We strive to include every professional review in this space. If you know of one not found here, forward it to us and we will send you a complimentary recording as our thanks.
Literaturnaya Gazeta, Russian National Orchestra performance
Russian National Orchestra's new project, Classical Music in 3D, presented at the festival has also sparked great interest among the audience. This project is a synergy of classical music and 3D visualization. That night, the audience had the chance to listen to Claude Debussy's three symphonic sketches for orchestra La Mer (The Sea), Gustav Holst's orchestral suite The Planets, and three works by American composer Gordon Getty (b. 1933) who had come to Moscow specifically for this purpose: suite for mixed chorus and symphony orchestra Young America, vocal scene for soprano and orchestra Gretchen to Faust (soloist Lisa Delan, USA), and the world premiere of Mephistopheles to Faust (soloist Petr Migunov).
Getty's music is, on the one hand, very relatable to the context of our time, spiritual search of today's people, and on the other hand, it appeals to the timeless reflections on life and death, love, the world, and fate of the mankind. The composer's ability to listen very closely to the deepest meaning behind the words, and, by interpreting this meaning in the musical form, to find his own facets of expressive intonation are distinctive features of his talent.
Each of the works performed that day had its own visual concept. For this purpose, the authors (visualization of music was performed by Artnovi company) chose to implement polarizing techniques, generative graphics and dynamic light.
Vladislav Lavrik conducted the orchestra that night. Lavrik has been the first trumpeter for over dozen years now, and has been balancing his career as a solo artist and his work in the orchestra with conducting since 2009. It was great that the young conductor managed to retrieve new meanings from each sheet music by differentially organizing the complex symphonic and choral texture of compositions (Yurlov Russian State Academic Choir also took part in performing of suites by Getty and Holst).
Jeff Dunn, Gretchen to Faust
San Francisco Classical Voice
The six-minute setting for soprano and orchestra, adapted from Goethe by the composer, is a somber experience dedicated to the memory of Getty's troubled son Andrew, who died last year. Like the composer's opera Usher House, the piece shows Getty's increasing mastery of and sensitivity to text. Lisa Delan was the fine soloist in an arioso with a wavering orchestral accompaniment that sounded simultaneously gentle and jagged. I found it to be one of Getty's best works.
Stephen Smoliar, Gretchen to Faust
San Francisco Examiner
Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the Russian National Orchestra (RNO) returned to perform the first of two concerts in the Great Performers Series organized by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Their conductor was Founder and Artistic Director Mikhail Pletnev....
The intermission was followed by the appearance of soprano Lisa Delan singing the world premiere of Gordon Getty's "Gretchen to Faust." It is not often that a visiting ensemble brings a world premiere to its program, but this provided an opportunity for RNO to introduce the music in the composer's presence without the composer having to travel.
The work was inspired by Faust's encounter with the imprisoned Gretchen in the final scene of the first part of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust. Rather than translate the German, Getty reconceived an English text by turning Gretchen into a ghost, giving Faust instructions on the burial of not only her own body but those of the other members of her family. While the text sheet presented the words as a blank-verse poem, Delan's delivery reflected Getty's talent for expressing prose that emerged so vividly in his "Usher House" opera. (That prose was also a great relief from Goethe's persistent doggerel.) The piece was short (about five minutes in duration); and the musical language was modest. However, the dramatic impact made for a fascinating reflection on the traditional Faust legend.
Kate Mollison, The Little Match Girl
Brooding, febrile atmosphere hits you like a sledgehammer in The Little Match Girl by billionaire composer/philanthropist Gordon Getty. The libretto sets Hans Christian Andersen's text near word-for-word, which makes for a lot of words. It's another collective effort in which the story is told by the chorus; whether strictly opera or not, the music is awfully grandiose for a tale of such devastating loneliness. Asher Fisch conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Choir and the Munich Radio Orchestra in a performance that accordingly doesn't hold back.
Joshua Kosman, Gretchen to Faust
Also on that program was the world premiere of Gordon Getty's “Gretchen to Faust,” a short vocal scene drawn from Goethe that stands as a poignant memorial to his son Andrew. Soprano Lisa Delan infused the solo part with the requisite tenderness.
Jon Sobel, Out of the Shadows
Few musical forms have grown more obscure in today's culture than the art song. Canonical songs and song cycles by the likes of Schubert and Rachmaninoff remain popular in the classical music world, but a recording of 20th-century examples like Out of the Shadows: Rediscovered American Art Songs is a welcome rarity.
This labor of love by soprano Lisa Delan and pianist-arranger Kevin Korth...unearths songs by American composers with distinct sensibilities...
Getty's spare, soft take on “Shenandoah” is an especially enlightening unpacking of earthy folk material.
Andrew Farah-Colton, Out of the Shadows
Gordon Getty's ‘Shenandoah' is exquisitely spare and full of expressive detail.
Joshua Rosenblum, The Little Match Girl
In Gordon Getty's Little Match Girl, which he adapted from H. B. Paull's English translation of Hans Christian Andersen's famous tale, the composer uses a full chorus and orchestra to narrate the heartbreaking yet transcendent story, with earnest, declamatory vocal settings and striking instrumental illustrations. He seems particularly inspired by nature; one of the most arresting passages is “They had only the roof to cover them, through which the wind blew.” “Then she saw a star fall, leaving behind it a bright streak of fire” provides another scintillating musical depiction. He's also particularly inventive as the little girl strikes a succession of matches: the orchestra springs to life with each flame, as images of home, hearth and food explode into view. The girl's old grandmother, “clear and shining,” appears amid pealing brass instruments. When they fly together to a place above the Earth “where there was neither cold nor hunger nor pain,” it's soothing, then marvelously celebratory on “they were with God.” Getty's musical language is predominantly conservative, but he dramatizes all of this powerfully and directly, without cliché. The Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks isn't always intelligible, but they sing with good pitch and rhythmic precision.
Getty also derives considerable musical inspiration from nature in A Prayer for My Daughter (one of several other works on this disc),which begins with a vigorous instrumental storm, shortly followed by the full chorus intoning the vivid opening lines of W. B. Yeats's poem of the same name. Getty's setting is full of abrupt contrasts, bright orchestral colors and a skillful sense of the visceral drama inherent in the poem's powerful, eloquently expressed parental feelings.
Poor Peter is an appealing cycle of three songs for tenor, chorus and orchestra, set in the mythical Middle Ages. The haunting, minstrel-like “Where is My Lady?” is taken from Getty's opera Usher House, inspired by Poe. “Tune the Fiddle” is a rousing, fiery two-step, and “Ballad of Poor Peter” is melodic and melancholic, with an original text by Getty inspired by Yeats. All three are evocative of a bygone era but laced with contemporary touches. Nikolai Schukoff's earnest, opulent tenor is well-suited to these expressive, vocally sympathetic songs.
The disc concludes with Getty's engrossing, well-wrought cantata Joan and the Bells, which relates the Joan of Arc story by way of Shaw (Saint Joan) and Jean Anouilh (The Lark). (There's an earlier recording from 2003, also on the Pentatone label, with different personnel.) Melody Moore's ringing, charismatic soprano brings Joan compellingly to life, and baritone Lester Lynch's voice resonates with menace. The chorus does some particularly rousing work here, and the Münchner Rundfunkorchester blazes under Ulf Schirmer. Asher Fisch skillfully conducts the other three works.
Paul Hertelendy, Usher House
American Record Guide
Gordon Getty, 82, one of the sanest composers on the planet, launched an engaging one-act opera of spooks, cadavers, and madmen at San Francisco Opera on December 8 that showed him to be a better librettist than composer. His mind-trip, Usher House (2014), walked the tantalizing lines between reality, fantasy, life, and death distilled from the nebulous outlines of Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Fall of the House of Usher"....
