Ricky Ian Gordon:
Bursting With Effervescence, Skipping Among Genres
If the music of Ricky Ian Gordon had to be defined by a single quality, it would be the bursting effervescence infusing songs that blithely blur the lines between art song and the high–end Broadway music of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
A composer versed in the harmonic idiom of Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten, Mr. Gordon also has a knack for witty theatrical pastiche. Many of his lighter songs pluck vintage theatrical echoes from their 1920's and 30's niches and dress them up with bold chord changes that catapult them in new directions.
Mr. Gordon's music was the focus of the third and final season concert of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series at Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday evening. Befitting a musician whose songs defy category, the event brought nine singers – some from opera, others from Broadway – to the stage to perform more than two dozen numbers. While the majority were Mr. Gordon's settings of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Langston Hughes, Jane Kenyon and others, six songs had words by the composer whose lyric style might be described as fancifully romantic.
Accompaniment was provided by a nine–member ensemble playing arrangements mostly by the composer. The concert was organized around five appearances by Cherry Jones to read poems, which were immediately followed by the composer's elaborations. A musical extrovert who reveres his material, Mr. Gordon never tries to insert an opposing point of view. He takes the emotions of a poem at face value and sharpens and deepens them.
Lately, Mr. Gordon, along with Adam Guettel (who sang two numbers), Michael John La Chiusa, Jason Robert Brown and others, has been saddled with the role of potential artistic savior of the Broadway musical. But don't expect an imminent coronation. As accessible as it is, Mr. Gordon's music is sophisticated even by the standards laid out by Bernstein and Mr. Sondheim. It's caviar for a world gorging on pizza.
With a couple of glaring exceptions, the casting of material to singer was impeccable, as was the ensemble playing under the direction of Ted Sperling. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson brought a quiet wisdom to settings of two Jane Kenyon poems, "Otherwise" and "Let Evening Come," and Kristin Chenoweth brought a sassy verve to "Run Away" and "Just an Ordinary Guy."
Monique McDonald and Camellia Johnson infused "Summer," a gorgeous swatch of Sondheimesque impressionism, with a voluptuous warmth. Mr. Guettel's tender reading of "We Will Always Walk Together," a transcendent hymn to friendship from the 1996 musical "Dream True," underscored its stature as an all–seasons ballad redolent of "Somewhere," from "West Side Story," via Schumann.
Ms. McDonald lifted "Stars," a dreamy lullaby by Hughes, to the stratosphere. Two other Hughes poems, "Heaven" (sung by Billy Porter) and "Joy" (by the company) echoed the evening's title, "Bright– Eyed Joy," by hitting notes of pure exhilaration.
Following the American Songbook's solid tribute to Arthur Schwartz, "Bright–Eyed Joy" was the latest encouraging sign that the troubled series has found its footing. In branching out beyond a musty hall–of–fame format, the concert also struck a positive blow for the future of American song.
- Stephen Holden, The New York Times, 15 March 2001