Composer's elegy for lost partner, "Green Sneakers," to open in Vail
As the title of a new artistic invention, "Green Sneakers" sounds light and whimsical. But for its creator, Ricky Ian Gordon, the hour-long song cycle for piano, baritone and string quartet is a deeply personal tribute to his partner, Jeffrey Grossi, who died of AIDS in 1996.
"Grief is like a foreign country," said Gordon, composer-in-residence of the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, which commissioned "Green Sneakers." "Unless you've been there, you can't understand it. After Jeffrey died, I couldn't talk to anyone that hadn't been through what I'd been through.
"I went on a pilgrimage to Provincetown hoping to find comfort and empathy there. Among the various things I was reading then, I came across 'Heaven's Coast,' by Mark Doty, his memoir of grief over his lover while he died. The book was so powerful to me that I called him and said, 'I need you to be my friend.' "
Other literary sources of solace included Jane Kenyon, in particular, her poem 'Having It Out with Melancholy,' eventually setting off Gordon's own poetic muse as a means to express his grief.
" 'Green Sneakers' came to me as I was sitting around in zombie mode, staring at Jeffrey's sneakers in the closet," he said, also referencing his 2005 song cycle "Orpheus and Euridice," a more abstract, mythical representation of how it feels to lose a loved one incrementally over a period of time.
"The whole story of those sneakers, what we had to go through to get them — and everything that followed up to Jeffrey's death — emerged as a set of poems. Then, when Eugenia Zuckerman (artistic director of Bravo!) invited me to be composer-in-residence, I remembered the poems. They seemed to call out to me."
So Gordon set about musicalizing the text. The result is a multimedia musical theater work that will receive its world premiere Tuesday at the Vilar Center for the Performing Arts. With Gordon on piano, the premiere will also feature baritone Jesse Blumberg and the Miami String Quartet, as well as image projections throughout the 18 song scenes.
"It's a major piece for baritone," explained Gordon. "I chose Jesse after working with him in my opera version of Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath.' As the Connie Rivers character, I found him riveting."
Gordon, 52, is also hopeful that the Miami String Quartet — Bravo! ensemble-in-residence — will meet his artistic vision underlying "Green Sneakers."
"I would like them to be open to moments when they actually leave their quartet perch," he said. "In an ideal universe, I would like to have this piece memorized by a string quartet that moves and becomes a part of the life and action of 'Green Sneakers.' For example, when the baritone takes a bus trip to Provincetown, what if they were on the bus with him, sort of bouncing to the rhythm of the ride?
"That's something I'm really interested in, getting musicians out of their concert mode into something else. I'm always thinking about the whole notion of a concert, what a player is or isn't obliged to do."
Gordon's reputation for successfully colliding the realms of classical music, theater and writing extends well beyond the much-lauded 2007 premiere of his "Grapes of Wrath," jointly commissioned by the Minnesota and Utah operas.
Not only did the 120-voice Los Angeles Master Chorale recently premiere a concert version of the opera at Disney Concert Hall, but also additional performances are planned by Pittsburgh Opera and Opera Pacific in the coming months. Gordon and "Grapes of Wrath" librettist Michael Korie have been commissioned to write a new work for New York's Metropolitan Opera and another for the Minnesota Opera's 50th anniversary.
"Ultimately, I want everything I do to be somehow meaningful and hopeful to others," said Gordon. "That's why I added an epilogue to 'Green Sneakers.' It's a poem I wrote for Jeffrey as a birthday present, 'Sleep.' It's a celebration of what we had together:
". . .Do you know
that we have made
a universe of moments?
A ferry ride we took
across the rolling bay.
The sunset glowed so bright
it took our breath away.
I sang to you, and held you
from the evening's chill,
It resonates inside me now.
It always will.
A film we saw,
a beach in France
all soaked with rain.
My favorite kind,
a brooding blend of love
After which, we danced
across the urban plain. . .
Always I will see you
through French movie rain. . ."
- Sabine Kortals, DenverPost.com,, 11 July 2008