Much of the music played at Chautauqua’s many recitals and concerts is by composers who are long dead or geographically distant, but this weekend voice students will get the chance to perform a recital of vocal pieces alongside the very composer who wrote them.
At 6:30 p.m. Saturday, July 27 in McKnight Hall, 10 students in the School of Music’s Voice Program will perform a recital of pieces written and put together by composer Ricky Ian Gordon. These students are tenor Jedediah Rellihan, soprano Amanishakete Cole-Felder, mezzo-soprano Jillian Clow, bass-baritone Kyle Miller, soprano Sydney Dardis, mezzo-soprano Sarah Zieba, soprano Merissa Beddows, tenor Nicholas Farrauto, bass-baritone Henry Griffin and soprano Chea Young Kang.
Gordon attended the School of Music as a student musician, and for over a decade has been returning to Chautauqua as a guest artist. In past seasons, Gordon has put on recitals centered around art songs; this year, he decided to try something a little different. Many of the 21 pieces on Saturday’s program are taken from musicals and operas that Gordon has written, such as 27, My Life with Albertine, A Coffin in Egypt and The House Without a Christmas Tree.
“They’re dramatic,” Gordon said. “It’s going to be a very theatrical afternoon.”
Gordon will not be singing, but he will be playing the piano while the students sing and will provide explanation and contextualization of his works to the audience.
The recital is split into two acts, and although there is no set theme of the performance, Gordon said the concert begins with lighter, fresh pieces, and as the recital goes on, the tone of the songs gets deeper and more contemplative.
“I think it eventually surprises you, in terms of where it goes,” Gordon said.
Some of the pieces on the program are quite personal to Gordon. One of the songs, called “We Will Always Walk Together,” Gordon wrote after the death of his lover from AIDS in the 1980s. Another, “Home of the Brave,” he wrote the day after the death of Matthew Shepard, a young college student in Wyoming who was brutally murdered in an anti-gay hate crime.
Many of the pieces are solos and arias, but some are larger works meant for a whole ensemble. For example, “Travel” is a quintet in which a high school character from Gordon’s musical States of Independence dreams of key figures in the American Revolution who take her on a journey and show her the meaning of heroism and independence.
Also on the program are two arias from My Life with Albertine, a choral song about Wyoming (aptly named after the state) from his musical Dream True, an aria from The House Without a Christmas Tree and more.
“It’s a lot of meaty stuff for the singers to dig into and to make characters,” Gordon said. “It’s going to be fun to coach and to bring to life.”
As the composer of all these works, Gordon said it is rewarding to see his music performed by young artists who are so willing to learn. Writing, Gordon said, is a very solitary process, so it is a privilege to see the results of all that time alone, share them with the community and hear the voices of musicians who take it as seriously as he does.
“I’m always amazed and refreshed at the talent of the young singers (at Chautauqua),” Gordon said. “It’s really fun and really inspiring. … There’s something really fresh and moldable and exciting about their emotional availability and their willingness to perform and to dig deep. They really want to do well, and that’s a great energy to work with.”
Gordon hopes that the recital will provoke and spark emotion of many kinds in the audience — the only thing one doesn’t want an audience to feel after a performance, he said, is indifference.
“I don’t want to go out to any live performance without the hope that I’m going to feel changed in some way,” Gordon said.