Learning about the world through music: Camas High School’s choral students and director Ethan Chessin work with Alicia Jo Rabins on the composer’s “Songs of the Matriarchs”

The Oregon singer-violinist-composer-poet-scholar-storyteller worked with the Camas choirs in cultural and musical workshops, a preview concert and Portland premiere. The entire local artistic team will debut the full work in New York City this May.


Alicia Jo Rabins in dress rehearsal for Matriarchs. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Alicia Jo Rabins in dress rehearsal for Matriarchs. Photo by Daryl Browne.

THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series

“I believe that this is going to be one of my more memorable choir experiences.” –Ines, Camas High School choral student.

Ines could be speaking specifically about the April 11 premiere performance of Portland composer Alicia Jo RabinsI Was A Desert: Songs of the Matriarchs. Ines could also be referring to the trip the Camas High School choir will be taking to participate in the New York City premiere of Matriarchs in late May. Yes, memorable!


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But in that recent choir reflection, one of many recently submitted by Camas High School Choir choral students to their teacher Ethan Chessin, Ines was actually referring to the entire unit the choir has been studying this year which used varied genres of choral arts to connect students with diverse cultures, traditions and religions.

“I enjoyed comparing and contrasting different ideas and traditions.” —Henry.

CHS educator Chessin doesn’t just direct the multi-choir choral program at Camas High School, he teaches the art of choral music. In just the past five years of his twelve at CHS, Chessin has created choral curriculum based on “Music of the Black Church,” in which students collaborated with Portland’s Derrick McDuffey and Kingdom Sound and Morehouse College educator David Morrow (covered in this Arts Watch article); “Eastern European folk music”; “Bulgarian folk music”; “Stories of Immigration” (an integrated curriculum project with journalism students); and, last year, an Indie rock/experimental music unit culminating in a festival showcasing student and alumni compositions. 

“I try to meet the students where they’re at by picking music that reflects their cultures and tastes,” said Chessin in recent email correspondence with Oregon Arts Watch. “On the other hand, I am always trying to push students beyond their comfort zone by introducing unfamiliar cultures and ideas.”

Chessin in recent dress rehearsal for “Matriarchs.” Photo by Daryl Browne.
Chessin in recent dress rehearsal for “Matriarchs.” Photo by Daryl Browne.

For this year’s cultural choral curriculum unit, “Jewish Music/Culture,” Chessin, as he often does, reached beyond the Northwest region to bring culture bearers, scholars and creators to his Camas student. An impressive list of primary sources on Jewish music and culture including one of the world’s top klezmer fiddlers; Portland-based world-traveling cantor Jack Falk; a klezmer band; and Pulitzer Prize recipient composer Yehudi Wyner. The 94-year-old Wyner zoomed with Camas students from his home in New York City. CHS choirs this year have sung the music of Kurt Weill, Salomon Rossi and Eric Whitacre. 

And Chessin says it has been his tremendous joy to serve as a primary source for this unit. “It’s such a joy to accompany my students as they discover ways in which our cultures are connected and ways in which our perspectives are unique. I would not be a music educator if I hadn’t grown up playing klezmer music with my father.”

“As we have learned about Jewish culture through music and listened to klezmer bands, I have begun to learn a new way to create and appreciate sound. Before this year, I had no idea now the fast paced, clashing harmonies of klezmer were symbolic of struggle and beauty.” –Anna.


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Meeting students where they are, yet pushing them beyond the familiar? Chessin needed just the right primary resource for this delicate balance. Someone schooled in traditional Jewish music and culture yet comfortably creating in the modern world and musical genres. Someone with whom his students could truly connect. He found the right person just across the Columbia River: Alicia Jo Rabins. 

Alicia Jo Rabins. Photo by Alicia J. Rose.
Alicia Jo Rabins. Photo by Alicia J. Rose.

So Rabins showed up, performed a set of her own music, presented a 50-minute lesson on Jewish music and bid the students farewell. Ha! Not this artist; not this choral program. Rabins sat with students, talked to them about Jewish music and tradition, answered their questions, got to know them so they could get to know her. They made music together and collaborated on this very special work of art that will premiere in Portland on April 11.

