High Choir Act

This Catlin Gabel Choir Teacher Is Writing a Requiem for Victims of Racial Violence

Damien Geter’s An African American Requiem will premiere at the Schnitz in May.

By Conner Reed January 21, 2020 Published in the February 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

"Taking a year off from your teaching gig” is not usually code for “composing a requiem and performing with the Metropolitan Opera.” But then, Damien Geter is a rare breed.

By day, Geter is the choir director at West Hills private school Catlin Gabel. He teaches students to sing, play, and appreciate music, sometimes pulling together impromptu string-and-wind chamber ensembles for orchestral hopefuls.

Off the clock, Geter’s opera career has taken him to Seattle, Aspen, and New York, where last fall he played the Undertaker in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess.

Safe to say: if anyone’s going to teach your kid how to sing, you could do a lot worse.

Geter grew up in a musical family in Virginia. His mother sang in church; his live-in grandmother was an adept pianist. A middle school band teacher named Ms. Blunt elevated his love of music from obsessive hobby to lifelong pursuit.

“To see somebody who was African American, a total music nerd, and accepting of me as this complete music nerd—I think about Ms. Blunt all the time,” Geter says.

In May, the Oregon Symphony and local chamber choir Resonance Ensemble will premiere Geter’s first concert-length composition, An African American Requiem. Commissioned with a $100,000 grant from the Oregon Community Foundation, the piece weaves spirituals and texts by journalist and civil rights leader Ida B. Wells in with the traditional Latin requiem text, serving as a memorial for black Americans lost to racial violence.

“I wanted to write something that was sort of a response to the 2016 election,” Geter says, “but also a response, as a black man, to everything that’s happened to black folks in this country since 1619 and before.”

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