Ricky Ian Gordon

March 10th, 2016 by dcdesign

Ricky’s Moment

OUSSAMA ZAHR catches up with composer Ricky Ian Gordon, who is at a career peak, with a trio of new operas in the works.

Reprinted with permission from Opera News and Ricky Ian Gordon.

“It’s called flying by the seat of your pants!” Ricky Ian Gordon is writing three operas at the same time, a proposition so ridiculous that he has to laugh. It’s mid-June, two days before he’s due to fly to Houston Grand Opera for a workshop, and he’s invited me over for tea and a guided tour of the works in question — A Coffin in Egypt, which will have its world premiere in Houston in March and a second run at Opera Philadelphia in June; Twenty-Seven, for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, also in June; and Intimate Apparel, which Lynn Nottage is adapting from her acclaimed play. Intimate Apparel is being developed for a possible premiere sometime in the distant future as part of the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater’s joint commissioning program.

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Ricky Ian Gordon was born on May 15, 1956 in Oceanside, NY and raised on Long Island. After studying piano, composition and acting, at Carnegie Mellon University, he settled in New York City, where he quickly emerged as a leading writer of vocal music that spans art song, opera, and musical theater. Mr. Gordon’s songs have been performed and or recorded by such internationally renowned singers as Renee Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Nathan Gunn, Judy Collins, Kelli O’Hara, Audra MacDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Nicole Cabell, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Frederica Von Stade, Andrea Marcovicci, Harolyn Blackwell, and Betty Buckley, among many others.

Recent productions of his work include:

2015: “Morning Star” – libretto by William Hoffman, directed by Ron Daniels, conducted by Christopher Allen 1910. New York’s Lower East Side. Their homeland now a memory, Becky Felderman and her children find hope in the promise of life in the New World. As decades unfold, their dreams are tarnished by hardships – the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, World War I, and the Great Depression. Their story is our story – one of triumph and tragedy, struggle and sympathy, and a family that abides the trials of a lifetime.

“Was the long pull ‘Morning Star’ had to undergo before finally emerging into the blinding light of performance worth it? Most emphatically, yes.

A worthy performance by a splendid ensemble of mostly young American singers rescued from oblivion a music theater piece of considerable heart, power and poignancy. The opening-night audience at Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts received the work with the kind of open enthusiasm not usually awarded contemporary operas.

“The success of Tuesday’s premiere validated everyone’s faith in “Morning Star.” The two-act, three-hour (including intermission) opera, which follows the resilient Becky’s struggle to keep her family together amid horrific, life changing events, impressed as Gordon’s finest opera to date.

“The score’s seamless fusion of melodic arioso, accompanied recitative, Broadway-style ballads, stirring ensembles, and Tin Pan Alley and ragtime elements, turns on a dime as the dramatic and emotional situations require. Several memorable songs crystallize the psychology of the main characters, notably Fanny’s proto-feminist ballad, “If I’m Not Allowed to Sing”; and Pearl’s “So Many Colors,” in which the young woman, an African-American from the rural South, laments the loss of her home and family.

“The music sits comfortably on Hoffman’s sharply observed libretto, slyly peppered with Yiddishisms, Sondheimesque in its witty use of language, yet entirely Hoffman’s own in its ability to evoke the rhythms of working-class life and death.

“Composer and librettist get inside the heads of their characters with a deftness of touch that makes us feel the pain of their shattered dreams. Past and present are jumbled, with ghosts mingling with the living. We realize how everyone, not just hardscrabble immigrants in old New York, can be trapped by the choices they make in life. ”

“From the striking opening tableau of working-class New Yorkers gathered in the pouring rain in front of projections of actual newspaper headlines of the 1911 tragedy (“The skies wept,” sings the ensemble), to the final scene evoking the devastating fire itself, nothing strikes a false note.” John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

“Above all, it is an opera that features the stunning music of Ricky Ian Gordon and a compelling libretto by William Hoffman. Each character, perfectly described musically and literally, is real and convincing and virtually lives on stage.” Burt Saidel, Oakwood Register

“Morning Star is a rich, complex work likely to repay repeated hearings.” Joe Law, Opera News

2014: “27” – libretto by Royce Vavrek, directed by James Robinson, conducted by Michael Christie…

Stephanie Blythe makes her Opera Theatre of St. Louis debut starring as Gertrude Stein, in a role written for her by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek. Indulge for an evening at #27 Rue de Fleurus in Stein’s Paris salon, home to the luminaries of the Lost Generation.

Elizabeth Futral is Alice B. Toklas.

