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 Liner Notes:  Gordon Getty: Orchestral Works / Marriner, ASMF
The Orchestral Music of Gordon Getty

The San Francisco-based Gordon Getty is most widely known to music lovers through his vocal works, perhaps not surprising for a composer who in his student years studied not only composition and piano but also voice. Most of his compositions have involved the voice, and his three previous recordings on PentaTone Classics have all featured vocal works: his widely performed song cycle The White Election, to poems by Emily Dickinson; his cantata Joan and the Bells, on the Joan of Arc story; and Young America, a collection of his choral compositions. (The White Election, in fact, has been issued in two separate commercial recordings.) But to most music-lovers, the work of Getty’s that most readily springs to mind is Plump Jack, a two-act opera that was premiered in a concert production by the San Francisco Symphony in 1987 (that orchestra had presented an excerpt from the work-in-progress four years earlier) and since then has been performed in whole or part by such organizations as the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, Festival of the Two Worlds (Spoleto, Italy), Aspen Music Festival, London Philharmonia with London Voices, Puerto Rico Symphony, New Mexico Symphony, and Orquesta Sinfónica Sinaloa de las Artes (Mazatlán, Mexico).

Plump Jack, a nickname Shakespeare applied to his jovial character Falstaff, is something of an obsession for Getty. Apart from his opera, the name PlumpJack (with the separating space suppressed) resurfaces connected to various businesses with which Getty has been associated, including a Napa Valley winery revered for its cabernet sauvignon and acclaimed restaurants in San Francisco and Squaw Valley (Lake Tahoe), California. These enterprises in no way represent the totality of Getty’s professional ventures, which in 2002 extended to establishing a company to address an arcane area of mutual fund liquidity. His business acumen is obviously polished, a trait he perhaps inherited in some degree from his father, the legendary oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. Though his curiosity extends in many directions his involvements are not those of a dilettante. He approaches the composition of a song cycle no less casually than he does the founding of a corporation, although in both cases he is driven by intellectual curiosity more than by economic necessity.

This collection of Getty’s symphonic music opens with the Overture to Plump Jack, a 12-minute prelude that prefigures events in the opera and sets the overriding tone of good humor. Says Getty: My opera Plump Jack tracks the fictional career of Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Parts One and Two) and Henry V, setting the original text where practical. Falstaff brews merry mischief with the scapegrace Prince Hal, to the despair of king and court, but is banished “Not to come near my person by ten mile” when Hal becomes King Henry the Fifth. The overture is a synopsis of this story, quoting scenes of Falstaffian high jinks and of courtly grief by turn, along with a few idyllic episodes, interrupted by occasional distant fanfares warning of the banishment. If this last idea was filched from Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, then so much the better for its pedigree. At last the overture brings us to the banishment in full fortissimo, with the king’s baleful sentence, and then closes with Falstaff’s appeal for Hal’s heart and ours: “No, my good lord ... banish Plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

Getty’s musical vocabulary is essentially conservative—“I am two-thirds a 19th-century composer,” he has remarked—and he does not feel compelled to apologize for that fact, finding that there’s still room for originality within the time-honored traditions. His pieces exert a direct appeal to most listeners; what they communicate does not require technical decoding. And yet, as we move on to his Ancestor Suite, isn’t that a relative of Stravinsky’s Petrushka that we glimpse in the flute (then clarinet) solo halfway through the opening Waltz? Doesn’t that entire movement, and the recurrent theme tenderly introduced in the “Madeline” segment, display some of the wide-eyed openness we associate with Copland’s Rodeo? Can it be that the octave displacements and melodic sidestepping in several of the formal dances—Schottische, Polka/Polonaise, March—somehow remind us of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet? One will look in vain for 12-tone rows in a Getty score, to be sure, and yet one is reminded that even a composer who is “two-thirds 19th-century” may still be up to other tricks one-third of the time.