In Usher Getty's vocal lines are mostly recitatives that repetitively hop up and down a perfect fifth or fourth, reflecting some of the mental fragility of Roderick, the last of the Usher clan. His music, with subdued orchestral effects, is thoroughly consonant, carrying on an American tradition from Floyd, Barber, and Menotti. Given a cast of just three singers plus a dancer and off-stage voice, an eventual chamber-opera version with small orchestra might make sense....
Good ghost stories in opera are few and far between. Getty's Usher House, his third opera, is a viable and intimate addition to the genre, but it would probably be much more effective if paired with a lighter work or comedy.
Joan and the Bells
Gordon Getty's music is, on the one hand, very relatable to our current times and the spiritual search of people today, and on the other, is a timeless reflection on life and death, love, the world, and the fate of mankind. The composer's ability to bring out the deepest meaning behind the words and to bring this meaning into musical forms, along with his individual and expressive intonation, are distinctive features of his talent.
[Translated from Russian]
Joan and the Bells
The artistic merit of the images on the screen was underwhelming in comparison to the beautiful music of Gordon Getty, Gustav Holst and Claude Debussy, and to the excellence of the orchestra and choir.
[Translated from Russian]
I found both Getty's libretto and music to be effective in presenting an augmented version of Poe's tale. It worked well that the character of Madeline Usher, Roderick's sister who was entombed a few days too early, was assigned to a dancer (Jamielyn Duggan), with Madeline's voice sung by Illinois soprano Jacqueline Piccolino.
Getty, though now in his early 80s, has spoken about composing another opera (he mentions the subject of Oscar Wilde's “Canterville Ghost”) as a companion piece. One could imagine such a double bill being staged by opera companies (especially with ghostly appearances such as in Haneke's projections) in the weeks of late October.
Stephen Smoliar, December Celebration
Getty also contributed a rather lush arrangement of “Silent Night,” which presents the text in English and French as well as German. This is definitely an innovative approach to what is probably the most venerable warhorse in the Christmas repertoire.
Georgia Rowe, Usher House
Contra Costa Times
Poor Roderick Usher. As the central character of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," he endures unspeakable torments.
Adding insult to injury, the San Francisco Opera's new double bill also makes him dull.
This unfortunate twofer, which opened Dec. 8 at the War Memorial Opera House in the first of four performances, pairs Gordon Getty's "Usher House" with Debussy's "La Chute de la Maison Usher." Each opera adapts Poe's macabre 1839 short story, which recounts Roderick's final days in his ancestral home with his dying sister, Madeline, and his visiting friend, who witnesses their ultimate demise.
One of Poe's classic tales of terror, the narrative is designed to be dark and dreary. But this production, co-owned by Welsh National Opera, comes down heavily on the dreary side.
Each opera runs about an hour. Both seem longer. Neither adaptation succeeds, though Getty's "Usher House," presented before intermission in its U.S. premiere, registered as the evening's biggest misfire.
The composer, setting his own libretto, takes a literal approach to the story, and the opera quickly bogs down in arcane riddles and obscure references. Set to a meandering, repetitive score, it's musically bland and dramatically inert.
Stephen Smoliar, Usher House
San Francisco Examiner
Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave the first of four performances of the final program in the Fall portion of its 93rd season. The title in the program book was The Fall of the House of Usher: A Double Bill. This consisted of two one-act operas, both in a single scene and about one hour in duration, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's tale of the same name...
The composers of the two operas were, in order of performance, Gordon Getty ("Usher House") and Claude Debussy ("La chute de la maison Usher"). Both composers prepared their own librettos, drawing upon Poe's text as appropriate...
Poe's tale is an odd choice for an opera. The text consists almost entirely of description, and there is almost no dialogue. Getty handled this difficulty with great ingenuity. Since the tale is a first-person narration, Getty made Poe a leading character (sung by tenor Jason Bridges, making his SFO debut); and almost the entirety of the libretto is a dialogue between Poe and Roderick Usher (baritone Brian Mulligan). That dialogue allows much of Poe's language to emerge intact. Nevertheless, there is still very little in Poe by way of plot; so Getty invented one of his own, entirely consistent with Poe's text, to endow his opera with a clear narrative thread....
Each performance emerged as persuasively compelling in its own way. Getty clearly understood his Poe; and [director David] Pountney developed that understanding into well-conceived personalities for each of the vocalists (not to mention the many silent ghosts of ancestors, who appear only through projection and even take bows as projected images). Musically, Getty made use of a rich diversity of instrumentation, all of which was more than capably balanced against the thoroughly engaging vocal work by conductor Lawrence Foster...
Stephen Smoliar, Usher House
San Francisco Examiner
Yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House, the Fall portion of the 93rd season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) came to a conclusion with the fourth and final performance of The Fall of the House of Usher: A Double Bill. Over the course of this brief run, it became clear that there was more than enough in not only the two one-act operas, both based on the Edgar Allan Poe's tale of the same name, but also the way in which they were paired to make for a satisfying experiencing of not only the music but also the staging. In many respects the attentive viewer needs one performance for "basic orientation," after which (s)he can begin (and probably just begin) to appreciate how much detailed thought has gone into the entire production as realized by David Pountney's staging and David Haneke's imaginative use of video projections.
Regarding the entire experience, this site previously noted the advantage of beginning with Gordon Getty's "Usher House" and following it with Robert Orledge's reconstruction and orchestration of Claude Debussy's unfinished opera "La chute de la maison Usher." Through both his understanding and embellishment of Poe, Getty wrote a libretto that took a tale that was almost entirely description and turned it into a highly compelling narrative. Having experienced the straightforward account of that narrative, the audience could then move on to the more meditative reflections on Poe that occupied Debussy's authorship of his libretto.
Pountney, on the other hand, unified these two perspectives into an overarching theme in which the Usher mansion itself is as much of a character as Roderick Usher, his sister Madeline, the doctor treating at least one, if not both, of them, and the friend (Poe himself in Getty's opera) that provides the vehicle for the unfolding of the narrative. Getty's "Usher House" is elegantly framed by Poe's opening and closing sentences, the appearance of the house after an arduous journey leading to an obscured path through the woods and the physical fall of the house itself....
On the musical side the pairing is very much one of contrasting rhetorical stances. Getty makes use of a wide variety of instruments, but most of them are solo parts. He thus serves up music that is almost a counterpoint of sonorities, more concerned with how the different instrument sounds engage with each other than with the integration of all the voices. In addition, the "plain speaking" stance taken by each individual instrumental part recalls many of Virgil Thomson's orchestral efforts, both operatic and symphonic. As a result, one gets the impression that Getty draws upon the poetry of his instrumentation to complement is approach to the prose qualities of the text (dismissed by some less sympathetic listeners as monotone chant)....
Jeff Dunn, Usher House
San Francisco Classical Voice
I wonder if anyone who attended the San Francisco Opera on Tuesday was reminded of two priceless sentences from Tim Robbins' novel Another Roadside Attraction: “The day was rumpled and dreary. It looked like Edgar Allan Poe's pajamas.” Two one-act versions of Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” were creeping the stage with their rumpled and dreary elements, yet there was nevertheless much in them to admire. Furthermore, comparisons between the two prove instructive.
Most admirable in local composer and philanthropist Gordon Getty's Usher House was the video production design by the Viennese David Haneke. Huge, mobile, video panels of his invention (the “Triptichon” system) displayed high-resolution images of movements through Usher House interiors and exteriors. These were populated by a raven (natch!), living portraits whose subjects got up and walked out of their frames, and a bevy of ghostly ancestors right out of the opening number in The Addams Family musical (except they were better dressed).
