Gordon Getty at 80: the Poetic Justice

Jeff Kaliss on December 20, 2013

Editor's Note: Gordon Getty is a funder of SFCV.

It’s 10 o’clock in the morning, 10 days before his 80th birthday, and Gordon Getty has already been active for over five hours, sequestered in the downstairs office of his Broadway residence, overlooking the San Francisco Bay.


“It so happens I do rise up early in the morning, just because I’m at the age when you do,” he announces in low, meliflous tones. “I’m usually reading the newspapers before five, and then the breakfast maker comes in around 5:15 or 5:30. I come in here, and do what I do. Then I go up, get my shower, and I’m ready to face the world. I’m early to bed, early to rise.”

This leads a reporter to ask if such a practice can really make someone healthy, wealthy, and wise. The response is preceded by a deep, rumbling laugh. “Well, healthy and wealthy, anyhow!”

Getty’s wisdom and generosity in deploying both financial support and his own musical talent will be celebrated by the San Francisco Symphony and celebrity guests at Davies Symphony Hall on Monday, January 6. The program will include evidence of his creativity as a composer, alongside that of some of his favorite musical predecessors.

His health and wealth are traceable as much to Getty’s lineage as to his self-imposed discipline. He was born December 20, 1933, the fourth and youngest son of J. Paul Getty, the founder of the Getty Oil Company, who lived into his eighties and was declared the richest living American by Fortune magazine in 1957. Gordon Getty sold the family company to Texaco in 1986 for $10 billion. But by that time, the fortunate son had already started turning his attention towards music, which he’d studied at the San Francisco Conservatory.

Turning to Composition

Much of Getty’s compositional inspiration seemed to draw on earlier studies at the University of San Francisco, where he’d earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Between 1980 and 1986, Getty created a garland of songs from the poems of Emily Dickinson, and his opera Plump Jack, based around Shakespeare’s Falstaff, was showcased by the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in 1985 and 1987.

But even though most of his own output awaited his middle age, Getty’s love of music was imbued early in life. “Schubert and Beethoven I loved completely from the start,” he says. “The first time I heard the “Unfinished” Symphony, I was in about the fifth grade, it was Toscanini’s recording [RCA, 1950], and I was just transfixed.”

He recalls Italian-born soprano Licia Albanese visiting and singing at the home of his mother, Ann Rork, who’d been a silent film actress. The diva “was downhome, simple, spoke English with an accent, but without any effort ... In those days, I thought I was gonna be a singer, too, and they couldn’t contradict me. I sang with the altos in the school choir.” Getty vocalizes a remembered phrase from Beethoven, in English translation — “The heavens are rejoicing” — in a serviceable bass-baritone, into which the alto evolved.

His mother “went dutifully to concerts and ballets and opera, and brought us along, dutifully,” Getty said. His musical tastes eventually expanded to Bach and Mahler, but he never developed an affinity for pop music, which “was a bit too hostile for my taste.” He studied piano and started writing for it and for chorus, penning his first published piece, based on Tennyson’s All Along the Valley, while working for his father in the Middle East.

After his return to San Francisco and study at the Conservatory, there was a long hiatus without new completed works. The few interviews Getty granted had less to do with his music than with his other cultural and philosophical interests and observations. He declared himself “a big enthusiast about human origins,” and took the chair of The Leakey Foundation, named for the famous anthropologist, in 1975. After he returned to active composition in the 1980s, Getty professed both a musical and a philosophical affinity with the previous century.

Espousing the 19th-Century Pantheon

“I feel the Century of Angst was based on nothing,” he declares. “[The 20th] was a century of revolution … the sense of anomie and disorientation, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, ‘cause we’re all building towards this great harmony of the communist future. That was part of the mantra, and all that time, I thought that was nonsense. In the fields in which I’m now active — I compose, I write verse, and I do economic theory — all the figures in my Pantheon were born before 1900.” Politically, “I’m a free-market Democrat — maybe the only one in the world!”

Given these preferences, it makes sense that Getty eschews atonality, which “to me suggests disorientation. And certainly there have been atonalist composers who professed themselves Marxists, more or less.” He does admit that, in his own setting of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” — one of the Four Dickinson Songs that will be heard at the Davies celebration — “I use some stuff that gives the impression of being atonal.” But in his longer Dickinson cycle titled The White Election, “there’s never quite that impression.”

