Ricky's rhapsodies
Composer Ricky Ian Gordon discusses how he thrives on the sustenance of music and poetry

"Since I was 8 years old, I have been going to Lincoln Center," says Ricky Ian Gordon. Perhaps his comfort as an audience member explains why, when the 44-year old New York composer finally found himself treading those famous boards in March, he was shaken: "I was so scared that day, I became ill." But the show went on, and his perseverance paid off. "I made my Lincoln Center debut, in a concert honoring only my music, and received a standing ovation," he says, his voice filled with the same awe that illuminates his works.

If you missed the event, don't fret - his new studio album, Bright Eyed Joy: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon (Nonesuch Records), features many of the program's highlights, sung by classical and musical theater heavy hitters including Dawn Upshaw, Audra McDonald, Adam Guettel, and Judy Blazer. Reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, and even George Gershwin, Gordon's distinctly American art songs are vivid and charismatic yet harmonically complex, "caviar in a world gorging on pizza," to quote critic Stephen Holden of The New York Times.

Throughout the past decade, Gordon's reputation has grown steadily, thanks to a catalog that encompasses writing for concert hall, theater, opera, and dance. Such diverse artists as Teresa Stratas, Harolyn Blackwell, Betty Buckley, and the New York City Gay Men's Chorus have performed and recorded his songs and song cycles. Even before many people knew Gordon's music, they were familiar with his name - and his turbulent life growing up on Long Island, where he came out at 15 - thanks to Donald Katz's 1992 book, Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Postwar America.

Most of the new album's 18 tracks feature settings of texts by such poets as James Agee, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, W.S. Merwin, and Dorothy Parker. "I go to poetry to speak for me," Gordon says of his lifelong attachment to the medium. "Poetry expresses things I can't at any given moment." After his lover of four years, Jeffrey Grossi, died of AIDS in 1996, he turned to verses like Jane Kenyon's "Otherwise" and Marie Howe's "What the Living Do" to ease and articulate his sorrow.

Yet one of Bright Eyed Joy's most striking numbers features the composer's own lyrics. Equal parts the Supremes, Sondheim, and Satie, "Run Away" was written after Gordon resumed dating, with a man 15 years his junior "and certainly not ready for a committed relationship. When it ended, it threw me into such a state. I wasn't ready to have that grief compounded. "Run Away' was the song I worked on during that moment when I felt like I wanted to kill myself."

Fortunately, Gordon's outlook is much rosier today. He's currently writing an opera titled Morning Star, based on Sylvia Regan's play about a Jewish family on New York's lower east side in the early 20th century. The future holds commissions for new works for the Seattle Opera, the Minnesota Opera, and Musical Theater Works. "It's been really hard and a long road, but I suddenly feel like I'm turning a corner," he concludes. "All obstacles have been lifted."
- Kurt B. Reighley, The Advocate, 5 June 2001