Fort Worth — TCU School of Music’s Festival of American Song presented the second of a pair of concerts on Sunday afternoon in PepsiCo Hall. As with the initial concert on Saturday night, the music was excellent but the printed program and the presentation, while greatly improved, was still disappointing.
With a concert of such importance, more information about the selections is required than if was routine performances of standard repertoire. The event mostly featured the music of Ricky Ian Gordon (who was in attendance), including a premiere of a work commissioned for the occasion, Meteors.
On Saturday’s concert, Gordon sat mute in the audience while his marvelous songs were expertly sung by a collection of fine singers, without any explanation or even a program note. On Sunday, before the last two selections (including the premiere), the always-interesting Shields-Collins Bray brought Gordon up on the stage to talk about his career and how his musical style evolved. It was casual, informative and most welcome.
Gordon was raised in the theater. His mother, Eve Gordon, was a singer and comic on the Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskills. This influence on his childhood and later musical life is unmistakable. He learned to play the piano to accompany her. It is a story that you need to hear first hand, but until you have that opportunity, here is a recording of a duet with Ricky and his mother, with Ricky singing as well as playing the piano). It is a glimpse of Gordon, the composer’s, DNA.
Sunday’s concert featured TCU faculty member and distinguished soprano, Angela Turner Wilson, singing all of the selections. As before, Bray was at the piano. The first two-thirds of the program followed Saturday’s unfortunate pattern—one song after another with little explanation.
Gordon’s music alternated with songs by our modern-day Schubert, Ned Rorem, and a delightful bon-bon from Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Both composers are well known, but we despaired the lack of program notes for information on the other composers presented: Jason Robert Brown and Jeff Blumenkrantz.
Wilson was last heard in recital as part of the Cliburn Concerts at the Modern in April of 2012. TJ reviewer John Norine had great praise for her voice and singing ability. Norine’s review is here.
Wilson has a lyric soprano voice but the top is bigger than you would expect, bordering on a spinto sound. When pushed beyond its current limitations, her voice took on an edge and her vibrato speeded up, but this is rare and may have been the result of hearing a big voice in a small space.
For the most part, her voice is perfectly placed and she sings without effort. But her real gift is a natural acting ability that makes the word “acting” inappropriate. You understand and believe every word she sings. An educated guess would venture that her technique is speech-based, a school of vocal training that has many adherents, such as superstar soprano Patricia Racette (and this writer as well). Maybe she arrived at this by another route or by sheer talent (or maybe it is just the right way to sing), but every song was a mini-opera and she fully inhabited every one of the many characters.
This brings us to the highlight of the festival, the world premiere of Meteors.
This is the commissioned work and based on a poem by the composer (as is his wont). Gordon read the text aloud before we heard the song and it was slightly disappointing. As a poem, it is clunky and full of forced rhymes:
The branches bowed as if in prayer,
The leaves were eyes that seemed to stare,
The air seemed to care,
We lay there, damp, bare
But Gordon knew exactly what he was doing and what he needed for the song he envisioned. He was not writing a poem. He was witting song lyrics; words that will never have to stand on their own, but will always be able to soar in his sweeping music. The text implies much more than it tells, but we all have moments in our past when we “burned like meteors” and only the melancholy memory remains.
“My default subject matter,” Gordon said. “Loss.”
The oddly constructed phrase “even though there was no sunlight” becomes an idée fixe and it helps us to stay oriented when it appears. The setting of the words “even though” (a pattern of two eight notes and a quarter), reoccurs frequently and helps to orient us as the song presses onward, even when the pattern appears without the words
His setting of Antarctica, which closed the program, is the first monologue from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which Gordon set with the blessing of the author. The text is the polar opposite of Meteors. It was not intended as song lyrics, but as a dramatic monologue that creates a character. This, of course, is perfect for the theatrical Gordon and the actor that lives inside of Wilson. She made it sound like someone sitting in the living room, sharing with us her secrets. After a while, you could easily forget that she was singing as the words came alive. She tied together Kushner’s about-faces and rapid mood changes, as enhanced by Gordon’s music. It all felt so real, as if she was telling us this unplanned and in a sudden outburst
Saturday exposed us to Gordon’s early song writing. These two pieces, which ended the festival, are representative of Gordon’s mature compositional style, which moves past “songwriting.” This is the work of a major composer, with a gift for the theater, which so impressed the musical world with the recent premieres of A Coffin in Egypt (about Small Town Texas) in Houston and 27 (about Big Town Paris through the eyes of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas) in St. Louis. Critical praise was universal.
Gordon fuses all of his influences in such a complete manner than they can barely be identified anymore and are certainly not obvious in the overall texture. In a way, his name underlines this fusion. The aww-shucks informality of “Ricky” is combined with the formality of using a continental-sounding middle name and a common family name that says that he is one of us.
Moment of Geek: Composers are all the product of their past. It is impossible to avoid having the music we admire not to stick to us.