Stein and Toklas were a couple for nearly 40 years, until Stein’s death in 1946. Stein, of course, was the quirky writer, art collector, salonnière and pontificator on all matters artistic. Toklas, whom both women called the “wife,” was Stein’s secretary, cook and general enabler as well as lover. For those four decades, practically everyone who was anyone artistic or literary in Paris passed through their apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus — thus the title of the opera and a signature refrain. Meet Picasso, Matisse, Leo Stein, Man Ray F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, various paintings and doughboys and soldiers all played by Theo Lebow, Tobias Greenhalgh, and Daniel Brevik

“Gordon’s compositions are stunning. The orchestrations are intricate and lovely, which in turn are contrasted by the upfront nature of the main vocal line, combining opposites in one marvelous conclusion. The thought lingers that these two opposites mirror Toklas and Stein; Toklas the delicate and lovely orchestration and Stein the brash vocal line. Vavrek’s libretto is crisp, and fortunate to have read the libretto; it is as fine as any poetry and can stand on its own as such.

Director James Robinson has done a remarkable job to bring this enlightened work to life with some truly stunning visuals created by cleverness rather than extravagance, and conductor Michael Christie brings the remarkable score to vivid realization with members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Allen Moyer creates a worthy canvas that is somehow elegant in its simplicity, and James Schuette’s costumes effectively let the trio differentiate their myriad characters (and adds his own humorous touches too). Kudos also to wig and makeup designer Tom Watson and Sean Curran’s choreography.

New operas don’t often go on to the kind of popularity that sees them being universally admired and being performed a great deal at other opera companies, but “27” is likely to defy the odds. St. Louisans should not miss the opportunity to see the impressive work during its birth.” Christopher Reilly, Alive Magazine

2014: “A Coffin In Egypt” — libretto by Leonard Foglia based on Horton Foote’s play, Directed by Leonard Foglia, Conducted by Timothy Myers

90-year-old grand dame Myrtle Bledsoe has outlived her husband, her daughters and virtually everyone else in Egypt, Texas. But in the last stage of her life, she can’t outlive the truth. Houston Grand Opera, The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, and Opera Philadelphia proudly present the World Premiere of this haunting tale of memory and murder, racism and recrimination. Known for opera, art song, and musical theater, composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist/director Leonard Foglia base the opera on a play by Horton Foote, providing the perfect showcase for beloved mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade.

“A Coffin in Egypt” is a splendid opera of spite.” Mark Swed, The Los Angeles Times

“Gordon’s contribution to the genre is as germane to the spirit of a place as Copland’s The Tender Land or Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men.” Peter Dobrin, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A Coffin in Egypt, a rarely produced 1980 play by Horton Foote would seem an unlikely subject for an opera, but in the hands of the marvelous Frederica von Stade and the talented composer and librettist team of Ricky Ian Gordon and Leonard Foglia, it becomes a tour de force.” Hoyt Hilsman, Huffington Post

“Gordon’s music amplifies her sentiments. Gentle, free-flowing melodies drive home Myrtle’s wistfulness about past pleasures and her love of nature’s beauty. When her anger flares up, Gordon’s sharply etched vocal lines pack a wallop. The music’s animation and economy enable her storytelling to move quickly.” Steven Brown, The Houston Chronicle

2011: “Rappahannock County” — libretto by Mark Campbell, directed by Kevin Newbury, conducted by Rob Fisher…

This fictional song cycle (recorded on Naxos and published by Presser Music) inspired by diaries, letters, and personal accounts from the 1860s, premiered at the Harrison Opera House April 12th, 2011. It was co-commissioned in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, by The Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond, Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas in Austin, The Virginia Arts Festival, and Virginia Opera.

“The piece has the sense of a lens closing in on a spectrum of individuals and their feelings around slavery and morality in a profound and poignant way…

The acclaim accorded “Rappahannock County” by the 2,200 people who packed Norfolk’s Harrison Opera House for the premiere made clear that Gordon and Campbell had achieved their goal.” Wes Blomster, Opera Today

2010: “Sycamore Trees” – By Ricky Ian Gordon, Directed by Tina Landau, Book by Ricky Ian Gordon and Nina Mankin…

“Sycamore Trees” was sponsored by the Shen Family Foundation and was a recipient of The Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award. It featured Broadway’s Farah Alvin, Marc Kudisch, Judy Kuhn, Jessica Molaskey, Matthew Risch, Diane Sutherland & Tony Yazbeck.