That the three composers who jumped most immediately to mind—Stravinsky, Copland, Prokofiev—were all distinguished ballet composers may not be coincidental. Ancestor Suite is itself a ballet score premiered in September 2009 in Moscow by the Russian National Orchestra, with choreography by Vladimir Vasiljev. Getty is passionate about American literature from the 19th and early-20th centuries, and his catalogue includes settings of not only Emily Dickinson (in The White Election) but also Stephen Vincent Benét (in Young America) and Edgar Allan Poe (Annabel Lee, for men’s chorus and orchestra). In this ballet we encounter Poe again, in a scenario Getty has based loosely on that author’s macabre short story of 1839, The Fall of the House of Usher. The composer explains:

Eddie Poe has arrived at Usher House to visit his old school-chum Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeline. A ball has been organized in his honor. The dancers are the spectral ancestors of the Usher line, led by the founder of the Covenant that has given them immortality, Lord Primus Usher. Poe and Roderick watch. Madeline enters in her nightclothes. She is mad, but pure, like Ophelia; she has refused to sign the Covenant. The ancestors, apart from Primus, shrink back in terror. Madeline gives Poe a flower, and dances with Roderick (the “Madeline” section). The ancestors clap soundlessly. She then dances with Poe (in “Ewig Du”), but begins hearing a wilder tune, and dances to it alone. She falls at a climax, and Primus indicates that she is dead.

Shorter works round out this program. Tiefer und Tiefer (“Deeper and Deeper”) is played here in Getty’s own arrangement for string orchestra, but it also exists as the opening section of his Three Waltzes for Piano and Orchestra, where it joins earlier versions of the “Madeline” section of Ancestor Suite and Ehemals (“Formerly,” a musical salute to the Vienna of Johann Strauss II) to make a triptych. Tiefer und Tiefer also strikes a retrospective mood, its textures practically as transparent as Satie’s Gymnopédies. Following initial performances of the piano-and-orchestra version by André Previn and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the strings-only setting was unveiled in 1991, when it was played at Tanglewood and by the California Symphony. The melody of this slow waltz is simplicity itself, but the piece travels an unpredictable harmonic path. Its phrases, invariably cast in six-bar segments, shift to a new key at or within almost every phrase: first F major, then D modulating into G, then E into A (with an echo phrase repeating this), then D-flat, B-flat into E-flat, and C into F (with a repetition of the last three phrases). It’s a subdued meditation on harmonic relationships within a cycle of major-key tonalities.

Homework Suite was composed as a piece for solo piano in 1964, when Getty was studying music theory with Sol Joseph at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. His recent orchestration of the five forthright movements allots starring roles to the oboe in “Seascape,” to piccolo and violin in Giga, to English horn in “Ghost Waltz,” and to harp in the Berceuse, before ending with a romping Energico (“Night Horses”) for the full chamber orchestra.

In The Fiddler of Ballykeel for string orchestra, which in its original setting stood as the first of the composer’s Three Traditional Pieces, Getty set himself the challenge of writing a strictly diatonic piece, which is to say one that is free of accidentals and therefore limited to the seven notes per octave of the basic scale of the key. Of the tunes in The Fiddler of Ballykeel Getty comments: “My own patronymic ancestors appear to have come from a suburb of Belfast called Ballymoney. Since ‘The Fiddler of Ballymoney’ by Getty might raise unintended nuances, I moved my ancestors a few miles away to Ballykeel.”

Raise the Colors, for winds and percussion, is an ebullient C-major march (with hints of an Irish jig) that is bound to set toes tapping. “My own music,” says Getty, “finds its home in a vague and settled past. Although I prefer the path less traveled when other things are equal, a V-I cadence is what I write when so advised by the wiggles on the line. I hanker back to the previous three centuries, when all composers spoke much the same musical language at a given time, and each stood apart mainly in what he had to say in it. There is still plenty to be said in C major.”

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