Also of note was Getty's own libretto, which added some potentially dramatic elements to the original story. In brief, it's about an unnamed, old friend visiting an agoraphobic Mr. Usher, who is going mad in his decaying mansion while pursuing abstruse researches. Meanwhile, (1) Usher's cataleptic twin sister is buried alive and (2) escapes her tomb, magically causing (3) the estate to collapse into its surrounding lake. Rather than capitalize on the impressive stagecraft that could have accompanied prolonged musical settings of these three events, the composers of both operas concentrated their skills on Usher's psychological morass, leading up to denouements that were all too brief.
Getty, with some success, turned the two Ushers into noble heroes allied with the friend—characterized by the composer as Poe himself—against dark forces of the ancestors and the building stones (H.P. Lovecraft fans: think Cthulhu). The family physician, barely mentioned by Poe, has morphed into “Dr. Primus,” a sinister agent of the ancients (well portrayed by bass Anthony Reed).
Getty says he wrote his libretto “20-30 years ago as a short play or opera,” and its ambivalent purpose shows in its interesting, but text-laden monologues. I wish I could say the music, like Wagner's in Wotan's long speeches, makes the listening worthwhile. Unfortunately, the transparently scored parlando hangs like tinsel on the text. Only a poem sung by the character Poe contains memorable melodic material.
Matthew Richard Martinez, Christmas Carols
'Tis the season. Yes, the weather has cooled, the days are short, and the signs of Christmas can be heard and seen all around. And while it can be comforting to reacquaint yourself with your favorite Messiah or Bach Cantata, finding some new music to celebrate the season can be even more rewarding. This music here in December Celebration is especially new. All new music from some of the most important American composers such as Jake Heggie and William Bolcom. This compilation of new carols is more than intriguing, it's downright captivating.
It's interesting how there is an unmistakable Christmas “sound” in music where the Currier and Ives pours from the music. And one of the most reassuring aspects of this disc is how that sound pervades these pieces in different ways. There are simple and effective ways of accomplishing this, of course, by utilizing existing texts and melodies in new arrangements as Heggie and Getty have done, but also in original pieces such as the opening The Christmas Life by Mark Adamo where the wistful side of the Christmas season is in the forefront. Wendy Cope's poem is brought to life in fleetingly warm flashes that dissipate to more unsettled colors by Adamo. It is not all that unlike the melancholy “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me in St. Louis. It is a reminder of the frigidity of the season. Likewise in Luna Pearl Woolf's How Bright the Darkness, an impressively vivid piece for women's choir, baritone solo, strings, percussion, and harp. Wolf's orchestration and harmonies paint the sparseness of nature. It is a piece where the listener can actually hear the sounds of nature on the darkest day, the solstice.
Joan Morris' and William Bolcom's Carol is a cheery, strophic piece for chorus and piano where, with text by Kenneth Grahame, the altruistic goodwill of the season is uncontainable. The ever-youthful Gordon Getty accomplishes much the same with his Four Christmas Carols, a vivacious collection for women's chorus and orchestra, that captures the youthful wonder of Christmas.
Jake Heggie, perhaps the most recognizable of composers represented here, contributes On the Road to Christmas, a six song cycle for soprano and strings. Those familiar with Heggie's music will find his theatricality ever present here which has some mixed success in this piece. The opening, “The Night is Freezing Fast” is unsettled and pulsating. “The Car Ride to Christmas,” with poem by Frederica von Stade, is a bumpy journey that recalls and bounces through a stream of consciousness childhood memory. Heggie and the listener are on more comfortable ground in the remaining songs including a charming setting of Emily Dickinson's “The Road to Bethlehem.” A Heggie text, “Christmas Time of Year,” is a song that could pass for one of the great American standards, and a sincere conclusion. Soprano Lisa Delan, a singer of innate dramatic ability and an immediately winning sound serves these songs with dedication and musical ease.
Delan is joined by Lester Lynch, a powerful baritone, for David Garner's Three Carols. Garner, a composer I wasn't familiar with, makes a strong case for himself with one of the most distinguished contributions on this disc. Three Carols, a piece for the two soloists, oboe, frame drum, and strings, is an exceptionally original piece that converges several styles throughout. Most beneficially, the piece enjoys the profoundly clever lyrics of Thomas Breidenthal, who tells of the nativity from the first person of the participants, from the obvious Mary and Joseph, to the less obvious donkey, cow, rooster, etc. The first song, “Posada,” tells of the holy family's arrival in a simple verse-chorus style. The second, “Magnum Mysterium” is a refreshingly non-saccharine, rhythmic telling of the birth with several verses, each attributed to a different animal in the manger, and the refrain returning to the catchy “O magnum mysterium” motive. The final song, “Jesus' Song,” is from the savior's first person point of view, awestruck at all the wondrous things going on around him. It is a clever, thoughtful, and ultimately, touching Christmas perspective.
That thoughtful perspective is brought to life throughout this disc. Conductor Dawn Harms leads the Volti Chorus and Musicians of the New Century Chamber Orchestra with assuredness, but also with a strong sense of purpose through each of the unique pieces. December Celebration, rounded out by John Corigliano's rollicking Christmas at the Clositers and Gordon Getty's serene arrangement of Silent Night, is a triumph of purpose, giving new meaning to the sounds of the season.
James Roy McBean, Usher House
Berkeley Daily Planet
The idea of staging a pairing of Debussy's La Chute de la Maison Usher with Gordon Getty's one-act opera Usher House seems to have originated at the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff, where this double-bill premiered in June, 2014. Our current San Francisco Opera double-bill is a co-production with Welsh National Opera. Gordon Getty's Usher House is another telling, in English this time, of the same Poe story....
Getty, who, like Debussy, wrote his own libretto based on Poe's story, made the role of the doctor into a far more sinister villain than he is in Debussy's version. In fact, Getty's libretto all too neatly divides the characters into three good guys, one unfortunate female victim, and one bad, bad villain. It's almost a comic-book version....
The score by Getty is highly percussive. It works all right, but is hardly memorable.
Joshua Kosman, Usher House
San Francisco Chronicle
Debussy labored for years to adapt Edgar Allan Poe's story “The Fall of the House of Usher” into an opera, without winding up with anything truly stageworthy or suited to the source material. Gordon Getty did the same.
Yet there they both were on Tuesday night, the two misconceived creations side by side on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House in a dreary, dispiriting presentation by the San Francisco Opera. Not even in his gloomiest and most Gothic imaginings, I think, could Poe have envisioned so agonizing a misfire....
If Debussy's “Usher” boasted moments of brilliance amid the dross, Getty's version, titled “Usher House,” proved a far clumsier and more threadbare operation. The talky libretto is laden with extra material of Getty's own devising, including the notion of making the narrator into Usher's old school chum “Eddie” Poe, an extravagant backstory for the actual stones that make up the house, a strange Faustian thread involving arcane knowledge and the Usher family doctor, and much more.
Any of these might have led Getty into fruitful new directions — I especially liked the presence of Poe, who in David Haneke's otherwise manic video projections is led to the scene by an insistent raven. But instead he jumbles them together like knickknacks in a drawer, and then abandons all of them when it's time for the house to come tumbling to the ground.
Most dismaying is the poverty of Getty's vocal writing. The piece includes one lovely stand-alone serenade that Poe sings about the beauty of Usher's sister Madeline, and tenor Jason Bridges, in a fine company debut, gave it a tenderly lyrical account.