“Sycamore Trees” is a compelling musical of suburban secrets… ” Peter Marks, The Washington Post

“If “Sycamore Trees” were simply an autobiographical tribute to Gordon’s past, it would have limited force, but it’s aimed at the American dream itself, which gives it broader emotional resonance. With his ability to put old ideas about love, unity and community into new post-modern musical settings, full of unconventional tunes and harmonies, Gordon ultimately achieves in “Sycamore Trees” a fresh and stimulating tribute to the thing he seems to cherish most: family – his, yours, everyone’s. ” Barbara Mackay, The Washington Examiner

Nominated for The Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding Play or Musical by The Helen Hayes Awards Organization, and won a Helen Hayes Award for Best Ensemble.

2010: “The Grapes of Wrath” – A Two Act Concert Version of the Opera with a libretto by Michael Korie, at Carnegie Hall, directed by Eric Simonson with projections by Wendall Harrington and lighting by Francis Aronson. Narrated by Jane Fonda, with a cast that included Victoria Clark, Nathan Gunn, Christine Ebersole, Elizabeth Futral, Matthew Worth, Sean Panikkar, Stephen Powell, Steven Pasquale, Peter Halverson, Andrew Wilkowske, Madelyn Gunn, and Alex Schwartz…with The Collegiate Chorale and The American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ted Sperling.

“It must be said that “The Grapes of Wrath” certainly reached the audience on Monday night. The hall was packed and the ovation tumultuous.” Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times.

“…a stirring, crowd-pleasing work that left the Carnegie Hall audience cheering on its feet…

on the whole Gordon and his librettist Michael Korie have created a major new American opera, one that is likely to stand the test of time.” Eric Myers, Opera Magazine

2008: “Green Sneakers” – A Theatrical Song Cycle for Baritone, String Quartet, and Empty Chair, with a libretto by the composer, premiered July 15th in Vail, Colorado, at the Alberto Vilar Performing Arts Center, when the composer was Composer-in-Residence at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. Upon it’s premiere, with baritone, Jesse Blumberg, and the Miami String Quartet, it was cited a “Masterpiece” in Opera Today, in an article entitled “Gordon Creates Masterpiece With “Green Sneakers,”

“It is amazing that in this his first work for string quartet Gordon has perfected an idiom that goes to the edge of tonality to create a microcosm of pain and despair that has all the markings of a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk. Indeed, at the premier, members of the Miami String Quartet were no longer mere strings, but humanized voices that formed a seamless dramatic unity with Blumberg… With the repetition of “Sleep Dear,” the final words of Green Sneakers, one heard in Vail a distant echo of the “Ewig” that concludes Mahler’s monumental Abschied. For this is a song of today’s earth, a farewell lamentation that transcends death.” Wes Blomberg, Opera Today

It was subsequently done at Pittsburgh Opera in a festival of the composer’s works, on a double bill with his “Orpheus and Euridice.” Robert Croan writing in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, called his article, “Superb Mini-Operas Convey Heartfelt Grief.”

2007 & 2008: “The Grapes of Wrath” – A full-scale opera with libretto by Michael Korie, premiered at the Minnesota Opera in a production that then traveled first to Utah Opera, and then to Pittsburgh Opera. Musical America called the work, “The Great American Opera,” and Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed wrote that: “…the greatest glory of the opera is Gordon’s ability to musically flesh out the entire 11-member Joad clan…Gordon’s other great achievement is to merge Broadway and opera… greatly enhanced by his firm control over ensembles and his sheer love for the operatic voice.” Alex Ross, writing in The New Yorker, wrote “Gordon, who first made his name in the theatre and as a composer of Broadway-style songs, fills his score with beautifully turned genre pieces, often harking back to American popular music of the twenties and thirties: Gershwinesque song-and-dance numbers, a few sweetly soaring love songs in the manner of Jerome Kern, banjo-twanging ballads, saxed-up jazz choruses, even a barbershop quartet. You couldn’t ask for a more comfortably appointed evening of vintage musical Americana. Yet, with a slyness worthy of Weill, Gordon wields his hummable tunes to critical effect…” A Suite from the opera was premiered at Disney Hall in spring 2008 (May 18). The full opera, live from the Minnesota premiere, is available on a 3 CD set with libretto liner notes on PS Classics. Carl Fischer has published the Vocal Score as well as a Folio of 16 Arias from the Opera.

“The Grapes Of Wrath” was cited in Opera News Magazine as one of the “Masterpieces of the 21st Century.”

