Lace up for a musical journey in Vail

NEW YORK, New York — As Ricky Ian Gordon stared at the green sneakers in his closet, the memories came flooding back to him.

His lover, Jeffrey Grossi, wore the shoes to the opening of Gordon's opera in Houston. It was the opera Gordon wrote for Grossi, "to help him die."

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He burst into tears when I met him at the airport.
In two weeks, he had lost even more weight.
He could see the shock in my eyes.
We needed a cart to get him to the exit.
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Two days into the Houston trip, Grossi got so sick, he couldn't breathe. He had AIDS, and coughing fits had plagued him for months.

Even though the coughing had become routine, Gordon found this particular episode terrifying. "I went to speak and I couldn't speak and then I became hysterical and the irony is — sort of the beauty of that moment in time is —that Jeffrey suddenly stopped coughing and came out of the room and started helping me," Gordon recalled.

Finding his voice
Gordon stared at the green sneakers, and the grief poured out of him. He needed to write.

The poems came like a fever as he remembered details like the shopping trip to the department store.

Gordon had gone into the store to buy green sneakers for Grossi, and left with a frightening revelation of how frail his partner had become. With every cloud of perfume wafting through the department store, Grossi risked a coughing spell.

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This day, it was a cloud chamber/of gaseous, murderous/poison vapors./Chanel, Guerlain, Dior,/all conspiring to kill my lover./He gasped, choked, widened his mouth/in a gaping prayer./Quickly, I rushed him through./All the shoppers stared./In Shoes, I held him,/as he regained his composure./We found the sneakers,/green, and sweet/on his thin little legs,/short white socks,/paid,/and left the store.
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On Aug. 1, 1996, Gordon held Grossi in his arms and tried to comfort him with a song. A word formed on Grossi's lips, but he would never have the chance to say it. He died that day, at age 32, leaving behind a broken heart and a pair of green sneakers.

Healing process

Last May, Gordon checked into an arts colony in Utah. He wanted to be alone to write.

Having agreed to serve as the composer-in-residence for this summer's Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival in Vail, Gordon was expected to debut a new song. Yet the score eluded him. He pictured an empty chair, a string quartet, a baritone — and then he remembered the poems about the green sneakers.

For 10 years, Gordon had stayed away from those poems, and the raw grief they symbolized. Now, he reclaimed them.

"It seemed so right, 10 year later, for my own healing, to set them to music and move on with that part of my life," Gordon said.

Ripping open the curtain
Those who attend Gordon's Bravo! concert on Tuesday, July 15, will be the first in the world to hear "Green Sneakers."

Seventy minutes long, the piece transitions from classical to modern music as it describes Grossi's death in poignant detail.

With 17 songs and an epilogue, it is the most personal work Gordon has ever written.

In "Orpheus and Euridice," an opera that earned Gordon much acclaim, he told his story metaphorically, through a myth. With "Green Sneakers," he ripped open that metaphorical curtain to reveal his story.

The Miami String Quartet and baritone Jesse Blumberg will perform the piece at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek.

Gordon's work will be one of many additions to the festival this season (see box for more new things to look for).

For listeners, the score will offer a glimpse into Gordon's troubled past.

Perhaps for the composer, the concert will offer some closure. Though he is in a relationship with someone he loves, he says grief has haunted him.

"I feel as though it has taken me longer than some people to heal from that moment in my life, including Jeffrey's dying in my arms in our room and me singing to him," Gordon said. "It was a very deep experience and not one I recovered from easily, and I feel like I am recovering, but a big part of my growth after that was dealing with it as a writer."

===== We have never seen a meadow together,/never seen sheep—/but sometimes, when I watch you sleep.../I see the Great Expanse, the Archipelago,/ the Dolomites, the Himalayas,/hung with snow/do you know/that we have made/a universe of moments?
- Sarah Mausolf, VailDaily.com, 223 June 2008