Except for his early songs, Gordon never falls into this trap. He takes what he likes from composers from Bach to Bacharach, Puccini to Prince, Rorem to Rodgers, Schubert to Schoenberg. He started with his mother’s vaudeville combination of clever songs and sentimental ballads. He moved on to write cabaret, Broadway and opera. Rather than use these influences per se, he absorbed them into his unique musical language. Gordonism, perhaps.
An aside: The more radical innovators made it impossible to write anything original sounding in their language. It was a cul-de-sac. In the Broadway genre, Sondheim is a great example. “Sounds like Sondheim” is a frequent criticism of new songs. Debussy is an example in the classical world. Those who tried their hand at his flavor of impressionism, such as the brilliant American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes, were dismissed as copycats. His White Peacock is often referred to as The Afternoon of a White Peacock.
Back to the Moment of Geek: There was a time, not too long ago, that music such as Gordon’s would have been tut-tutted as haplessly old-fashioned by the classical music hierarchy. There is no doubt that the era of radical dissonance and bewildering complexity produced great masterpieces. Trouble came when it was de rigueur for decades. Whether it fit a specific composer’s gifts or not, they were forced to write in this manner. The results were insincere but the punishment for straying over the fortified border into C major was fast and cruel. The composer was shunned. You were not performed and your name expunged from the history books. Some teachers disowned their errant students. The audience fled.
There are lots of examples of composers who were thus silenced. But a perfect example is Lee Hoiby, perhaps one of the greatest composers of our time. His opera Summer and Smoke is a candidate for the title of “Great American Opera,” yet it s rarely produced. Romeo and Juliet, his final masterpiece—written just before his death in exile—remains unperformed.
Gordon boldly writes exactly what he wants and doesn’t give a tuppence what anyone else thinks. We are all so taken-aback, bowled over by its refreshing effectiveness that we don’t give a thought to compositional schools and what is in or out. Gordon’s music is what is going on today because he says it with such certainty that there is no room for doubt
It is way too early to ascertain what Gordon’s influence will be on the next generation of composers, but it will probably be significant. For one thing, the universally positive critical praise for his work finally frees composers to write in a tonal language, or any other way they want to write, for that matter. His refreshed version of tonality has very little in common with its pre-20th century incarnation. His language is unmistakably 21st century. Yet, it is still general enough to be a relatively invisible influence on young composers, seeking models as they hunt for their own unique voice.
Addendum: Gordon brought Raymond T. Shelton, a Dallas-based lifelong friend, to these performances. He was in a position to watch Gordon’s growth from the beginning of his career. I asked him for a quote about Gordon, expecting a sentence or two. What he sent was a lot more—a fascinating history of Gordon’s life and career, as he observed it up close. His narrative follows and I am pleased to share it here:
“Before I ever met Ricky Ian Gordon, I had heard of him. I moved to New York City on Labor Day of 1991 and immediately began hearing through my new circle of friends of this marvelous composer who everyone seemed to know personally. It wasn't until October 31 of that year that I would finally meet the man I'd heard so much about. Our connection was instant and Ricky has been one of my closest friends ever since.
Not long after that meeting, Ricky began making me a series of his music he would record on cassette tapes. I still have those exact tapes, and I cherish them as much as I do my mother's china and grandmother's silver. I remember the night he gave me the first one. I ran back to my tiny room in the apartment I was sharing and popped it into my Walkman. As soon as I heard the strains of the first song, I was hooked. I had just graduated from a prestigious conservatory of dramatic arts, so I had a newfound love and appreciation for language and the use of words. So, of course, I was drawn in by the theatricality and intricacies of Ricky's work, most of which consisted of art songs and were settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, e.e. cummings, Frank O'Hara and others.
I remember laying on my bed in the dark that night and listening to that tape over and over. I recall thinking that if I were fortunate enough to be a gifted composer, I could only hope this would be the music that would come out of me. Ricky's music struck a chord in me that felt like the discovery of some yet uncharted land, and at the same time, deeply familiar terrain. Each song was so beautifully crafted, the music paired perfectly with the words, and his interpretations so starkly personal, that they were also, at once, completely universal.
This is the genius of Ricky's entire body of work, and I fancy myself somewhat of an authority on the music of Ricky Ian Gordon, mostly due to the fact that I've been lucky enough to be a part of his life, and therefore his work, for the past 23 years. In fact, so many of the songs he has written in that time, I was the first to hear. When I was still living in New York, we usually met for dinner in his neighborhood on the Upper West Side every Monday night, unless he was performing or teaching out of town. Afterwards, he would inevitably invite me up to his apartment to hear the latest song he had been working on that day. So I would sit next to him on the piano bench and turn the pages as he played and sung his music just for me. The tears streamed down my face as he played because I knew I was in the presence of greatness.
And now, the world knows what I knew every one of those nights I would leave Ricky's apartment with his glorious songs swirling around inside my head. And even though the most renowned performers of our time now sing those exact songs, there is a part of me that will always prefer to hear Ricky play and sing his own music, because it is so deeply personal and uniquely Ricky that there is an authenticity and truth to his songs that stream from the source like water so pure and undiluted from some divine well.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts on my amazing friend!