Mr. Owens' compositions have been enthusiastically received in the U.S. and abroad. His chamber-opera, The Pope of Fools, set to his own poetry, received a standing ovation at its premiere in San Francisco. The award-winning novelist Cecile Pineda called it "a work of consummate genius," and termed the premiere of his music-play, The Garden, "one of the most remarkable evenings of the season." His Elegy for piano trio was called "one of the finest pieces of its kind" by Dr. Hazaiah Williams, Four Seasons Concerts. Victor Kaslin of the International Music Society wrote, on the premiere in Moscow, of Owens' Rowell Sonata, "His music has left a great and lasting impression on our audience."

Note: All are currently available for sale, with the exception of music for "The Garden". Click here for order information for Matthew's compositions.

A music-play for a large cast with piano and string quartet. It is a comedy set in the Garden of Eden, ending with the Apocalypse. Premiered: Berkeley, 1987.
See excerpts from libretto

CADENZAS for solo cello
Matthew's version of the cadenzas in movements i & ii of Haydn's Cello Concerto in D Major.

ELEGY for violin, 'cello and piano
Written during the 1991 Gulf War this work is an outcry against all such tragic choices and the consequent contradictions imposed upon all sides who must live amidst violence and absurdity. Premiered: Oakland, CA, 1991; approx. 10 min.

THE POPE OF FOOLS for baritone voice, violin, 'cello and piano
A chamber-opera based on Hugo's, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which the baritone takes the part of Quazimodo, telling his own story of one, unlovable, redeemed by loving. Premiered: San Francisco, 1995; approx. 50 min.
See synopsis and excerpts

THE ROWELL SONATA for solo 'cello (1996)
A three movement work dedicated to the late great 'cello pedagogue, Margaret Rowell, expressing the struggles and triumphs of her extraordinary life. Premiered: Moscow, 1996; 25 min.

Mr. Owens had the extraordinary opportunity to perform his 'cello sonata, before her passing, for its dedicatee, Margaret Rowell, who exclaimed, "It's an absolutely magnificent work, so beautifully carved out for the 'cello!"

KOL NIDREI for solo 'cello.
"My own arrangement of Kol Nidrei in which I have sought to express, through the voice of the solo 'cello, the human and mystic spirit of the cantor in his improvisatory outcries, and to evoke echoes of the Patriarchs in their lone desert communion." Premiered: Oakland, CA 1998: 10 min.
See remarks on Kol Nidrei below


Recently, I was invited to perform Max Bruch's Kol Nidrei for 'cello and orchestra (piano). No longer satisfied with Bruch's florid and highly romantic rendition, I succeeded in convincing the impresario to allow me to compose my own version. I was already familiar with the use, by a wide variety of composers (Beethoven included), of the essential Kol Nidrei theme. However, research led me to examples of medieval plainsong adapted and developed by cantors for hundreds of years.

A conversation with a local rabbi led me to sources which outlined both the long, complex history of the legal Kol Nidrei-a device that originated in the Babylonian Captivity period and was employed to release the supplicant from the onus of ill-advised oaths-and that of its moral and legal importance, especially in times of oppression, such as that of the Inquisition. But the historical/legal story does not contain the essence of the evolving atonement theme as powerfully as it is captured in the musical fragments, lovingly elaborated by generations of cantors, right through to our times. Indeed, the message of the melodies is so mighty in a mystical and emotional way that in spite of sporadic debates on this subject, the music itself remains at the heart and soul of the Yom Kippur experience.

In my composition, based on the "Naumberg" fragments, I have sought to express, through the voice of the solo 'cello, the human and mystic spirit of the cantor in his improvisatory outreach, and to evoke echoes of the Patriarchs in their lone desert communion with the most exalted concept of deity yet known in human history.

This work is dedicated to my mother, in memory of my grandfather, for whom I played Kol Nidrei at our last meeting before his passing.


(To the memory of Ernst Bacon)

I The Tree and the Stars
II The Prisoner and the Moon
III the Butterflies

A Note

In movement I, The Tree and the Star, the cello represents the masculine voice, noble, powerful, but rooted, and longing for the star.

The movement opens with the evening star, the feminine voice (violin) delicately pulsing over the cello’s ardent soliloquy.  Into the night the stars appear faster and faster and more abundant in a kind of stretto, ending in an expansive arc.