But otherwise, the libretto comes tumbling forth in a monotonous profusion of repeated notes, with the melodic interval of a rising fifth to impart emphasis to one word out of every five or six. After a few minutes of this, even a first-time listener can hum along silently with the hardworking singers.
John Sullivan, Usher House
Although Getty's one-act riff on Edgar Allan Poe's gothic tale “The Fall of the House of Usher” had moments of eeriness, the production was more muddled than macabre, with a couple of plot twists thrown in by Getty that complicated the already arcane Poe original (in which a deranged brother obsesses about his sister's disease to a visiting friend, who deduces that she has been entombed alive, wittingly or un-). Baritone Brian Mulligan made a valiant stab at imbuing the role of Roderick Usher with some morbid and ominous shadings, although Getty's absurdly unpoetic libretto and amateurish score do not at all enable Mulligan's efforts. As the narrator (a.k.a. Poe), tenor Jason Bridges struggled to keep the odd melodies (which zigzag between influences, at once Shostakovich and Glass) from turning sour. As Doctor Primus, a “man of science” (and Getty's attempt to enrich the story with a new character), Anthony Reed overplayed the sinister shadings of his role to the point of satire. (Perhaps he was onto something…). The role of Roderick's sister, Madeline, was adequately sung (mostly offstage) by Jacqueline Piccolino; the onstage double was danced, effectively enough, by Jamielyn Duggan, although she was subject to Getty's fervid plot twists and director David Pountney's inability to restrain himself whenever dramatic emphasis could be exploded into histrionics.
Charles Tiee, Usher House
Getty's music is sparse, creepy and chromatic. The texture is also generally thin, only involving at most two musical lines at a time. Getty mainly constructs his opera out of dialogue between the characters. There are very few real melodies in all this back and forth.
“Where Is My Lady?” is the one bona fide aria of Getty's work. Sung by tenor Jason Bridges in this production, this ballad about the beauty and grace of Madeline Usher, one of the two siblings at the heart of Poe's story, is sweet, and Bridges makes the most of it.
Graham Rickson, December Celebration
The Arts Desk
This beautifully recorded anthology, sweetly performed by the Californian Volti Chorus under Dawn Harms, is a mixed bag, though the high spots are memorable. There's little information given about the background to the disc, other than Pentatone stating that “Gordon Getty inspired us with his composition of delightful new carols to invite a group of American composers to celebrate the season in music.” Getty's four secular carols are indeed delightful, each one short and witty. "Candles on the Tree" is superb, its list of pre-Christmas tasks set to insistent, catchy music. It's hard to resist a number which rhymes cream cheese, chick peas and “someone find the mint, please.”
E. Engelhardt, The Canterville Ghost
On Saturday, May 9, 2015, [The Canterville Ghost] had its world premiere. Musically, the work of the American oil billionaire and occasional composer Gordon Getty is not a big hit. Inspired by the romanticism of the 19th century (influences by Franz Schubert and Richard Wagner), paired with a few well-known motifs such as "Yankee Doodle" and "Rule Britannia", the music is quite listenable and is forward-moving. Even musical. Otherwise it sounds like a long recitative, and this did not seem to be a major challenge either for the singers or for the accompanying Gewandhausorchester, under the direction of Matthias Foremny.
Charles Kruger, Usher House
The San Francisco Opera, in collaboration with the Welsh National Opera, presents an amazing double feature of the American premieres of two different adaptations of Poe's haunting and horrifying “The Fall of the House of Usher.” One is in English by contemporary composer (and San Francisco citizen and philanthropist), Gordon Getty. The second is an unfinished work by Claude Debussy, reconstructed and orchestrated by Robert Orledge.
Let's start with the simple observation that this is not traditional opera. The melodic content in both pieces is often atonal. To listeners accustomed to traditional, pre 20th-century, opera, the impression created might seem like endless recitative with no arias to speak of and an absence of memorable melodies. A lovely ballad in Getty's version, “”Where Is My Lady and Where is She Gone,” is a startling exception, beautifully performed by tenor, Jason Bridges, in the role of Edgar Allan Poe.
Wait a minute? Poe is a character in this opera? Well, yes he is, in Getty's version (not Debussy's). Both librettos take, shall we say, great liberties with the story as Poe wrote it. This is inevitable. Poe's masterpiece is large on mood and short on exposition. For theatrical purposes, a great deal of story has been added in both versions.
Musically, both operas are clearly of the the 20th century, although Getty's version (which premiered in 2014) looks back to the music of the 19th century, whereas Debussy's (originally composed around 1915 and reconstructed and orchestrated by Robert Orledge) looks forward to 20th century developments.
In both operas, audiences will be thrilled, in particular, by the complex and independent orchestrations, which support, challenge, interact with, and comment upon the vocal lines without mirroring or duplication.
Those vocal lines, again, in both operas, are striking for their conversational qualities. They do not repeat, much, but seem to be through composed (without repetition but continually developed) for the entire length of the operas....
In addition to the musical excellence and originality of this production, it includes a remarkable production design...
Jeff Kaliss, Four Dickinson Songs
San Francisco Classical Voice
It felt like a new experience to hear Gordon Getty's Four Dickinson Songs up close and personal, though their performance by [Lisa] Delan a year ago...had seemed unaffected and accessible, even in awesome Davies Hall. The granitic aspect of Getty's composition, at times Mahlerian in its panoramic scope, was perhaps more striking in the smaller SFCM venue, and the contrasting delicate veins and occasional pastoral touches were more aurally accessible, with pianist Robert Schwartz forthcoming with colorful support. The most familiar of the evening's many pieces of verse — Dickinson's “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” — proved the composer capable of setting and changing a scene convincingly, and providing the singer with a comfortable but affecting vehicle for her lyric.
Matt Adomeit, December Celebration
Pentatone's new holiday release, “December Celebration,” contains seven compositions and one arrangement by some of America's finest living composers. While the title suggests a focus on secular works, it is rather meant to encompass a wide range of influences, as these composers take us on a journey through the world of religious carols, secular celebrations and everything in between.
The major unifying factor to the album is its diversity. Although all seven composers are from the same country, the generational and stylistic differences are often enormous. Sonically, the use of chorus and strings is very heavy, although there is at least one element on each track that is unexpected....
[Gordon Getty's] “Four Christmas Carols” finally elevate the chorus to the central role of the ensemble, and each small carol, while short, is a gem that one could imagine would easily be heard in church on Christmas morning. Gordon's arrangement of Franz Gruber's “Silent Night” occupies the coveted position at the close of the album. It is certainly an interesting choice to include the only arrangement in such a prominent place. However it becomes instantly clear upon listening to the beautiful orchestration why this choice was made. Just as the arrangement unifies text in three different languages it also serves as a unifier for the whole album, reminding the listener that everything they have listened to so far has in fact been inspired a particular aesthetic.
The subtitle to “December Celebration” reads “New Carols by Seven American Composers.” This album is proof that terms such as “Christmas carol” and “American composer” are not nearly as specific as they might seem. Although all the compositions bear some of the traits of traditional Christmas carols, either in their text, subject matter or tone, almost every track sets a remarkably different mood. With a few exceptions, the album is nostalgic and reflective, more reminiscent of carols such as “Silent Night” than “Jingle Bells.”
The concept behind the “December Celebration” was not one that was guaranteed to work, but with such skilled and experienced composers on board, it is no surprise that the result was immensely effective.
Steven Ritter, December Celebration
Here is an interesting and refreshing CD for the holiday season. The disc is a cornucopia of new music by active and well-known composers. The sound, to start with, is pure Pentatone multichannel splendor, and Gordon Getty, one of their house composers, is to be congratulated for compiling this set of lovely music. This is not blow-you-away Christmas music; it's not even all Christmas, but “seasonal”. Mostly it is reflective and rather sentimental....
