Soprano Patrice Michaels, “a formidable interpretative talent” (The New Yorker), and collaborative pianist extraordinaire Kuang-Hao Huang offer Notorious RBG in Song, an album of world-premiere recordings saluting the life and work of legal pioneer Ruth Bader Ginsburg in celebration of her completion of 25 years on the United States Supreme Court. Ginsburg, a longtime crusader for equal rights, has become a pop culture icon known as “Notorious RBG.”
Michaels, a vocalist of “spectacular and diverse gifts” (Journal of Singing) is also a gifted composer. Her nine-song cycle, ‘The Long View’, illuminates key aspects of Justice Ginsburg’s personal and professional life through letters, remembrances, conversations, and even Court opinions. The album concludes with songs by American composer Stacy Garrop, winner of many prestigious awards and commissions; JUNO Award-winning Canadian composer Vivian Fung; prolific art-song composer Lori Laitman; and an aria from Derrick Wang’s new comic opera, Scalia/Ginsburg.
American composer Stacy Garrop, recipient of many prestigious awards and commissions, based her deeply moving “My Dearest Ruth” on the farewell love letter the Justice’s husband, Georgetown University law professor Martin Ginsburg, wrote shortly before his death in 2010. The aria “You are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution,” from Derrick Wang’s opera Scalia/Ginsburg, which captured widespread media attention, crystallizes Justice Ginsburg’s views on interpreting the U.S. Constitution. JUNO Award-winning Canadian composer Vivian Fung’s humorous “Pot Roast à la RBG” provides directions for preparing the beef dish, using Justice Ginsburg’s own words as related in the text by daughter Jane Ginsburg. Prolific art-song composer Lori Laitman’s setting of the Emily Dickinson poem “Wider than the Sky” wasn’t written with Ginsburg in mind, but it was performed at her 80th birthday celebration because it perfectly embodied her intellectual breadth.
This is a difficult production to review, not just because Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become such a significant figure in modern American life, but because the range of her achievements—whether as a jurist or as a wife, mother, opera maven, attorney, professional colleague and feminist icon—resists purely musical treatment. That’s not a reason to hesitate in offering her this lovingly produced tribute. Like RBG herself, who responded to the notion that women had no place in the legal profession by going ahead and doing it anyway, Cedille General Manager Jim Ginsburg (her son) and singer Patrice Michaels (her daughter-in-law) have taken the plunge with evident gusto.
The main item here is The Longview, an imposing portrait of RBG in nine songs composed by Michaels for voice and piano in an attractive, post-modern tonal idiom. There are vivid and beautiful numbers here, especially the central Anita’s Story, a wonderful tale of the power of Ginsburg’s words to change a life; but for many listeners the main interest will lie in the eighth song’s quotations of Ginsburg’s own legal opinions. Imagine setting this to music to get an idea of what Michaels is up to: “I have said before and reiterate here that only an ostrich could regard the supposedly neutral alternatives as race unconscious.” What results from this effort is not so much a conventional song cycle as a theater piece—I could readily imagine it staged, particularly as Michaels, whose voice is hardly conventionally beautiful but whose intelligent artistry is beyond question, performs it here.
The remainder of the program consists of four songs by four different composers, all inspired by RBG’s life and legend. Vivian Fung’s “Pot Roast à la RBG” is the most amusing; Stacy Garrop’s “My Dearest Ruth”, a love letter written by husband Martin Ginsburg from his death bed, is the most touching. I suspect that more than a few tears were shed both here and elsewhere during this project. Through it all, Michaels receives ideally sensitive support from pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, while Cedille’s engineering, as usual, is first class. The final impression that emerges is a portrait of a family as much as of an individual—a very remarkable family indeed. I suspect that RBG may regard this as her greatest achievement of all.
– ClassicsToday.com (David Hurwitz)