A heavenly recording
Talented singers interpret the songs of Ricky Ian Gordon
Audra McDonald (left) and Darius de Haas flank composer Ricky Ian Gordon. (by Alice Arnold)
by Greg Varner
Seven talented singers lend their voices to Bright Eyed Joy (Nonesuch), a superb collection of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon. The composer himself provided text for two of these pieces; the others are his settings of poems by Langston Hughes, Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, W. S. Merwin, and James Agee.
Any gathering of singers that includes Audra McDonald, Dawn Upshaw, Darius de Haas, and Judy Blazer, among others, is something to celebrate; these are some of the most beautiful and distinctive voices you’ll hear anywhere. And they are matched to the material with uncanny precision. Who else but Dawn Upshaw could sing Gordon’s setting of Dorothy Parker’s "The Red Dress" so perfectly? The purity and classicism of Upshaw’s soprano make her a stellar interpreter of Parker’s lyric -- especially in Gordon’s setting, which gives Parker’s lament a fullness and contemplative sweetness it lacks on the page. (This composer enhances and augments his texts with remarkable delicacy, never becoming intrusive or trampling on the poet’s original intent. Still, it would be interesting to hear a man sing "The Red Dress"!)
Judy Blazer’s jazzy delivery is just right for Gordon’s inspired meshing of three short verses by Parker, "Resumé," "Wail," and "Frustration." This deathly cackle is reminiscent of Jacques Brel, and Blazer puts a wicked spin on lines like "Love has gone a-rocketing. That is not the worst; I could do without the thing and not be the first." When she sings a zinger, Blazer simultaneously gives it more sting and more fun. Baritone Chris Pedro Trakas joins Blazer, singing of his frustration at not being able to murder his enemies while she bemoans the obverse, equally cruel fate that leaves one with no enemies at all. Gordon’s deft counterpoint of "Wail" and "Frustration" is wittily bookended by "Resumé," a brief ode to frustrated suicidal impulses.
If choreographer Mark Morris’s work famously unites the sister arts of dance and music, then Gordon joins music with its other sister, poetry. He has composed literally hundreds of art songs as an act of homage to poems that move him. His work finds a home in the neutral territory between classical and theatrical music, sometimes speaking with one accent, sometimes with another.
The poet most often represented on this album is Langston Hughes. Audra McDonald, who recorded a handful of Gordon’s songs for her debut CD, Way Back to Paradise, is heard here on three of those previously released tracks, as well as on a handful of newly recorded works. In her hands, Gordon’s setting of Hughes’s "The Dream Keeper" is a song both of consolation and of mourning. The composer’s deft use of a sudden rise in pitch emphasizes the singer’s startled response to the "too-rough fingers of the world," and McDonald’s bereft concluding cries are eloquent, though wordless. "Daybreak in Alabama," also with text by Hughes, was a highlight of Way Back to Paradise; it remains a subversive gem, positing racial and sexual equality as attainable (and inextricably linked) ideals. Gordon’s beautiful melody and orchestration can make you weep even after repeated listening; "Daybreak" shimmers with hope and restrained passion.
McDonald is joined by the marvelous Darius de Haas, who played her brother in Broadway’s Marie Christine, for Hughes’s "Love Song for Lucinda," rendered by Gordon as a jazz waltz. The text advises caution in the face of love’s blandishments; the singers easily capture its ambivalence. De Haas and McDonald, like the other performers on this record, are also skillful actors: Given Gordon’s sterling settings, they interpret these compelling texts for all they’re worth. In Edna St. Vincent Millay’s "Wild Swans," for instance, you feel Dawn Upshaw’s terror when she sings of being in a "house without air."
With her achingly sweet soprano, Theresa McCarthy seems a natural choice for "Run Away," a song Gordon wrote after a younger boyfriend left him reeling. The folksy, slightly forlorn quality of McCarthy’s voice is what made her so memorable as Nellie, the sister of the doomed miner in the musical Floyd Collins; on this disc, she also interprets other selections, including "Afternoon on a Hill." In Gordon’s cascading melody, the exuberant descent anticipated by Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem is nicely emphasized.
With the voice of an openhearted choirboy, Adam Guettel brings an attractive "everyman" quality to his selections. (Guettel is also a talented composer; he wrote Floyd Collins.) He may be most effective here in W. S. Merwin’s "A Contemporary" -- his unassuming warmth offsets the relative unfamiliarity of the music (Gordon gives the piece what sounds like an Asian accent) -- and Merwin’s text is a little more abstract than some of Gordon’s other choices.
The album’s title comes from its finale, "Joy," another short lyric by Hughes: "I went to look for Joy ... gay, laughing Joy ... And I found her driving the butcher’s cart in the arms of the butcher boy!" Whether or not Hughes meant this as a coded gay reference, the suggestion clearly would not have been lost on Gordon, who has said that an important factor in his aesthetic is his sense of being different. (Growing up on Long Island, Gordon was taunted with anti-gay slurs.)
Darius de Haas gets the whole disc off to a promising start with yet another Hughes lyric, "Heaven." His soaring performance sets the bar early, and the rest of the record is just as heavenly. This album is so good it’s a miracle. The only problem with Bright Eyed Joy is that it wasn’t made a double CD, so that listeners could enjoy more of Gordon’s beautiful work.