Rabins is a proficient vocalist and violinist, a poet, a composer, educator, a practitioner and scholar of her Jewish faith and heritage. And she brought all of these talents to bear in her primary role at CHS – as storyteller. Several Camas students cited Rabins’ storytelling as a highlight of the unit.

“I really enjoyed the days when Alicia came in to tell us the stories behind her songs.” –Inka. 

“One of the highlights of this experience with Alicia Jo Rabins has been the storytelling aspect of our project.” –Camdyn.

“The most memorable thing from this unit so far was when we all sat down and Alicia told us the background of all of the songs we were singing.” –Madison.

The songs to which Inka, Camdyn and Madison are referring are Rabins’ Songs of the Matriarch which serve as the centerpiece of this new collaborative work. Matriarchs continues the theme of Rabins’ thought-provoking Girls in Trouble Project, pairing expanded and transcribed songs from that song-cycle with new material composed especially for this premiere. 


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I Was A Desert: Songs of the Matriarch offers the awareness that “Stories of women are often seen as peripheral when we read ancient sacred texts. This project asks what would happen if we put these women at the center instead.” (Rabins’ quote in media post). 

“We sing the stories passed down through generations in the Torah with a new take on strong and powerful women that have been mistreated.” –Charlie.

Portland audiences might be familiar with Rabins’ poetry set to music. In May of 2023, Portland women’s vocal ensemble In Mulieribus and the Portland Youth Philharmonic Camerata gave a stunning premiere of Jessica Meyer’s Because I Will Not Despair, set to four of Rabins’ poems. Rabins’ visceral and evocative text was an ideal partner for Meyer’s vibrant word painting. (View I Will Not Despair on the second half of this PYP/In Mulieribus concert here, and read a review of that concert here).

Rabins’ storytelling (and musical and acting talents) were put on screen in her creative film, A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, directed by another Portland artist, Alicia J. Rose. The film, which premiered in Portland in 2022, won awards in three film festivals. A New York Times review in September of 2022 stated: “The result is a hybrid of documentary, memoir and musical-mystical essay” (article here). The film is available for viewing or on DVD at Amazon. An interview about Kaddish, featuring Rose and Rabins can be viewed here:

The storytelling in that film is enhanced by the text and songs Rabins composed to represent the voices of victims of the Madoff exploitation. And that is also why this current collaboration with Camas High School is so compelling. Rabins invited students to anonymously contribute their own personal thoughts and feelings. You will hear these student reflections alongside or interwoven with the ancient texts of Matriarchs.

CHS choir members Raye Jensen, Mary Anderson and Orrin Brown tell personal stories of loss and grief in “Songs of the Matriarchs.” Photo by Daryl Browne.
CHS choir members Raye Jensen, Mary Anderson and Orrin Brown tell personal stories of loss and grief in “Songs of the Matriarchs.” Photo by Daryl Browne.

“One thing that makes this project so unique, and I expect to really come through to audiences in a powerful way, is that the student singers in the choir have been genuine collaborators in shaping the composition and performances,” stated Chessin. 

“Alicia has a very strong voice as a composer and deep knowledge of her subject,” continued Chessin. “But she has also made space for the perspectives of the individual choir members to shine through. These young people have great insights about music, religions and pop cultures and gender that they have contributed to the piece.”


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CHS soloist Cara Papy is a soloist in “Songs of the Matriarchs.” Photo by Daryl Browne.
CHS singer Cara Papy is a soloist in “Songs of the Matriarchs.” Photo by Daryl Browne.

Off-Broadway Preview

On March 26, Camas High School choirs and chamber orchestra presented their spring concert and previewed a portion of I Was A Desert: Songs of the Matriarchs – what a wonderful little teaser it was. The full cast of 145 performers was assembled on stage at the beautiful Joyce Garver Hall in Camas and it was a powerful and inspiring sight. 

Camas High School choir in a pre-concert staging of Alicia Jo Rabins' "Songs of the Matriarchs" at the Joyce Garver on March 26. Photo by Matriarchs production.
Camas High School choir in a pre-concert staging of Alicia Jo Rabins’ “Songs of the Matriarchs” at the Joyce Garver on March 26. Photo by “Matriarchs” production crew.

