us over and over, while we singers worked out each phrase by phrase, until we were able to really sing with confidence. But because Midiyanto was drumming/conducting for us, and we hadn’t worked with him since the first day almost three months ago, and we’d have three wonderful guest musicians from Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica and Peni joining us the day of the show, we didn’t really bring those pieces together until the two rehearsals with everyone together on stage.

Jesse Snyder from Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica

And the stage made a huge difference. Unlike Western music, gamelan depends so much on hearing each other to know where you are that when you switch venues, it’s often a struggle to stay together, because sounds you were (sometimes unconsciously) cueing from in weeks of studio rehearsal suddenly aren’t audible on stage. For a group that had hitherto performed in public only in music we’d typically played for years, all this was scary.

But last year’s concert and others we’d played recently in various venues paid off: Our group quickly adjusted to the new sonic environment — a sign of its growing skill. By rehearsals’ end, just like last year, we were ready to play the traditional material.

However, all the work on that and the Missa Gongso left us little time to work on the third major challenge: Harrison’s powerful Double Concerto. Our soloists were busy professional classical musicians with teaching and performing gigs, and one, University of Oregon faculty violinist Fritz Gearhart (a superb Oregon musician whose performances with the Eugene Symphony and Oregon String Quartet and others I’d much admired), had to drive up from Eugene. S o we got only a couple of run throughs with the soloists.  We never did run the whole piece (the second movement required only two of our members) complete before showtime.

Fortunately, most members could rely on their experience interpreting traditional Javanese classical music to get through the piece. Unfortunately, thanks to Harrison’s thorny obbligato part I’d recklessly signed up for, I wasn’t one of them. And now we simply didn’t have time for me and the others who faced unusual tests in that piece to practice. The concert day had arrived.

And I was sick.

To be continued…

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