Gordon Getty

With Getty’s appearance on San Francisco Symphony programs in the 1980s, and a recording of The White Election by soprano Kaaren Erickson in 1992 [Delos Records], there came exposure to critics, who shared their skepticism with the public. The ascending composer realized his famed wealth might confound other forms of fame, “because it’s easy to type-cast me as a dilettante.” But, he assures, “there’s no composer that can arrange, no matter how much dough he has, to be performed by the Symphony, or the San Francisco Opera, or the Metropolitan.”

Getty founded Rork Music, soon after the Delos release, and hired Lisa Delan “to run my musical affairs.” Already a successful soprano, Delan, with Rork producer Job Maarse, gradually built up a recorded library of Getty’s works on the Dutch PentaTone Classics label, including Plump Jack, a new rendition of The White Election (by Delan), compilations of orchestral and piano compositions (the latter performed by Conrad Tao), as well as a couple of collections of Delan showcasing contemporary American song, joining Getty with such younger composers as William Bolcom, John Corigliano, David Garner, Jake Heggie, and Luna Pearl Woolf.

Drawing Strength from Experience

As Getty composes more now, he’s gained more confidence, and has been revisiting his earlier work as well as creating anew. “My idea of composition used to be a little less disciplined than it is now,” he says, and he’s become a better orchestrator, “through bloody trial and bloody error” and with guidance from jazz composer Larry Dunlap. Getty has also gotten over “trying to please imaginary critics ... and the last five or six reviews have been amazing,” particularly in reaction to this year’s PentaTone recording of Usher House, a one-act operatic setting of Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic story.

My idea of composition used to be a little less disciplined than it is now ... and the last five or six reviews have been amazing — Gordon Getty

Aside from the performance of the Dickinson songs by Lisa Delan, the Davies concert program will include three movements from Getty’s Ancestor Suite, an extrapolation of the ballroom music from Usher House, and the world premiere of A Prayer for My Daughter, for which he chose a poem by William Butler Yeats. “It’s a challenge, because it begins with a storm scene,” he says about the new piece. “Because if you want to do a storm, without drawing on atonalism to speak of, it’ll be something like a Verdi or Wagner storm. And I guess mine is.”

The Symphony’s Executive Director Brent Assink is looking forward to hearing the Prayer. “I’ve listened to all of the music he’s recorded,” says Assink, speaking from his office, “and in this incredibly complex age, Mr. Getty tends to select poetry that cuts through all the clutter and makes its point quite directly. His music is totally aligned with his selection of words, and he loves to write music that showcases a voice in sort of a wonderfully rare innocence.” With his settings of Dickinson, Getty “communicates a sense of the time when these words were written. It’s almost nostalgic.”

The Philanthropic Legacy


Of course, Assink is also appreciative of Getty’s other connections to the Symphony, as a member of its board of governors and a major funder, among other projects, of the acoustic renovation of Davies and of the now-complete cycle of recordings of the Mahler symphonies. “As a musician himself, he understands the great value of having the musicians play in a superb acoustical environment, where the audience can also participate in that experience,” says Assink. “And he wants to make sure there’s a recorded legacy that helps differentiate the Symphony from other orchestras, and puts us on the map. When Michael [Tilson Thomas] talks about his dreams and visions, he has in Gordon an enthusiastic partner.”

Getty’s generosity has also reached tenor (and sometime baritone) Plácido Domingo, who’ll be rejoining the Symphony for the first time in 40 years to conduct one piece, sing a couple more, and help celebrate his octogenarian friend, whose performance as La Traviata’s Germont he once accompanied in Madrid. “At the Los Angeles Opera [where Domingo is general director], Gordon has been helping us,” says Domingo, phoning from Berlin, where he’s been recording and performing in Il Trovatore.

