Oregon Symphony Dazzles, Startles With Oratorio On Homelessness

By April Baer (OPB) and Steven Tonthat (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Sept. 8, 2018 6:13 p.m.
New York composer Gabriel Kahane was back in Portland for a live theater recording of his latest musical piece, "emergency shelter intake form."

New York composer Gabriel Kahane was back in Portland for a live theater recording of his latest musical piece, "emergency shelter intake form."

Steven Tonthat / OPB

UPDATE (Monday, Sept. 10, 10:49 a.m. PT) – Oregon Symphony president Scott Showalter's phone has been ringing since the premiere of Gabriel Kahane's symphony commission "emergency shelter intake form."


“I've had orchestras across the country mention to agents and to me directly,” Showalter said, “that they are interested in potentially bringing this piece in future seasons.”

Showalter spent his post-concert moments after the first performance wondering if he’d made an irreparable mistake.

The Symphony has not traditionally tackled topical issues from the stage. As music director Carlos Kalmar said, institutions have been wary of unspoken rules governing the orchestral world.

“You cannot — as a nonprofit institution — you cannot be politically involved,” Kalmar said.

When the time came to program the 2017–18 season, the symphony’s artistic advisory committee began serious discussions on programming that would address the issues affecting audiences: immigration, the environment, homelessness. After several years of planning — undertaken well before the 2016 election — the symphony programmed various thematic works across the year, including the commissioning of an original orchestral work.

“When you live in Portland, it's impossible not to think about homelessness. Every day," said Karen Wagner, assistant principal oboe. "I live in close-in southeast. I walk out my door and I see it everyday.”

Wagner was part of that advisory committee planning for 2017–18. She said members discussed what composer to approach — someone who could tackle the subject matter in a timely, relevant way.

“And that,” she said, “is how Gabriel's name came up.”

Brooklyn-based composer and singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane was already something of a known commodity in Oregon musical circles. His father, the renowned conductor and pianist Jeffrey Kahane, has performed several times with the Oregon Symphony, and Gabriel's melodic, innovative compositions have won rave critical reviews. He’s collaborated with several artists in Oregon’s ecosystem, like Chris Thile and Sufjan Stevens.

When the Symphony first approached him about a composition addressing homelessness, Gabriel Kahane had some reservations.

First, Kahane said, he wasn’t sure it would be possible to create something bearing enough creative ambiguity that listeners wouldn’t feel pummeled over the head by a political message.

“The second thing,” Kahane said, “is the question of, 'Is this for the institution, to kind of check a box, or is it really to effect some kind of change?' And I didn't know how I was going to grapple with that.”

However, he said he wasn’t about to lightly dismiss the chance to work with the Oregon Symphony, which he calls “one of the great orchestras in America.” His own call to action tipped the scales.

“We have a choice either to back away from the murkiness and the messiness,” he said, of the difficult themes of the composition, “or we can dive headlong into it. I think I chose the path of the murk and the messiness.”

Kahane’s process involved in-depth research and time spent volunteering at a New York homeless shelter.

“One of the things that I found in interviewing people is the banality of poverty," Kahane said. "There was this phrase that kept coming up, sleeping in chairs when you're trying to get a shelter bed in just about any system in the United States, you're sort of vetted.”

That was how he came to the concept of bringing housing bureaucracy to musical life in the composition, “emergency shelter intake form.”

Related: A Portland Family’s Journey From Homelessness To Home

Holcombe Waller is a friend of Kahane’s, a composer in his own right and one of the soloists who performed in the work’s premiere.

“When I first saw the score and heard the title of the piece, I thought it was really inspired. He’s taking extant texts that are often pieces of forms and bureaucratic paperwork having to do with social services, and he’s sizing them and dramatizing them,” Waller said. “He’s basically daylighting kinds of bureaucratic experiences that people experiencing homelessness have to get through, and making them known to a symphony audience that may have no idea what experiences these people are having.”

The crown of the oratorio is a choral performance by the Maybelle Community Singers, an extraordinary ensemble of people who are, or have at some point, been living on the streets, combined with stars and volunteers from the Maybelle Community Center. Their appearance, toward the end of the work, galvanizes the narratives woven by the symphony, a soprano soloist, and Kahane's brilliantly interwoven "Chorus of Inconvenient Statistic," sung at the premiere by Waller, Holland Andrews and Kahane himself.

Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar said the resulting performance was "way more to the point ... way more involved in one's own feelings than I could have ever imagined.”

Symphony president Scott Showalter said he was confident of Kahane’s process, and the reports of symphony staff about how rehearsals were going. But he confessed some nerves on opening night.

“For every one of the three performances we had the houselights up — which is highly uncommon — so that people can read along the text of the libretto," Showalter said. "We could see every movement, including a couple of handfuls of people who left, some who were visibly upset, and other people who are openly crying in a profound way.

"People had strong reactions both positive and negative. That first night I had my head down. I thought only two things: ‘One, this is breakthrough work. And this is the end of my career.’ One of my percussionists pointed out those two things are not mutually exclusive.”

Those who attended estimate the number of walkouts as perhaps several dozen. The majority of audience members received it with thunderous applause. Violinist Joshua Bell, who was present at the premiere, was so moved by the piece he flew his girlfriend in the next night to hear the second performance. The symphony’s partner in commissioning the work, the Britt Festival, subsequently performed the oratorio to similar fanfare, and Showalter said the feedback hasn’t stopped.

“I got love notes: ‘Never been more proud of the Oregon Symphony for connecting the community and being relevant like never before,’" he said. "I've had orchestras across the country, mentioned to agents and to me directly that they are interested in potentially bringing this piece in future seasons.”

Showalter and Kalmar say they’ve walked away from the experience convinced the symphony will commission more timely work, aiming for a conversation that can be political, but not partisan.

Musician Karen Wagner added, “I think it made people very uncomfortable, and I think that's what great art does sometimes. Not all the time, but certainly there's a place for that.”

Gabriel Kahane expressed his pleasure with the finished product, noting half a dozen orchestras' interest in performing the work, despite not a single review being published at the time of the premiere.

“It’s a testament to the topicality — I hope, also, the quality of the piece," he said. "We're all wrestling with income inequality that we have not seen in a century.”

The recording of the piece will be released in early 2019.