“I thought it was really interesting to see how a bunch of different artists come together…with a bunch of different ideas and see how they collaborate.” –Lyla.

Well said. Joining director Chessin and composer Rabins (who performs vocally and on violin) are three members of Third Angle New Music – Casey Bozell (violin), Kim Uwate (viola) and Seth Biagini (cello) – and local jazz/folk/rock musicians Rachel Brashear (guitar), Matt Mayhall (drums) and Bryn Roberts (keyboard). But Lyla isn’t just talking about the performers. The theatrical team includes sound engineers, choreographer, lighting artists and animators. 

Rabins’ publicity materials state that the work blends musical genres including folk, klezmer and rock into the large-scale collaboration yet stops short of classifying the composition as a whole. But if you will allow this attempt at genrefizing (and forgive the blatant verbifizing) we should call this work a cantata. It is a vocal and choral composition in several movements (eight) utilizing instrumental artists (seven) and soloists (several, vocal and instrumental including Rabins). Golly, with the theatrical elements promised at the Revolution Hall premiere we might even hint at oratorio. 

Why suggest a centuries-old genre for a clearly contemporary work? To be frank, because a lot of us “traditional” concert goers appreciate a reference to classical constructs so we can get our bearings before we navigate, with curiosity and openness, into the new. It’s what Chessin is teaching his students; it’s what Rabins is saying in Matriarchs. Experience, share, appreciate the old, make a connection – create a pathway – into something new.

“Shout out to Alicia Jo Rabins; it is such an honor to be working with such a talented person. New York, here we come!” –Owen.

Yes! Following this Portland premiere Rabins’ Matriarchs is headed to NYC to debut on May 23 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Camas High School choral students, their teacher, the instrumentalists, the tech crew and Alicia Jo Rabins will share their voices and the Songs of the Matriarchs with thousands more. Memorable. 


But first, Owen, you and your choir mates enjoy your very-close-to-home-town premiere and, as an extra treat, have a blast serving as backing vocalists for Portland performer Nick Delffs who opens this show at Revolution Hall. “It has been a dream to have a choir join me for a song or two. I live for these kinds of collaborations,” revealed the former “Shaky Hands” frontman to the Matriarchs production team. Great to see you, Nick.

Former The Shakey Hands frontman Nick Delffs. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Former The Shaky Hands frontman Nick Delffs. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What an event. Special appearance by Delffs, the premiere of a new composition by a dynamic Portland composer and Portland’s fine instrumental artists. And a choral teacher and his absolutely awesome group of students from Camas High School learning about the world through music.

I Was A Desert: Songs of the Matriarchs is performed on Thursday, April 11, at 7:30 pm at Revolution Hall, Portland. Tickets are available here

Special thanks from the author

Thanks to Ethan Chessin and the Camas students for inviting me in to take photos in the final moments of the March 26 pre-concert dress. Rabins’ rich voice rising above the choral sound, choral and instrumental music that melds the ancient with contemporary, the dramatic but subtle choreographed choral movements. I can’t wait to hear and see more.

And a very special thank you to the students mentioned above who contributed their reflections to this Oregon Arts Watch preview and also to Vera, Seth, Mia, Jamie, Faith, Lilly, Michael, Peyton, Sophia, Bianca, Austin, Aiden, Shay, Sam, Ian and Addie and a few unnamed students whose reflections added greatly to the sentiment of this piece.  –db.


Here’s a concert to add to your choral concert going this weekend. Eugene Vocal Arts will treat you to rich contemporary choral sounds of Asian and Asian-American composers on their April 7 concert “Asian Fusion.” Explore the cultures of China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and The Philippines in folk songs, ballads and vocal jazz as the choir explores the fusion of Eastern and Western musical traditions.

Join Eugene Vocal Arts for “Asian Fusion” on Sunday, April 7, 2:30 pm at Silva Concert Hall at the Hult Center, Eugene. Tickets may be purchased here


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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.


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