Remnant of Grief: A Cycle Inspired by a Death From AIDS
Ricky Ian Gordon's Work in American Songbook Series

In his song cycle "Green Sneakers for Baritone, String Quartet, Empty Chair and Piano," written in 2007, the composer Ricky Ian Gordon commemorates the 1996 death of his partner, Jeffrey Grossi, from complications of AIDS. Mr. Gordon's text for this intimate, intensely elegiac work, heard Saturday evening at the Kaplan Penthouse as part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series, refuses to maintain a safe distance from the kind of extremely personal emotions that many would rather hold close to themselves.

His poetry is a raw, plain-spoken outpouring of memories and feelings loosely organized around the image of a pair of green sneakers that become synonymous with the identity of the missing loved one. The notion of keepsakes, especially clothing, as sacred touchstones brought to mind the final image of "Brokeback Mountain," in which a grieving sheepherder gently buttons his dead lover's shirt, hung in his closet.

The brooding post-Ravelian score, which moves in agonized fits and starts, and the carefully considered performances by the baritone Jesse Blumberg and the Voxare String Quartet, helped ensure that this 65-minute performance didn't turn into an exhibitionistic display of sensitivity and self-pity. I have seen too many performers make the mistake of becoming so emotionally involved with songs that they weep ostentatiously and appropriate feelings that the audience is meant to discover on its own.

If anything, the performance on Saturday erred on the side of restraint. The playing and singing on the 2009 recording (Blue Griffin Records) have a quietly impassioned fire that were missing. Mr. Blumberg, who has a strong, steady voice, maintained a mostly reflective attitude leafing through a retrospective musical scrapbook that begins in Houston and ends in Provincetown, Mass., and includes some harrowing descriptions of the lover's physical deterioration. In the post-mortem, "Two Months Later," the narrator repeatedly berates himself for his selfishness and pettiness.

Except for two or three moments Mr. Blumberg avoided vocal histrionics, suppressing any impulse to edge his singing with a sob. Under the direction of Jonathan Solari, he moved about the stage as though in a light trance, enunciating very clearly. At one point he collapsed into a chair. Later he packed items of clothing stacked on the piano into a cardboard box.

The string quartet (Emily Ondracek-Peterson and Galina Zhdanova on violins, Erik Peterson on viola and Adrian Daurov on cello) evoked the churning emotions behind the words, but their playing lacked the fluidity of the Miami String Quartet, which plays on the recording.

"Green Sneakers" is a significant contribution to the culture sprung from the AIDS crisis. In its forthright honesty and passion it could be compared to the film "Longtime Companion" (1990), which brought home the emergency with a similar immediacy and eloquence. It heals while it hurts.
- Stephen Holden, New Yotk Times, 7 April 2013