New York — In September, Opera Noire of New York presented Music in Poetry, a tribute to American composer Ricky Ian Gordon at the Manhattan School of Music. ONNY consists of African-American artists and, according to the program, is not only a performance company, but a networking and resource organization. At least a dozen excellent singers sang 25 of Gordon’s songs with such energy, joy and verve that the concert flew by. Gordon was in attendance.
The main attraction was an appearance by soprano Harolyn Blackwell, a major star of opera, Broadway and cabaret. She was magnificent but didn’t overshadow the other singers. She was just “one of the guys” playing tribute to Gordon, who has written a lot of material for her.
Almost all the songs were on texts by Langston Hughes. In an email interview, Ricky had this to say about his affinity with the poet.
“It's good! It's musical! It's just, well, we had a lot in common. One black, one Jewish...both, marginalized, both hard workers. I feel his love, his compassion, his eloquence...and his joy. And I appreciate his brevity, his economy! He can say, in four lines, what it takes some poets 20 pages to say! …When I set his words to music, I feel like I step into safe and familiar water, where I will thrive, not drown...where I am baptized… It's just, well, we had a lot in common.
Gordon’s settings of Hughes’ poetry sound completely natural. However, the single takeaway from the concert was Gordon’s unique ability to write songs, of course, but his piano parts rise way above the level of accompaniments. They would sound fine on their own—without the singers.
Blackwell’s introduction used words like “incandescent” and that is not an exaggeration. She only sang one song, “Joy,” which is a masterpiece in the song literature and has already become a standard. It was a riveting performance.
The other fine singers were: Andrea Jones-Sojoia, soprano; Matthew Truss, countertenor; Jorell Williams, baritone; J’Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano; Christopher Cooley, piano; Jeryl Cunningham-Fleming, soprano; Bernard Holcomb, tenor; Robert Mack, tenor; Kenneth Overton, baritone; Angela L. Owens, soprano; Chauncey Packer, tenor; Justin Austin, baritone; and Aundi Marie Moore, soprano.