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Recordings

Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon
22 Aug 2013

Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon

Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon features an assortment of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon interpreted by soprano Stacey Tappan, a longtime friend of the composer since their work on his opera Morning Star at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon

A review by Sara LeMesh

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Tappan discovered a love for Gordon’s emotionally raw compositions when they played through some of his songs between rehearsals of his new opera. The idea to record their collaboration and create Once I was emerged quickly thereafter. Unsurprisingly, as a new-music enthusiast and soprano I was attracted to the “deeply personal” songs written as “duets for piano and voice, in which the emotion of the piano speaks as clearly as the words of the singer, and both join in a dialogue to tell the story.” [*] Not only do the piano and voice directly interact in these songs, so does the voice and the clarinet, the lyrical wind instrument representing the singer’s love interest. Telling a story is exactly what this record successfully achieves by canvassing in broad strokes the basic human experience: maturing into adulthood, falling in love, heartbreak, and loss.

What makes this journey special, however, is that the songs communicate how music can help one through the most difficult of circumstances, a fact with which Gordon is extremely familiar. The death of his lover inspired many of his compositions, including Orpheus and Euridice (2005), Dream True (1998), and the song cycle Green Sneakers for Baritone, String Quartet, Empty Chair and Piano (2007). Also unique is the actual communication of this human story, where theater and music combine to create an elevated sense of intimacy and connection. The cycle, directed by Amy Hutchinson and staged with simple props and costume pieces, premiered at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2011 to critical acclaim by Roger Pines of the Lyric Opera of Chicago who praised the work as “technically masterful and exquisitely expressive.”

The emotional journey begins with a bang in the song I Am Cherry Alive. Tappan sings with refreshing clarity and pronounces each word with ease. Her crystal clear voice and crisp diction capture Schwartz’s youthful text in an unaffected manner. The collaboration between Gordon and Tappan is immediately apparent through their sensitivity and equaled excitement. The following three songs continue to depict a child’s uninhibited emotional state and are each beautifully sung by Tappan. Her clear and bright vocal quality coupled with her honest delivery brings out the youthfulness of the poetry. The character begins to mature in Wild Swans when she asks herself what she feels in her heart and again in Joy when she unabashedly announces that she found happiness in the arms of the butcher boy. Text painting is apparent in both, particularly in Wild Swans when the piano line conjures the image of sea waves. The vocal melismas in Joy seem to burst forth from the lithe soprano, as if she can no longer pronounce syllables or contain her excitement.

The singer’s journey becomes difficult in the song Run Away during which she feels the pangs of heartbreak. This is the first song in which we can admire Tappan’s rich lower register after enjoying her easy top in the previous songs. She navigates her chest voice easily and brings an emotional depth to her sound that is open and vulnerable. The following four songs, Threnody, The Satin Dress, The Red Dress, and Recuerdo mark a reflective time during the human experience. While the songs are each well-written and beautiful, Tappan’s innately youthful sound does not best suit the poems, causing a momentary lull on the album.

The extremely well writtenThrenody is a highlight of the album. However, Tappan’s consistently bright color does not communicate the anguish inherent within the poem. Instead, her effortless vocal delivery seems casual and minimizes the pathos within the words.

Song marks the inclusion of the clarinet that engages the voice in a duet, repeating and elaborating upon the melody. The clarinet not only comments on the vocal line, but also represents the singer’s love interest as manifest through their interwoven musical lines. The four songs that follow, Just an Ordinary Guy, Poem, The More Loving One, and Otherwise, focus on the routine in which we find ourselves after being in a relationship for an extended period of time. The extremities of range in Poem are particularly exciting as well as the text painting in Just an Ordinary Guy. These songs exist during a transitory stage of the singer’s journey on the album; they blend together and are not particularly memorable.

Gordon and Tappan save the best for last, however, in the final six songs of the album that represent loss and healing through music. We will always walk together is a gem of a piece that features a closeness between the clarinet, piano, and voice. The emotionally poignant text is communicated not just through Tappan’s dedication to text, but also through the duet between the clarinet and voice. Once I was marks another high point on the album and features a breathtaking clarinet prelude as well as brutally honest yet uplifting poetry by Gordon. The dynamic trio ends their recital with upbeat blues and poetry by Langston Hughes. This final song encourages optimism and dreaming, two traits that surely helped the musicians through their own obstacles.

The songs on the album are well organized and tell the story of the human journey, one that is never easy but that is greatly alleviated through music. Tappan’s wide vocal range and sensitivity to the words stand out as well as the collaboration between the three musicians. Tappan excels in capturing youthful excitement and while her vocal quality is consistent and exceptional, she does not discover a different enough vocal color and quality for the nostalgic and pained songs. The pieces become predictable during certain points due to a lack of variety and musical contrast. All of the songs feature major modality and the piano accompaniment can be repetitive. Because the songs demand a theatrical performance, it was essential for the artists to find musical variety in order to maintain momentum and to avoid repetition without the added excitement of staging. Tappan could have experimented more with dynamics and vocal color to demonstrate the age and maturity differences between the characters of the poems. Nonetheless, the songs are touching and successfully capture the poetry’s meaning.

Sara LeMesh

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