Getty's own contribution, for women's chorus and chamber orchestra, dominates, quality-wise, everything on this disc.... a balm is quickly applied with Getty's fine arrangement of Silent Night that closes out the disc. All in all, this is easily assimilated new music of a very high quality, perfect for this time of the year.
Joshua Rosenblum, December Celebration
Gordon Getty has composed a set of four new Christmas carols (and who wouldn't agree that we could use some new ones?) for women's chorus and chamber orchestra, using texts of his own... Getty's pieces are neo-Elizabethan and melodically rich, traditional and reverent yet possessed of a subtle original stamp and occasional unexpected harmonic twists. “Candles on the Tree” is the best one: poignant and joyful, rattling off a list of yummy holiday foods, it's an instant nostalgic classic. Getty has obviously poured his heart into these songs. The women of the Volti Chorus have a very attractive sound, but they're slightly undermiked, and it's not always easy to hear the words, despite Getty's sensitive orchestrations....
Musicians of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, under the energetic leadership of Dawn Harms, make a vibrant contribution to this serendipitous holiday offering.
Michael Milenski, Usher House
While the Poe atmospheres oozed in and out of your mind the Getty Usher House, libretto by the composer, elaborated the Poe narrative into a complex plot woven by an evil scheming doctor who easily defeats a Poe sicko, his sick sister and his weird friend. Getty's music was much like recitative accompaniment though handsomely elaborated. It worked for a while....
Gordon Getty is better known as a philanthropist of opera than as a composer of opera. Nonetheless Usher House is real music, and the opera was not without some splendid moments, notably the danced scenes.
Michael Ernst, Usher House
"The Canterville Ghost" is from US American Gordon Getty, born in 1933, who is either known as the composer of "Usher House" after Edgar Allen Poe or as the son of oil expert J. Paul Getty or not at all. He himself confesses that he used two weeks each for the libretto, the piano reduction and the instrumentation... [This] ghostly opera would have liked to have at least another week for poetry and composition. Because what Wilde tells as exciting...has been rooted here merely as a bare story through the music. No dramaturgical inspiration to make the material interesting for the stage, no interpretation of the acting personage, the presentation is bare. The two-week music, on the other hand, is so traditional that one might think that the quotation-richness of this opera had already been selected before and then only found suitable arrangements.
No, this first opera performance in Leipzig for almost ten years has not reinvented the genre. It does not even write it down. It does not offer the touch of avant-garde, nor is it abusive....
In his pastiche, which he describes as a romantic comedy, Getty creates a filmmusic mood of humor, which supplements and sums up the sung word and the purported action with taut sound sequences in mood-appropriate instrumentation. Novelties are not to be heard and probably not wanted at all. For long stretches, however, this is nevertheless quite effective, because the contrabassoon and xylophony can have a rather mystical effect. When a few strings are stratified, braked by decrescendo in time, perhaps refined with a few tin platters, and seasoned with wooden spices, now and then a harpsichord, and many quotations from Getty's musical preferences, the musical horror story is almost perfect.
Steven Winn, Usher House
Author of some of the most musical language in all of American literature, Edgar Allan Poe got his night at the opera Tuesday when a double bill of works based on his short story The Fall of the House of Usher was presented at San Francisco Opera. Yet while the evening had its musical and theatrically haunting moments, this pairing of Gordon Getty's Usher House and Debussy's La Chute de la Maison Usher struggled to make a compelling operatic case.
Brooding orchestral palettes, monologue-clogged librettos and a surfeit of projections were the dominant impressions of the evening. However tempting Poe's tale of a deeply haunted house and a dying sister might have been, the atmospherically rich but dramatically static Usher story proved to be a daunting challenge....
Getty, a noted philanthropist and San Francisco Opera donor, filled his portion of the evening with a ponderous book and largely unengaging score. Weighed down by bookish verbiage, the conversation between “Eddie” Poe (an eager but handcuffed tenor Jason Bridges) and [Brian] Mulligan's Roderick plowed on through pages of wooly academic dialogue. The language seemed to stifle the occasional wrinkles of musical charm – a strophic folk song, a lightly burlesqued ballroom waltz.
The opera's ideas, both literary and musical, steadily wore thin. Getty threaded a few motifs through the score, but they never took hold or developed. Bass Anthony Reed looked and sounded imposing as Doctor Primus. And Duggan was both rag-doll limp and febrile as the dancing Madeline.
Without a strong musical or dramatic spine, however, this Usher devolved into incomprehensibility at times. Madeline's onstage death was indifferently staged and scored. Even as the projected house crumbled and that storm set in, the music, all too fittingly, withered away to an anticlimax.
Mel Martin, The Little Match Girl
When I opened this SACD I wasn't sure what to expect. The composer, Gordon Getty, was not known to me, and the works were also unfamiliar.
I'm happy to report this is a wonderful disc, with chorus and orchestra performing Getty's compositions and text from works by Hans Christian Andersen, William Butler Yeats, and a Cantata with words by Getty....
This SACD starts with “A prayer for my daughter” for chorus and orchestra, based on the poem by William Butler Yeats which is, according to Getty, “…one of the most admired works by one of the most admired poets of the age”. It is followed by “Poor Peter” for tenor, chorus and orchestra, with lyrics by Getty himself inspired by Poe and again Yeats.
Then follows “The little match girl”; the heart-breaking fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, put to music more or less word for word in a challenging setting for the orchestra and particularly the chorus.
The disc concludes with “Joan and the bells”, Getty's own narrative of the trial of Joan of Arc, about which he said, “It was the genius of Shaw that inverted this safe literary tradition and brought out the spunky teenager in Joan. Jean Anouilh went farther, in The Lark, and gave her the simplicity of preadolescence.
This is one of the most dramatic and involving recordings I have heard in a long time. The orchestra, chorus and soloists are precise and appropriately dramatic. The recording is amazing in it's emotional wallop and dynamic range. The soloists are placed across the front spread between the front speakers, while the surrounds get a sense of the hall. It's demonstration quality and reminds me of the old thrilling Columbia recordings with Bernstein, but here the impact is greater with a high resolution product from start to finish. If you have doubts about multichannel and the extended frequency response of SACD discs, this recording will put it all those reservations to rest.
This recording by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester and the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks was conducted by Asher Fisch and Ulf Schirmer respectively. It features magnificent soloists such as tenor Nikolai Schukoff (“Poor Peter”), soprano Melody Moore (“Joan and the Bells”) and baritone Lester Lynch (“Joan and the Bells”).
The only drawback to this disc is the absolutely horrible cover art. Hide it away and enjoy the music. I'll search out more of Getty's music after hearing these compositions. He's an intriguing composer with a highly interesting background. Pentagon has created one of the finest recordings I've heard this year. Recommended!
Dieter David Scholz, The Canterville Ghost
Gordon Getty sticks close to Wilde's work in the libretto he has developed. And then there is a long – I think too long story – of how the ghost is set free by the daughter of the American family. She alludes to the desire to be free, which the two protagonists in Wagner's „The Flying Dutchman“ feel. Only that with Wilde, or rather Getty, everything ends well.
As far as the music is concerned that Getty has composed for this funny story: Getty's fortune is, so it can be read, estimated at two billion US dollars. A quarter million Euros in interest rates are supposed to flow into his bank accounts daily. As a composer, Getty is not under any existential pressure to prove any originality or geniality among the guild of composers. He doesn't have to smarm over the executioners of the so-called new music. The friendly elderly gentleman composes away, happily and breezily eclectic, not to say backward looking (but what does that mean anyway), like many contemporary American composers. It's quite atmospheric and effective. It's professional theatre music. Getty admits his idols Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner in the program brochure. And one hears that. So no trace of „New Music“, or whatever it's called. The advantage: This is not the kind of music that hurts anyone. But it definitely isn't music for eternity either.
