A review of Only Heaven by Ricky Ian Gordon

What really stands out though is the combination of the distinctive Gordon musical sound, the exceptional singers and the rich pathos of Hughes’ words. The music which is at once experimental and showtuney, innovative but accessible, has elements of Jazz, classical opera, Weil flavoured cabaret and Sondheim inspired theatre. It always puts the poetry first, finding the most profound meaning in Hughes’ simple poems and enhancing them with a high note, a moment of silence, a soprano’s soaring note, tempo, harmony or crescendo.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Only Heaven:
A Musical Work by Ricky Ian Gordon Based on the Poetry of Langston Hughes
Darius de Haas, Ricky Ian Gordon, Langston Hughes
Audio CD (October 1, 2002), 74min
Image Entertainment

Ricky Ian Gordon is a rarity. A true renaissance man, he takes his great love of literature, his extensive musical genius, and his talent for creating theatre, and creates works of art which transcend all three genres while remaining true to their original forms. Among his more literary works is an opera from The Tibetian Book of The Dead,Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (Night Flight to San Francisco) and Proust’s In Rememberance of Things Past (My Life With Albertine, premiering March 2003 at Playwrights Horizon). He is also a poet himself, and many of his own pieces have been set to music on his previous CD Bright Eyed Joy along with the work of poets such as Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, James Agee, WS Merwin and Langston Hughes. Gordon seems to have a particular symbiosis with Langston Hughes. There are 8 of his Hughes pieces on Bright Eyed Joy, and his cycle of songs for opera singer Harolyn Blackwell, Strange Hurt; is also based on Hughes’ work. His newly released CD, Only Heaven, is also based on Hughes’ poems and is a live recording of the a musical theatre production which took place last February (2002) at the Dayton Art Institute NCR Renaissance Auditorium in Dayton, Ohio. Although we can’t see the dancing, and the storyline isn’t obvious from the CD alone, the small amounts of monologue, bits of spoken poems and applause/laughter give the CD a live atmosphere and don’t detract from the music.

What really stands out though is the combination of the distinctive Gordon musical sound, the exceptional singers and the rich pathos of Hughes’ words. The music which is at once experimental and showtuney, innovative but accessible, has elements of Jazz, classical opera, Weil flavoured cabaret and Sondheim inspired theatre. It always puts the poetry first, finding the most profound meaning in Hughes’ simple poems and enhancing them with a high note, a moment of silence, a soprano’s soaring note, tempo, harmony or crescendo.

Many of the pieces are deceptively simple, concise, and suggest far more than they say. Gordon misses none of these nuances – the combination of irony and sincerity in “Heaven,” “Angels Wings,” “Joy” or “Drum,” the quiet desperation in “Kid in the Park,” “Border Line,” “Stars” or the not so quiet exuberance of “Genius Child,” and “Litany.” The songs rely on musical harmonies and the stunning blending of the voices of singers Darius De Haas, Jonita Lattamore, Adrienne Danrich, Jay Pierce and Sheila Ramsay to provide a sense of mysticism and bring out the rich twist and upbeat note in the pain such as “new Moon,” “My People” or the stunning piece which is used for the title “Only Heaven.” Lattamore’s voice is particularly haunting and her high notes are extremely powerful and moving without losing that sense of quiet beauty inherent in poetry like Stars:

O, sweep of stars over Harlem
streets.
O, little breath of oblivion
that is night
A city building
to a mother’s song.
A city dreaming
To a lullaby.
Reach up your hand, dark boy,
and take a star.
Out of the little breath of
oblivion
That is night,
Take just
One star.

The sense of intimacy and solitude is created by the combination of this perfect voice and the very soft piano and space between each word. Additional nuance, the languorous south, the pain of poverty, or the ever enduring beauty of the human spirit – at the centre of most of these compositions – is created by the addition of reed, cello, viola and bass, again harmonising perfectly with the voices of these extraordinary singers.

Only Heaven is an exceptional recording, as much a literary performance as a musical one, sensitive, powerful, and above all, regenerative in the midst of the lowest despair and poverty – celebrating life, love and beauty. You’ll be tempted to applaud along with the audience.

For more information on the original performance visit: http://www.musemachinedayton.com/only_heaven_composer.html

For more information on the recording visit: Only Heaven: A Musical Work by Ricky Ian…

Views All Time
Views All Time
13
Views Today
Views Today
1