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Ricky Ian Gordon: Green Sneakers

Gordon / Blumberg / Miami String Quartet
Release Date: 01/12/2010 
Label:  Blue Griffin   Catalog #: 207   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Ricky I. Gordon
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 58 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

GORDON A Horse with Wings Ricky Ian Gordon (voice, pn) BLUE GRIFFIN 209 (59:45) &

GORDON Green Sneakers Jesse Blumberg (bar); Miami Str Qrt BLUE GRIFFIN 207 (57:36) &
Ricky Ian Gordon (b.1956) is a leading member of the generation of American composers of song (another notable whose work I know a bit is Adam Guettel), and in particular for musical theater, who are trying to establish a new model for the medium in the post-Sondheim era. Their great strength is their stylistic fluidity; they’re comfortable in both a more classical art song mode, and in the more familiar tropes of the stage. Their great curse is exactly the same quality, in that audiences have not flocked to them, deeming them not as accessible as their predecessors. And that in my view is a great shame, as there’s enormous substance and entertainment here. Not too surprisingly, they—and Gordon in particular—have gravitated toward opera as their primary showcase, even though they bring to it a particularly American, naturalistic tone that can’t help but refresh it and keep it engaging for younger audiences looking for more than mere rehashes of Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner.

I only know Gordon’s work formerly from a wonderful Nonesuch release, Bright-Eyed Joy ; alas, I’ve not heard his opera on The Grapes of Wrath , which has received glowing press. These two releases showcase the composer in very different ways, which emphasize the breadth and diversity of his talents.

A Horse With Wings (the title of one song on the program) is a song recital by the composer alone, singing at the piano. Gordon demonstrates enviable musicianship. He has a pleasing, light baritone voice, and a great ear for intonation. His delivery is crisp, impassioned, and always clearly articulated. His pianism is similarly fluent; in the first song or two it seems more in the pop-song tradition of arpeggios and ornamented chord progressions, but it grows ever more complex and varied throughout the recital, so that—like any great songwriter’s accompaniments—it crafts its textures exactly to what’s needed for the expressive point of any given song, and can go in any direction to get it. His delivery can become a little strained in places for my taste, but it bespeaks a genuine love, commitment, and enthusiasm for his music and its topics, and frankly I’m happy to trade a little polish for the authenticity gained.

As for the music itself, it ranges from the more popular to classical. The former is embodied in such songs as the album’s title track, “White-Haired Woman,” and “Home of the Brave” (a memorial tribute to Matthew Shepard, the victim of anti-gay violence in Laramie, Wyoming). All these lyrics are by Gordon, the song forms are strophic and melodically memorable, the harmonies clear but packed with interesting details and surprising twists. The other side is represented by songs setting other poets, such as Frank O’Hara, Langston Hughes, Donald Justice, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Les Murray, and Rainer Maria Rilke. All are beautifully crafted and vocally grateful. I personally liked the twisted rag of “Drivers of Diaper Service Trucks Are Sad” (X. J. Kennedy) and the lament for lost innocence “Adolescent’s Song“ (Howard Moss). Gordon refers to Ned Rorem in his notes, and these songs, with their more discursive flow, complex accompaniments, and extended harmonies, fall into the more traditional American art song tradition.

The songs on that disc cover a range of at least two decades (from what I can surmise from the notes). Green Sneakers is an integral song cycle dating from 2007. Its texts are all by Gordon, a series of vignettes viewing the last year or so of his relationship with his partner, Jeffrey Grossi, who died in 1996. They are intimate, confessional, deeply honest (Gordon doesn’t spare himself any criticism in dealing with the stress of caretaking). It seems to be designed as a quasi-staged monodrama, baritone Jesse Blumberg embodying the composer’s character. Both he and the Miami String Quartet render the work passionately, and seemingly impeccably (disclosure: the quartet has performed my music). The whole thing is moving and has received rave notices as a masterpiece.

So why am I somehow not as moved as I feel I should be? And why do I prefer the song collection? I must emphasize that Gordon’s writing in Green Sneakers is on a very high level, and he doesn’t use the subject matter to take any easy ways out technically. Its sincerity and emotional power are not in question. Likewise I don’t want him to be more “Broadway” as though that’s where his real roots are; I love his range. But it still doesn’t leave me with a strong residue. Every listener is different, and I’m just one listener, but I can’t help but feel that here part of the matter lies in Gordon’s libretto. It has much more of the “prosey” freedom of contemporary poetry, but it also doesn’t seem as deeply conceived or rendered as the poems by other American poets on the first disc. As a result, the music tends to follow the drama in the text a little too literally, and doesn’t develop as much musical personality as I think it needs. (Interestingly, Gordon writes that the use of the quartet was a “distancing” device which gave him some objectivity on his material. I think that even stricter conventions of song form, both for music and lyrics, might have helpfully done the same.) While it’s a successful monodrama, I’m not as convinced of Green Sneakers ’ distinctive voice as I am of the collected songs on A Horse with Wings.

Gordon is probing adventurous and risky ground here, both personally and aesthetically. More power to him. If for me he may be batting .500 with these two releases, for someone else it may go out of the park. Worth buying to decide for yourself.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Green Sneakers, for string quartet, voice & piano by Ricky I. Gordon
Date of Recording: 08/2009 
Venue:  Blue Griffin's Studio, The Ballroom 
Length: 53 Minutes 35 Secs. 

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