PBS Airs Gordon Getty: There Will Be Music

Janos Gereben on July 14, 2017
Gordon Getty at a recording session as shown in the documentary

Of Gordon Getty’s multiple personas — billionaire, humanitarian, philanthropist, scion of a fabled and star-crossed family, and musician — the focus is on the accomplished composer in the 2015 documentary film, Gordon Getty: There Will Be Music. It is being screened this summer on PBS stations around the country. In the Bay Area, the hour-long program will be shown on KQED Life 54.3 (XFINITY 189) at 7 p.m. on July 23 and 1 a.m. on July 24.

A poster for the film
Peter Rosen’s documentary provides both physical and personality closeups of the iconoclastic octogenarian as he is traveling around the world for performances of his operas, a cantata, and other works. As shown in a brief trailer (see below), Rosen keeps an even keel in covering the subject, deals with the sensitive issue that Getty himself brings up: “I get a little impatient with people who think I am a dilettante.”

Michael Tilson Thomas, of the San Francisco Symphony — one of Getty’s beneficiaries, along with S.F. Classical Voice, which was co-founded and has been consistently funded by Getty — is shown in the film speaking warmly of Getty’s music, some of which has been performed in Davies Hall over the years. Other participants in the documentary include the late conductor Neville Marriner, baritone Lester Lynch, and British director David Pountney.

Getty has long bucked modernist trends and he explains in the film: “Any composer worth his salt doesn’t really care which trends he fits and which he doesn’t. Any composer worth listening to writes the music that’s inside him trying to get out. If you write with enough integrity, originality will come as a byproduct.”

Getty’s Usher House at the San Francisco Opera | Credit: Cory Weaver

Rather than a glossy concert tour, the documentary treats many aspects of its subject, including what the publicity release describes in these terms:

The son of oil billionaire J. Paul Getty, once the richest man in America, Gordon Getty’s upbringing was anything but usual. As Gordon freely admits, the senior Getty was probably the inspiration for Scrooge McDuck; he was so frugal that he installed a pay phone in his mansion for the use of visitors. Tough and driven, he also feared that his children would “gag on the silver spoon,” understanding that great wealth is no protection from failure and tragedy.

Through interviews with friends and family members as well as archival footage, Gordon Getty: There Will Be Music reveals the history of the Getty family, which has often been beset by scandal and misfortune including the notorious 1973 kidnapping of Gordon’s nephew Paul.

There have been even more misfortunes in the family recently, but through it all the documentary’s response still stands: “Getty shares that what saved him from the ‘Getty curse’ was his passionate love of music and the pursuit of a life of creative fulfillment no money can buy.”

Getty’s work continues: his choral work, Young America, has its Festival Napa Valley premiere next week, on a program including Bernstein’s On the Town suite, and Edward McDowell’s 1885 Piano Concerto No. 2, with André Watts as soloist.