“In fact, it’s due to his enthusiasm for the work and the company that we will be doing a first-time trilogy of Beaumarchais works, including our production of The Ghosts of Versailles [by Corigliano] next season. Corresponding to his success in business, he’s thought about the needs of many, many people. And whenever we can, he and I have sat down and had deep and interesting conversations about our mutual great love and passion, which is music, and especially opera.” Getty and his wife, Ann, are also major contributors to the San Francisco Opera, and to a variety of other ensembles and presenters.

In this incredibly complex age, Mr. Getty tends to select poetry that cuts through all the clutter and makes its point quite directly. — Brent Assink, executive director, S.F. Symphony

Domingo’s part of the Davies program, and the other selections not composed by the guest of honor, are drawn from among Getty’s favorite composers, including Rossini, Johann Strauss, Verdi, and Beethoven from the 19th century, Mahler from the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Tallis from well before that time and Franz Lehár from slightly after. Domingo will duet with mezzo Frederica von Stade on “Lippen schweigen” from The Merry Widow. “The treat of singing with Placido, and the treat of singing for Mr. G, those will be nice,” says von Stade, who’s been in Houston rehearsing Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt for its premiere there, in March. “I think I actually became aware of Gordon as a composer first,” before thinking of him as a funder. “I’ve performed two or three of his songs, and I think they’re just beautiful.”

Von Stade’s volunteer efforts with the St. Martin de Porres School in Oakland became a beneficiary of Getty money. “He’s enabled us to have a music program for a number of years, and it’s changing the lives of our kids,” she testifies. “When you have foundations, you usually have lots of requirements, but he’s just generous any way he can be.” She was also deeply impressed by Getty’s caretaking of fellow mezzo Zheng Cao, both before and after her fatal fight with cancer. “We were all on Team Zheng, but he led the whole thing. She even got married at his house; he was always there for her.”


The Gettys have also hosted galas at their home, which features a covered courtyard and a spacious music room with acoustics partly designed by Isaac Stern. The galas have benefitted ensembles and organizations such as the New Century Chamber Orchestra and the Noe Valley Chamber Music series. “You try, at any age, whether or not the Grim Reaper is just around the corner, to leave the best record in the world that you can,” says Getty about his support for the arts, which extends to his continuing funding of San Francisco Classical Voice, launched by him and his friend and critic Robert Commanday, in 1998.

At the time of our interview with Getty, his mansion on what has been dubbed the “Gold Coast” was receiving a partial makeover, in anticipation of a lavish black-tie party on December 14. The fete was attended by hundreds of extended family and friends, including Assink, fellow composer Heggie, and Conservatory president David Stull. Delan sang to the assembled, alongside mezzo Diana Kehrig and baritone Lester Lynch, all of whom had performed in Plump Jack. And everyone partook of an eight-tiered birthday cake, decorated with the titles of Getty’s compositions.

When you have foundations, you usually have lots of requirements, but he’s just generous any way he can be. - Frederica von StadeThere will be more titles, performances, and recordings at the inception of Getty’s next decade. He’s currently “recomposing” The Old Man in the Night, whose text he modeled on Masefield, and will be pairing it with The Old Man in the Morning. (“They’re the same old man, which could be me.”) He’s setting some poems by Ernest Dowson, a friend and contemporary of Yeats. And he’s preparing The Canterville Ghost, an opera adapted from Oscar Wilde, which will be recorded and will premiere with another short opera, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, at Leipzig in 2015. Usher House will be produced by the Welsh National Opera in the New Year, and by the San Francisco Opera in 2015, alongside the identically sourced but unfinished La Chute de la maison Usher by Debussy. And that same year, Peter Rosen’s biopic-in-progress, The Poetic Billionaire, will show in theaters and on PBS.

In the meantime, the hale and hearty birthday boy, still strong of stride and bedecked with abundant curls, is set to enjoy “these little ad hoc birthday parties which will come up for the rest of my year.” For the big one two weeks from now, both of the celebrity vocalists are prepared to lead a Davies-wide rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song, “in any key that will please everybody”, as Domingo puts it. “If there were a phrase that could possibly top ‘thank you’ five billion times, I would love to know it,” adds von Stade, “for everything he’s done, and for his person, his dear, gentle, strong soul. I’m so grateful I know him, and to be part of a community that honors him and respects him so deeply.”

Did you enjoy the article?

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest articles every Tuesday