[Translated from German]
Claus Fischer, The Canterville Ghost
Gordon Getty's tonal language is - as was to be expected – severely measured by the standards of the German music world. Those who expected an original new sound were disappointed....
The European music history is a big stone quarry from which Getty helps himself to his heart's content. There are passages in the "Canterville Ghost" which are dramatic and brassy and sound like Tchaikowsky, but there are also light moments à la Debussy, naturally with the obligatory harp. The passages for the singers are nearly without exception recitative – melodic arias don't feature. Octave leaps coin the lines, which may seem original for the first five minutes, but after are tiresome. There is also a leitmotiv which somehow sounds like the world hit "Maria" in Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story".
[Audio transcription, translated from German]
Andreas Platthaus, The Canterville Ghost
Gordon Getty, the eighty-one year-old American composer of "The Canterville Ghost", prefers a conventional language of music that consequently ignores nearly everything that has changed music since Leoncavallo's times. He goes for a melodic soundpicture, therefore the harp and Marimba count as some of his preferred instruments – next to the wind section, which could have honoured Wagner....
"The Canterville Ghost" consists of, nearly without exception, recitatives, apart from both a short aria by Virginia and an enchanting duet with her newlywed Cecil right at the end ("stay with me beautiful"), which come close to the bel canto.
[Translated from German]
Peter Korfmacher, The Canterville Ghost
The strengths of composer Gordon Getty lay more with song, and in that, letting the text be sung in a way that one understands every syllable, whereby the transitions between reciting and singing pitches are fluent. So, one can easily follow the story of the ghost who fails to scare the Americans in the Canterville castle. Anthony Pilavachi stages this on a one-to-one basis in Tatjana Ivschina's beautiful set design, creates several punchlines and gets out the fun that can be got out.
This also goes for the singers, revolving around Matthew Treviño's ghost, Jennifer Porto's enchanting Virginia, and Jonathan Michie's brisk US envoy. Acting-wise they give everything, while not always being in a comfortable position when delivering the text, which is without melodic relief or dramatic, lyrical or any power at all, apart from the distinctive, but too long, and dramatically strangely out of place, final love duet. Part of an opera is an orchestra. Getty has dressed it mostly in a soft silver color. In better moments it illustrates the text. Yet, most of the time it plays, because that's what it's supposed to do...it's part of an opera. When it plays, then only sparing bits of scales which alternate with triads. Underneath, accented notes mark the bass, in between, a cembalo or a percussion instrument set the course. And, as "The Canterville Ghost" also deals with the clash of cultures between the United States and United Kingdom, "Yankee Doodle" meets "Rule Britannia". This all is easy to follow because Mathias Foremny is so unhurried at the conductor's stand, that the "ghost" haunts a quarter of an hour longer than intended by the composer. That doesn't make it any easier for the orchestra. Because of the akwardness of composition, their parts are not pleasant to play.
[Translated from German]
Here — even more strongly than in the previous works — the flow of the music is more dictated by the flow of the words than vice versa. The result is more strophic music, fascinating in its tension and release from phrase to phrase, clearly the work of a mature composer in full control of his material…. Getty's music, here, has the fine delicacy of Dresden china and a rhythmic quirkiness fully in keeping with Dickinson's equally quirky word-painting, and nowhere is this clearer than in the final song, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”…A disc well worth acquiring. All of these pieces are good, with pride of place going to the Heggie and Getty song cycles.
David DeBoor Canfield, Fanfare, The Hours Begin to Sing
The poetry of Emily Dickinson has been set by many composers very effectively, and Gordon Getty proves himself worthy to be in their company. These elegant settings of her “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers,” “There's a Certain Slant of Light,” “A Bird Came Down the Walk,” and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” all distill the essence of Dickinson's lyrical poetry.
Henry Fogel, Fanfare, Plump Jack
Lynn René Bayley reviewed this recording of Plump Jack in Fanfare 36:1, and I would second virtually everything she said. Plump Jack as presented here in a concert version loses two of its scenes completely, and parts of others. My guess is that the purpose was to make it fit on a single disc. The loss of continuity is a bit frustrating. But the music is attractive, and very well written for the voice (Gordon Getty is a classic opera ‘nut,' a collector of vocal recordings with considerable knowledge). The music may not stamp itself in the listener's ear with a truly distinctive voice, but it is music that anyone who enjoys the more conservative trends in contemporary opera is likely to enjoy. Plump Jack is Getty's treatment of Falstaff, and if it doesn't measure up to Verdi's, one would not expect it to. But it is boisterous, colorful, at times sweet and tender.
Colin Clarke, Fanfare, Plump Jack
The score of Plump Jack, which pays homage to Shakespeare (taking Henry IV, Parts One and Two as source material), took around 30 years to see the full light of day. This PentaTone release presents the trimmed-down concert version, in which (for example) the first scene is not included. Certain scenes seem rather tacked together in this format, and it would certainly be interesting to compare and contrast with the full version at some future point. There is a decidedly film music slant to the Overture…(Getty is quite open in his booklet notes about his debt to film music.) There is wit here too, almost as if Getty wishes to depict cartoon-style goings on… True, there are passages which seem to lose direction in the Overture, and not all of the opera is of a consistently high level of inspiration (there is a tendency to the episodic and not all of the melodic lines are particularly memorable), but this remains an impressive achievement.
David J. Baker, Usher House
The very first notes of Usher House reveal what must have drawn composer Gordon Getty to Poe's tale. The original Fall of the House of Usher, published in 1839, overplays its gothic horrors, but it also bathes in atmosphere. It's the story's haunted setting, its hints of decay and secrets, that the music evokes from the start with economy, immediacy, and apparent spontaneity.
Wavy woodwind fragments, chromatically flavored, flit about like unwelcome memories as Edgar Allan Poe himself — turned into a character in Getty's libretto — arrives at an isolated, dilapidated manor house to visit Roderick Usher, an old school friend. Traded off to other instruments, the moody elements of the accessible, mostly diatonic score are never long absent, even though Getty varies the claustrophobic moods with warmer, more conventional devices such as a tuneful ball scene and a love song. (Some of the triple-meter tunes manage to combine both modes, romantic and gothic.)
Raymond S. Tuttle, Usher House
International Record Review
He is a real composer. His style is proudly tonal, although there are, as he says, “hints of atonality, such as any composer would likely use to suggest a degree of disorientation”…I think Usher House is his most expressive work yet…My understanding is that Usher House will receive its premiere later this year by the Welsh National Opera. I suspect that it will work rather well.