At A the violin tells its story, expressing fiery brilliance, solitude, the vastness of the spaces it inhabits, and its yearning for the masculine voice, the tree.  This yearning is mingled with a sense of benediction poured down from the stars’ lofty outlook, and felt by the tree in a lyrical duet B.  The tree and the Star share in a cadenza of shimmering light C which gives way at D to a spree through space, led by the violin and accompanied by the wind flowing through the boughs of the tree.  At E a display of cosmic fireworks culminates in a cadenza F pointillistically depicting a cloud of stars.  At G the violin takes off on a precipitous ascent, pulling the cello towards it, until at I the two voices pull in each other’s direction, finally joining ecstatically.  At J they share in a reflective ending as the stars thin out and pulse in the morning sky.

This story, the meeting of masculine and feminine, is retold in The Prisoner and the Moon (II).  This movement opens with the sharp sound of a cell door (violin) slamming on a new prisoner (cello).  The star pulses of movement I have now transformed into the implacable and indifferent footsteps of the prison guard, played col legno by the violin, punctuated by harsh double-stops as the taunting guard slams a cell door or bangs on the cell bars with his club.

The prisoner, his heart pounding in fear, passes through stages of disbelief, rage, grief, apathy, introspection, and finally he falls into slumber at C.

The female voice (violin), appearing as a moonbeam, enters the prisoner’s cell.  In his self-absorption he is oblivious, but as he sleeps the moon works her magic and in a duet at D he responds to the moon as it entreats him to transcend himself and his circumstances.  At E the moon’s ardent gravity pulls the prisoner as he struggles with his loss of freedom and gains a sense of nobility and elevation.  At F the moon has helped him forget himself so completely that he joins her in a whimsical, mystical duet, which is interrupted at G by the slamming of a cell door, abruptly returning the prisoner to his fear and anguish.  But the moon works her magic again, lifting him out of himself.  His circumstances have not changed, but he is free.

In movement III, two courting butterflies playfully flutter, dart, spin, chase, come to rest, chase again, and move always toward the climax of their courtship.

Matthew Owens


CITY OF SAINT FRANCIS (2011) is an opera in three acts with orchestration and libretto by Matthew Owens. The libretto is based on his experiences with the San Francisco Night Ministry and the homeless people of San Francisco. A staging will be presented by Goat Hall Productions with producers Harriet March Page and Mark Alberger in July 2018. See commentary on the opera.


In the summer of 2007 a musician friend introduced me to members of the San Francisco Night Ministry, a loose-knit group of religious leaders of various denominations, who volunteer to walk several nights a week among the homeless, listening to them and aiding them in any way they can.  Under the guidance of two ministers whom I call Frank and Leo, I spent many nights on the streets of The Tenderloin.  The men and women I met there, their stories, their circumstances, as well as the great kindness of the ministers, moved me to write “City of Saint Francis”.

Among the principal characters in “City of Saint Francis” who are not homeless, all are in one way or another uprooted or estranged.  Father Frank leaves his home and family in the Midwest, Father Leo abandons Peru.  Both men, as ministers, become “fathers” to the homeless.  Mary of Polk Street, a Chinese immigrant, is “mother” the homeless.  Charles, an Afro-American and a failed opera singer, can’t find himself either in the world of the elite or the world of the poor.  He is a permanent outsider in the “wasteland”, resisting Meshach’s idealism and naiveté.  His compassion arises from his realism.  He has become a kind of soothsayer.

In Los Angeles, where the homeless population is large and inescapably visible, Meshach begins his seeing.  IN a departure from the usual overture, this opera opens with passages from a cello concerto – a multi-layered piece during which the worlds of haves and have-nots, unaware of each other, are juxtaposed.  Meshach, performing, is seen through a concert hall window, while on the street outside a chorus of the homeless, drumming and singing, congregate for the night.  Meshach’s encounter with his fellow man on the streets, later, outside the concert hall, initiates his Dante-like descent into a new awareness.

After learning that his long-estranged father is homeless and living on the streets of San Francisco, Meshach arrives in the city on a hot Saturday evening, finding himself on the corner of Market and Powell amid a kaleidoscopic collision of the two worlds of rich and poor.  The tension between these worlds is covered by the surreal energy of the streets in the cusp-like hours before the two worlds pull apart.  Tourists enter and exit theaters and restaurants, homeless sit on the sidewalks or play outdoor chess on large table, amusing themselves by taunting the tourists and transvestites.

It is not until Meshach is introduced to the San Francisco Night Ministry and follows them into the Tenderloin in the late night and early morning hours that his serious education begins.  Now the streets “belong” to the homeless.  Meshach, with Frank’s guidance, encounters men and women who have turned to this world as a way out, or shoes struggles to pull themselves out seem to ensnare them further into drugs, or physical and mental illness, making them incapable of profiting from the social services for which San Francisco is noted.  He listens to the stories of those who, living on the streets, live nowhere but in dreamscapes of their own devising, fear giving way to paranoia and hiding in fantasy or sleep.

