July 5, 2013
Gordon's Songs of Heart and Sorrow
What musical and poetic language can effectively communicate both the emotional aftermath of the American Civil War and the death of one’s partner from AIDS? Such is the question raised by the music of composer Ricky Ian Gordon (b. 1956) on Naxos’s two-CD set, Rappahannock County.
The set begins with Rappahannock County, a five-part, 21-song cycle written by Gordon and lyricist Mark Campbell. Recorded live at the premiere in the Harrison Opera House, Norfolk, Virginia, in April 2011, with the Virginia Arts Festival Orchestra conducted by Rob Fisher, the close to 90-minute cycle uses easily accessibly tonal language to trace the war, year by year, from its start (“Secession. 1861.”) through its conclusion (“The Cruel War is Over. 1865.”).
The excellent cast includes white artists (baritone Mark Walters, mezzo-soprano Faith Sherman, and tenor Matthew Tuell) playing the white folk, and artists of color (baritone Kevin Moreno and soprano Aundi Marie Moore) playing Negro slaves and former slaves. The casting, anything but color-blind, adheres to the precedent set by a politic, pussyfooting libretto that manages to encompass multiple viewpoints without ever taking sides. True, as the libretto makes clear, war is never a case of black and white (no pun intended), But lyricist Campbell appears determined not to make either his Virginia audience or his presenters uncomfortable.
The cycle begins with a trio in which three white Southerners (a Reverend, Society Lady, and politician) justify slavery and the need to secede. Next comes the song of a white, anti-slavery Virginian who finds it necessary to leave because he is on the wrong side. As the cycle proceeds, we encounter the pie lady, an elderly Southerner who listens in on sugar-loving Yankee soldiers and relays their military secrets to the South; slaves with contradictory viewpoints; dying soldiers; and others feeling the horrible loss of war. One of the songs sung by ex-slaves, the delightful “Jumping the Broom,” includes a verse about marriage — “In the eyes of God, We were always married. Just took some folks a little while to catch up with Him” — that could just as easily be sung by one of California’s newly wed LGBT couples.
As entertaining as Gordon’s music can be — one of the cycle’s high points is the sing-songy way in which Gordon brings to life an embalmer who thinks only of his “fine solution” and the money he can collect — the music mostly lacks emotional depth. Belying his Broadway affiliations, he seems more comfortable with sentimentality than music that tears you apart (even if that is exactly what Campbell’s deeper texts seem intent upon doing).
To fill out the second CD, which is less than 37-minutes in length, Naxos includes a studio recording of Gordon’s six-song cycle, Late Afternoon (2001). Gordon composed the cycle, which sets poems by Jane Kenyon, Jean Valentine, and Marie Howe, as a response to the death of his partner, Jeffrey Grossi, from AIDS. Mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore, who premiered the songs, joins Gordon on piano for this definitive recording.
Gordon explains in the liner notes that he wrote the first song in the cycle, “Otherwise,” with the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in mind. Although Lieberson sang both “Otherwise” and another from the cycle, “Let Evening Come,” in concert many times, including with Gordon at Lincoln Center in 2001, it is Lattimore who brought the entire cycle to life.
The poetry is deeply moving — few verses about AIDS are as heart-rending as “X,” Valentine’s poem about an AIDS quilt panel made by a boy whose parents did not want his deceased brother’s name used publicly — but Gordon’s settings are once again more touching than profound. Despite some fine word painting, especially on the phrase “he putters around in the kitchen” in the song, “Just Now,” Late Afternoon makes far less of an impact than Gordon’s other cycle about Grossi’s decline and death, Green Sneakers. Perhaps it would make a deeper impression live than on a recording hampered by digital brightness and a lack of warmth and depth.
Jason Victor Serinus is a professional whistler and lecturer on opera and vocal recordings. He is editor of Psychoimmunity and the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity & AIDS, and he has written about music for Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, AudioStream, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, and other publications.