Lynn René Bayley, Usher House
I wanted to review this CD because I am enough of a Gordon Getty fan that I like to hear everything he has written…Unlike Plump Jack, Getty's music here can stand on its own as a listening experience without the need to see the action. It is tonal but not “obviously” melodic; as the late Moondog (Louis Hardin) might have said, “I am considered avant-garde in rhythm but old-fashioned in harmony,” but Getty uses neighboring tonalities in a very creative manner, whereas Moondog did not. Moreover, the music morphs and develops in interesting ways…There is a certain strophic character about the sung lines in the first scene, and the orchestration is exceedingly clever, supporting the voices or commenting on the drama in turn. When Roderick suggests having a ball, for instance, the rhythm changes to 3/4 time and a quirky waltz melody arises; when he talks of the landscape around the house as being desolate, the orchestra reflects this in both its melodic and timbral treatment. This sort of thing continues throughout the opera, the sign of an assured composer who understands his art and knows exactly how to morph and change the music, not only in such a way that it supports or echoes the drama but also to keep the listener onthe edge of the seat. This is first-class music…While Getty's rewriting of this fictional story for dramatic purposes is imaginative and creative, my personal feeling is that an already somewhat incredulous tale has been taken to the level of Gothic fiction, of undead ancestors and “forces of evil” that border on vampire and ghoul stories. Yet the opera is highly entertaining, and I was entranced by Getty's spectacular ability to create such a wonderful atmosphere and sustain it for 67 minutes. This is a real tour de force, certainly the best and most sustained musical creation of his I have heard, and as such I recommend your listening to it.
Henry Fogel, Usher House
Usher House is [Getty's] treatment of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, and it is a more edgy work. Poe is introduced into the drama in the role of narrator telling the story. Getty has made other adjustments…He actually makes the Ushers more appealing and likeable than they are in Poe (or in Glass's opera), and the horror of the ending is all the more dramatic because we have been attracted to them. The music is darker than [Getty's] Plump Jack, as is appropriate for the story. One hears echoes of Bartók, Debussy, and Mahler in the writing. But the score is not mere copying of others' music. Even if Getty has not developed a strong musical voice that one can identify as his, it is not music that sounds like a rehashing of someone else's. Poe's monologue beginning “Where is my lady, O where has she gone?” is eloquent and beautiful, and stays in the memory. Usher House takes longer to get to know than the more immediately appealing Plump Jack, but its rewards may well be deeper. The more I returned to it, the more I enjoyed it. In addition to Getty's typically strong vocal writing, the orchestration of this work is imaginative and colorful…Usher House merits exploration on the part of anyone interested in hearing a conservative but imaginative voice in contemporary opera.
Joshua Kosman, A Prayer for My Daughter
Monday's event included a few spoken words of tribute from Thomas and guest star Plácido Domingo, but, for the most part, the emphasis was on music, including Getty's own. Among other offerings, the concert included the first performance of “A Prayer for My Daughter,” Getty's resourceful and often lovely choral setting of Yeats' poem.
Getty's compositions have never been noted for their daring or stylistic inventiveness; they are steeped in traditional forms and harmonies, and operate cautiously within those bounds. But his most appealing work - the 1998 cantata “Joan and the Bells” - boasts a wonderful level of fluency and imagination.
“A Prayer for My Daughter,” which packs Yeats' expansive poem into a terse 11-minute span, is another of Getty's alluring creations. From its turbulent opening depiction of a howling rainstorm through the poet's more abstract musings and on to the final evocation of a marriage ceremony, Getty continually finds a musical vein to reflect the shifting character of each of the poem's eight stanzas.
There are elegant touches of word painting along the way - particularly the big choral harmony in response to Yeats' phrase “magnanimities of sound” - and an ingenious use of the orchestra. Ragnar Bohlin's Symphony Chorus delivered the piece with energy and precision.
“A Prayer for My Daughter” was the last of Getty's pieces on the program, following the slender charms of fourEmily Dickinson settings delivered by soprano Lisa Delan and pianist Robin Sutherland, and three short orchestral movements from “Ancestor Suite.” It brought Getty onstage to receive a big, loving ovation from the audience.
Stephanie Power, Usher House
Edgar Allan Poe's quintessential Gothic horror tale The Fall of the House of Usher has spawned many an homage on stage and screen. Thanks to the House of Getty, Welsh National Opera have been able to fund this striking double-bill of British firsts: the world stage première of Gordon Getty's Usher House and the British première of Robert Orledge's completion of Debussy's La Chute de la Maison Usher.
It is a triumph of mesmeric staging by director David Pountney, transcending Getty's thin material and Debussy's anguished self- identification. In each opera, the house itself looms largest through David Haneke's gliding, bewitching videos; we are sucked into malevolent ancestral halls and then crushed by the weight of weeping stones. Classic cinema is invoked from Hammer Technicolor to chilling black-and-white.
Vocally, a parlando spirit reigns, with Debussy's roles more nuanced by far. Both casts were strong: Kevin Short and Mark Le Brocq made twisted medics - and if only we heard more of Anna Gorbachyova's enticing Madeline. But it's filmic vision which brings to twice-thrilling denouement Usher's self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.
Jeff Kaliss, Four Dickinson Songs, Ancestor Suite, A Prayer for My Daughter
San Francisco Classical Voice
Getty's influence on the evening's program suggested a keen interest in different settings of the human voice, apparent also in the variety of form in his own composition. He's consistent, though, in seeking out poetry as inspiration, and soprano Lisa Delan effectively showcased his Four Dickinson Songs, with light and lively intonation and an ingenuous theatricality conveying both the era and the affect of the 19th-century New England poet. The composer's musical lines, in which Delan was prettily paired by Symphony pianist Robin Sutherland, were similarly unaffected and accessible, supporting the verse and the refined but earnest emotion.
Getty openly champions and allegedly channels 19th-century tonal approaches to classical music, and there were bows to Johann Strauss in his orchestral Three Movements from Ancestor Suite. But there were also surprising and delightful hints of 20th-century Russian modernism therein, particularly in the Polka: Polonaise section. These appealing pieces of program music appear in different form in Getty's Usher House, recently released by PentaTone Classics and due for a production by the San Francisco Opera.
The new piece's power contrasted with the private delicacy of the composer's soloist-and-piano outings, and suggested Getty's mastery of broader strokes, with massed singers and instrumentalists.
On his way back to his seat from Intermission, Getty confided to a reviewer his excitement about the upcoming premiere of his A Prayer for My Daughter, which began the evening's second half. The new piece enjoyed a splendid reading by the full Symphony and Chorus. Although Prayer made use of devices favored in the Dickinson settings, including alternating arpeggiation and unison, the new piece's power contrasted with the private delicacy of the composer's soloist-and-piano outings, and suggested Getty's mastery of broader strokes, with massed singers and instrumentalists.
Both groups of musicians displayed the composer's appeal as a colorist, highlighting sections of the chorus and orchestra (with horns and woodwinds particularly noteworthy to this reviewer) to illustrate poet Yeats' references to sea and stormy sky. Prayer affected an impressive dynamic range, from a gutsy beginning on to a place of parental resolution, if not absolute certitude.
Brian Hick, Usher House
Edgar Allan Poe has cast his shadow across many artists in the early twentieth century, particularly in the cinema. It is strange therefore that there should have been so few attempts to draw out an operatic version of The Fall of the House of Usher.
WNO have recently drawn together two settings – Gordon Getty's one act opera and a reconstruction by Robert Orledge of Debussy's remaining fragments. Neither is totally satisfactory. Gordon Getty bases his approach on a new text which relies heavily on dialogue – not a feature of the original – and music which is supportive but unmemorable.
Paul Corfield Godfrey, Usher House
Seen and Heard International
[Debussy's The Fall of the House of Usher] was coupled with a complete treatment of the same subject by Gordon Getty under the title Usher House, here receiving its world première in a co-production with San Francisco Opera where it is scheduled to be staged next year. Getty, who has constructed his own libretto, made a valiant attempt to impose a more logical structure onto Poe's original, furnishing some explanations for example onto the origins of the house itself (and incidentally explaining its collapse at the end) as well as past background on the characters. This involved the creation of two new characters: Doctor Primus, Madeline's sinister physician who eventually is revealed as the incarnation of the original Usher: and Edgar Allen Poe himself, acting both as narrator as in the original story and also as a romantic interest in his relationship to Madeline. These additions and explanations worked well, but they also had a downside in the result that (as with the Debussy) there was rather too much text to be delivered as sort of recitative over the expressive orchestral backdrop. One longed for more lyrical expansion, but such moments were relatively rare; one also noticed that the English surtitles did not always agree with what the singers were delivering from the stage. Possibly the differences were the result of alterations during rehearsal, and one might tentatively suggest that some further amendment and pruning of the text might be beneficial without jeopardising the rationale behind the plot....
