Fire in autumn
New York composer, MSU diva bring 25-year friendship full circle with CD, concert
By LAWRENCE COSENTINO
When Ricky Ian Gordon and Melanie Helton got a second chance at making music together, they didn’t blow it. They blew it up — into an apotheosis.
That last word is Gordon’s. He’s not the blasé type. “I’m as proud of that as I am of any other recording I’ve made,” said Gordon of his new CD, "and flowers pick themselves," recorded in Lansing with Melanie Helton, a soprano who is the director of opera theater at MSU's School of Music, and the MSU Symphony this spring at producer Sergei Kvitko’s Blue Griffin Recording studio.
The recording puts a cherry on Gordon’s heady New York years with Helton — a romantic haze of cigarettes, laughter and arpeggios at Gordon’s Upper West Side apartment, where they wrote and played music for each other and a close circle of friends 25 years ago. In recent years, Gordon’s lyrical, heartfelt music has earned him a reputation as the great American musical hope, inheritor of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein’s theater-to-classics rainbow realm. Last year, critics and listeners raved about Gordon’s four-hour epic, “The Grapes of Wrath,” and he is now writing operas for the Metropolitan and Minnesota opera companies, no less. But Gordon said his thoughts often go back to the mid-1980s, when his music was more likely to fill a living room than an opera house.
“You do things at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, blah blah blah, but there is something about doing things intimately,” Gordon said.” Some of the songs Gordon wrote for Helton over the years, and others he wanted to hear her sing, are on the new disc, with the composer at the piano. The CD also documents Gordon’s sweeping, joyful song cycle for orchestra and voice, “and flowers pick themselves,” commissioned by MSU last year, with Helton and the MSU Symphony. The intimate duo songs contrast gently with the orchestral suite, which Gordon called a “template” for his epic “Grapes of Wrath” sound.
In the mid-‘80s, Gordon was a struggling composer and Helton was starting her singing career. A mutual friend, vocal star Angelina Reaux, brought them together.
Obsessed with Franz Schubert’s legendary musical soirees, where about half the classic art song repertoire was born, Gordon started a salon, writing music for Helton and other friends.
If the theme for a night’s music was the poetry of Frank O’Hara, for example, Gordon made a program book with O’Hara-style collages.
“I fell in love,” Helton said. “We would have a bring-your-own-everything evening and just make music — not just me, but often other friends as well, both from the opera and musical theater worlds.”
Gordon’s romantic setting of May Sarton’s poem “We sat smoking at a table,” included on the CD, superbly evokes the time. “I had a big birthday par
ty at Ricky’s apartment one time, where I made all my friends sing my favorite opera ensembles with me with Ricky at the piano,” Helton confessed.
Scraping together $500, Helton commissioned Gordon’s first cycle, “Five Americans.” One of the odder songs from that cycle, “Lana Turner Has Collapsed,” based on a Frank O’Hara poem, gets a grandly deranged reading on the new CD. “We love you. Get UUUUPPP!!!” Helton exhorts in full voice at the end of the song. “You have to remember that Frank O’Hara was a New Yorker, and New Yorkers pass by absurd headlines all the time,” Helton said. Two of my favorites from when I lived there were from the New York Post — ‘Headless Woman found in Topless Bar,’ and, after Mt. St. Helens erupted, ‘Black Cloud Headed for New York.’” The music’s humor and exuberance is tempered by a keen awareness of time. “We started having careers,” Gordon said. “Melanie moved to Michigan, and I moved out into the scene.”
In the autumnal “Once I Was,” Helton pictures herself as a young girl. The verses suspend themselves like leaves defying gravity to ride one last breeze: “Once I was … Now I am …” Helton said she has done everything she wanted to as an artist and settled “joyfully” into her new life as teacher and director at MSU. “But there are things I have missed and things I have lost along the way, as well as people,” Helton said. The same can be said of Gordon. His longtime companion, Jeffrey Grossi, died in 1996 of AIDS. Gordon’s music worked openly through his grief, first through the filter of myth (“Orpheus and Eurydice,” 2005), then head-on in the intimate “Green Sneakers,” a song cycle for voice and string quartet. (The title refers to Grossi’s sneakers, left in the bedroom after he died.) Now or then, Gordon’s music can’t help effervescing, but tragedy and time have tempered and deepened his muse. Helton said Gordon’s harmonic language is as singular as those of Richard Strauss or Samuel Barber. “When you hear Ricky’s music, you hear his heart — there is nothing academic about it,” Helton said. “Even though he uses advanced techniques, it always sounds of a whole.”
Helton calls the collaboration with Gordon “my little piece of music history.” Gordon sounds just as wowed by the reunion. “There’s so much richness and color in her voice,” he said. “She sails over the orchestra.”
“You don’t expect to be in contact again, or have something come to such beautiful fruition — like an apotheosis.”
Ricky Ian Gordon and Melanie Helton
CD release concert 3 p.m. Oct. 19 Molly Grove Chapel, First Presbyterian Church 510 W. Ottawa St., Lansing (517) 482-0668 $10