2005: “Orpheus and Euridice” – A Theatrical Song Cycle in Two Acts, premiered at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theatre as part of Great Performers, and The American Songbook Series, October 5, 2005. Directed and choreographed by Doug Varone and performed by Elizabeth Futral, Soprano, Todd Palmer, Clarinet and Melvin Chen, Piano, it won an OBIE Award and is recorded on Ghostlight Records and published by Carl Fischer Music. It was given new productions at Long Beach Opera February of 2008, Fort Worth Opera in July of 2008. Long Leaf Opera in North Carolina reprised the Lincoln Center/Doug Varone production.

“Both Gordon’s text and music are couched in an accessible idiom of disarming lyrical directness, a cleverly disguised faux naïveté that always resolves dissonant situations with grace and a sure sense of dramatic effect — the mark of a born theater composer.” Peter G. Davis, New York Magazine

“Orpheus and Euridice” was cited in Opera News Magazine as one of the “Masterpieces of the 21th Century.”

2003: “My Life with Albertine” – written with Richard Nelson and based on Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” premiered at New York’s Playwrights Horizons (recorded on PS Classics and published by Rodgers and Hammerstein/Williamson Music, AT&T Award). It starred Kelli O’Hara, Brent Carver and Emily Skinner.

“The music swirls with regret, romance, and a sense of lost time.” Ben Brantley, The New York Times

2001: “Bright Eyed Joy: The Music of Ricky Ian Gordon” – was presented at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall as part of the American Songbook Series. Stephen Holden, writing in the New York Times wrote of the work, “If the music of Ricky Ian Gordon had to be defined by a single quality, it would be the bursting effervescence in fusing songs that blithely blur the lines between art song and the high-end Broadway music of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim…It’s caviar for a world gorging on pizza.” “Bright Eyed Joy” is recorded on Nonesuch Records with vocalists including Audra McDonald, Dawn Upshaw, and Adam Guettel.

Other works include, “Dream True,” written with Tina Landau and premiered in 1999 at The Vineyard Theater (recorded on PS Classics, Richard Rodgers Award, Jonathan Larson Foundation Award), “States Of Independence,” (also with Ms. Landau, for The Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia (formerly The American Music Theater Festival) in 1992, and “Only Heaven,” based on the works of Langston Hughes and premiered in 1995 at Encompass Opera (recorded on PS Classics, and published by Rodgers and Hammerstein/Williamson Music). “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” written with Jean Claude Van Itallie, premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 1996 and, and “Morning Star,” (The Workshop) written with William Hoffman which Mr. Gordon wrote for The Lyric Opera Of Chicago, where he was a composer in residence.

Having recently completed an opera based on Giorgio Bassani’s novel, “The Garden of the Finzi Continis” with librettist Michael Korie, Mr. Gordon is currently working on commissions from New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theatre, (“Intimate Apparel” with Playwright, Lynn Nottage) Houston Grand Opera, ( “The House Without A Christmas Tree,” with librettist Royce Vavrek) The Goodman Theatre, (“Private Confessions,” based on Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical novel with playwright Richard Nelson and director Robert Falls) and Prototype (“Ellen West” based on Frank Bidart’s poem). After Renee Fleming premiered his orchestral setting of Harper’s final monologue from Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America,” “Night Flight To San Francisco” (which originally premiered in a piano vocal version at Lincoln Center in 2000) with conductor Sebastian Lang Lessing and The San Antonio Symphony in 2011, he set Harper’s OTHER monologue from Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America,” the “Antarctica” monologue.

As a teacher Mr. Gordon has taught both Master Classes and Composition Classes in Colleges and Universities throughout the country including Yale, NYU, Northwestern, Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, Catholic, Bennington, Vassar, Carnegie-Mellon, Elon, Michigan State, U of Michigan, Point Park (McGinnis Distinguished Lecturer) Texas Lutheran University, Eastman School of Music, Florida State University, Texas Christian University, and San Francisco Conservatory. He has been the featured Composer-in-Residence at various festivals including Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, The Hawaii Performing Arts Festival, The Van Cliburn Foundation, Voices of Change, Santa Fe Song Festival, Songfest at Pepperdine University, Chautauqua, Aspen Music Festival, and Ravinia.

Among his honors are an OBIE Award, the 2003 Alumni Merit Award for exceptional achievement and leadership from Carnegie-Mellon University, A Shen Family Foundation Award, the Stephen Sondheim Award, The Gilman and Gonzalez-Falla Theater Foundation Award, The Constance Klinsky Award, and many awards from ASCAP, of which he is a member, The National Endowment of the Arts, and The American Music Center.

Mr. Gordon’s works are published by Williamson Music, Carl Fischer Music, and Presser Music and available everywhere.

His works are also widely recorded on various labels.

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