Elizabeth and Charmaine have found religion on the street.  Standing with friends outside a 7‑Eleven, they ask Father Frank to pray for them, to help them find a better life, insisting on their pans to leave the streets.  Though Frank passes them phone numbers of helpful agencies, we know instinctively they will not be able to free themselves from the inertia internal and external that traps them.

William, wounded by the death of his daughter and problems at work, contemplates stabbing an old woman to steal her purse so he can pay his flophouse rent.  When circumstances prevent him, William drops his butcher knife into the gutter, relieved, thanking divine intervention and turning to Jesus, who will keep him safe.

“Street Mary” copes by finding everything acceptable.  She acquiesces to everything and everyone, remaining sweetly anesthetized.  Meshach’s lament on the street corner where Mary, ravaged, toothless, prematurely aged, stands talking to Frank, may be more than a lament for here lost beauty.  It may be a lament for America’s lost youth and innocence.

Mary’s physical and psychological transformation haunts Meshach until later, in a dream waltz, he transforms her into a young, beautiful Mary.  But there is no conventional love story here.  Though of course romances do develop, and there are many remarkable accounts, it seems love ultimately stands little chance of surviving the forces that will most likely separate a couple on the street.

Mary’s parents have left home to find their daughter.  We never know which of “so many Marys” she is.  “There are thousands of Marys here”, says a character.  They come to understand that even if they find her, they will not retrieve her.   They will not know her.  They must return home and nothing will ever be the same.

In “City of Saint Francis” the street is sometimes a place of eerie quiet, sometimes boisterous humor, often a multi-layered world of uncontrollable events and occasional violence.  Lyrical moments are edged by noise and uncertainty.  Car alarms, sirens, gunshots, traffic, make up a texture sometimes close, sometimes distant.  Extreme living can bring on a kind of crazy clarity, as when Arnold topples a cement trashcan and, sitting on it in the middle of traffic, delivers an insightful, if desultory, rant in front of Starbucks.

But some people snap.  Alfonso, profoundly agitated by the “uppers” he takes after being laid off and then robbed, explodes, blindly, impulsively stabbing Father Leo as he attempts to break up a gang fight.  Alfonso did not know Leo.  While Leo lies at his feet, bleeding to death, Alfonso stands there, blank and bewildered, until Charles shoves him away.  “Go”, he says; and to himself, “there is no malice in this, just drugs…and despair…and sirens.”

Leo pays the ultimate price for his passion.  He is in love with his “congregation,” and has a bad habit of recklessly entering potentially violent situations.  Frank, in his years on the street, has learned to balance heart with wisdom.  IN for the long haul, he has leaned to be present without losing himself.  But even Meshach, who has learned to be present without losing himself.  But even Meshach, who has learned much from Frank, is defeated by the street.  Frank, sensing that Leo has gotten himself into trouble, sends Meshach after him.  “Whatever he’s into”, he says, “pull him out!”  On his way, Meshach is unable to withdraw easily from the many characters who approach him and so arrives too late to stop Alfonso.

The libretto takes its language from the street, which can be so eloquent, striking or hilarious, it is like a gift from the gods to a people who have nothing.  Street language was a guiding factor, also, in preparing the score. Syllabic writing predominated, and intermittently music supports spoken text.

Motion is a key element.  Meshach descends from the concert hall to the street.  He walks along a row of homeless.  Later, in San Francisco, the tourists walk.  When Frank, at the end of his prayer, says to Meshach, “Let’s walk”, they begin moving through The Tenderloin, encountering the homeless, many of whom are walking just to have something to do or to handle their agitation.  Meshach runs through the streets of San Francisco in search of Leo, his many experiences on the street racing through his mind.

The waltz, circular, backward-looking, is connected throughout with moments of remembrance or dream, as in Meshach’s evocation of his childhood and his dream encounter with Mary.  Country western, jazz, blues, rock and hip hop are woven into the score.

The street chorus begins and ends the opera and sets the tone at certain key points along the way.  In the final moments, Frank holds his dying friend Jeremiah in his arms, as Meshach reveals the news of Mary’s death and the murder of Frank’s cherished colleague, Leo.  The voices of the chorus join with Frank, “rising from the pavement”, as he finds strength in his sense that, when we feel the suffering of others, we are connected to each other and to God.  “When we cry, God cries with us!” Meshach recalls Mary of Polk Street’s words: “Every night he holds the City in his arms.”

Matthew Owens



© Matthew Owens, 2004-2011