The filmed settings for the Debussy were even more spectacularly successful in the Getty. Careful thought had obviously gone into the selected scenes from Penrhyn Castle, and the video designer David Haneke displayed a real flair for reflecting the atmosphere of the score. The very opening, with the viewer drawn into a carriage approaching the Usher House, immediately grabbed the attention even before the music had started with the realism of the illusion conveyed. Indeed when the orchestra did enter, there was almost a suggestion of an atmospheric film score simply accompanying the visual images on stage. This however was only a fleeting misapprehension, as the music rapidly developed an independent character of its own in which the live characters blended almost seamlessly into the filmed background. This imaginative use of projections (echoing a suggestion made by John Culshaw in Ring Resounding as long ago as the 1960s) was a real revelation in showing just how successful the technique can be if it is done as well as this. One would now like to see such back projections used in other productions, especially those which portray nature in a manner which has seemed to become a closed book to so many modern directors. It was a far cry from David Pountney's usual style, and it worked superbly. The eye and ear were constantly enchanted, in fact, and the score seemed to display a distinct progress from Getty's earlier opera Plump Jack (which I reviewed on CD last year for this site) both in its sense of dramatic pacing and in the greater unity of the musical whole. Unlike Plump Jack, which was written in a piecemeal fashion over a number of years, Usher House progressed inexorably from its atmospheric opening to its overwhelming conclusion. One hopes that the production will soon find its way onto video (possibly during its run in San Francisco?) as both an enchantment in its own right and an example to others....
I should perhaps mention that this review is based on the second performance of the double bill (I was otherwise engaged two days earlier on the opening night – see my review for this site of the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales in the Brahms German Requiem). Unfortunately the double bill is only being given once more in the current WNO season, on 20 June in Birmingham. It deserves to be revived; the audience at this afternoon performance was substantial and enthusiastic.
Rupert Christiansen, Usher House
The Telegraph (London)
If necromancy, inbreeding and ancestral curses float your boat, then Welsh National Opera's double bill could be for you. It presents two one-act operas, both adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's Gothick chiller The Fall of the House of Usher, and both in their different ways interesting failures.
Poe's text offers little in the way of narrative: its theme is the degeneracy of an old noble family, whose last survivors are visited by an innocent narrator in their ancestral home. Here the latter encounters Roderick Usher, some sort of psychotic genius obsessed with his enfeebled sister Madeline, who at the climax meets her fate, possibly at the hands of a sinister doctor with a black-arts agenda.
Gordon Getty, whose family foundation has paid for these premiere performances, reasonably presents the narrator as Poe himself and attempts not unsuccessfully to build the hints, ambiguities and loose ends of the original into something resembling a conventionally structured plot.
Using an unabashed tonal idiom, he sets the text in a steady arioso without obvious lyrical highlights: despite some monotonous recourse to overemphatic phrase endings, it does the job adequately and not inexpressively. The orchestra has a harder job of breathing some rhythmic life into the metrical plod, as the orchestration runs riot and the device of creating drama by stabbing sforzando chords increasingly grates. The net effect is dull.
But oddly not quite as dull as what follows: Debussy's La Chute de la maison Usher – a project over which he laboured intermittently for a decade but finally abandoned (perhaps because he realised it sounded excessively like his previous opera Pelléas et Melisande and wasn't going anywhere).
What WNO offers is the British premiere of Robert Orledge's scholarly but speculative completion of the surviving sketches. Compared with Getty's honest mediocrity, Debussy's instrumentation and harmony is marked by lightning flashes of genius, but the monologue in which he portrays Roderick Usher is interminable. The overheated prolixity of what follows drove me close to screaming-point and others to a surreptitious early exit.
David Pountney contributes an intelligent, unfussy staging which makes canny use of video projections of deserted baronial halls, and the singing of Jason Bridges, Benjamin Bevan and Kevin Short for Getty and Robert Hayward, William Dazeley and Mark Le Brocq for Debussy is excellent.
Lawrence Foster conducted: unhelpfully, he seemed perversely determined to underline the unsubtlety of Getty's score.
Miker Smith, Usher House
Theatre in Wales
[Gordon Getty's Usher House] is just about an hour long and a few minutes are quite pleasant. The story of the brother and sister, the last of a long line of family oddities, has Poe parachuted in as a visitor to save them – or is there more sinister work afoot? Benjamin Bevan acts his socks off as a childlike, obsessed and tormented Roderick Usher, menaced by the mysterious Doctor Primus sung by Kevin Short. Jason Bridges sings and acts Eddie Poe with elegance but there is not a lot he can do with the plodding plot and over wordy libretto.
George Hall, Usher Hosue
A double bill of one-act operas setting Edgar Allan Poe's mysterious tale The Fall of the House of Usher brings WNO's season to an end. The first - Usher House, by the American Gordon Getty - receives its stage premiere, the second - La Chute de la maison Usher, a completion by Robert Orledge of some Debussy sketches written between 1908 and 1917 and left unfinished at his death - its first UK production.
Getty's work is the more interventionist in terms of Poe's short story - the writer himself becomes a character, replacing the friend of Roderick Usher who narrates the original. Musically, Getty's inspiration lies firmly in 19th-century music; Mussorgsky, for some reason, keeps coming to mind. Best known as one the richest individuals in America, as a composer 80-year-old Getty's technical skills prove limited; his wordy opera is competent but unremarkable.... Taken altogether it's a worthy evening, even if one hardly expects to see either opera again.
Norman Stinchcombe, Usher House
Getty gives us every trademark sound from the Universal and Hammer movie handbook – tremolando strings, percussion glissandi and hammered sforzando chords.
The [Welsh National Opera] orchestra, under Lawrence Foster, give it everything. Getty's setting consists entirely of sung speech except when Poe (ardent tenor Jason Bridges) recalls his romantic feelings for Madeline Usher, and we get a hint of a Bernstein-like aria....
Getty's Roderick (the enjoyably hammy Benjamin Bevan) is part buffoon part fruitcake. Anna Gorbachyova as Madeline has little to do but the part is expressively danced by Joanna Jeffries in Getty's version.
Alexander Campbell, Usher House
A curious double-bill of opera, with both works based on Edgar Allen Poe's disturbing and atmospheric short story The Fall of the House of Usher....
The new Getty is a curio. There was a sense of trying too hard in that the libretto is a very wordy affair, full of unnecessary detail, the characters reduced to telling you too much of their motivation and scene-setting rather than allowing the staging and the music to take on that important role. The music itself is more like your average cinematic soundtrack, meandering this way and that without adding a huge amount. Unmemorable, it is also something of a pastiche, with threads being drawn all too obviously at times from the styles of other composers (Britten, Richard Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov all seemed to be strong influences). Fatally lacking was a sense of foreboding – think how Britten creates the ominous atmosphere of Bly in The Turn of the Screw and you realise what was lacking here. The vocal lines were not interesting either, if sung with admirably clear diction. The sparse orchestration helped there.
Stephen Walsh, Usher House
The Arts Desk
Getty's own libretto has the interest, if not the appeal, that it concretises much that is no more than hinted in Poe: the old school friends, the family history, the archives, the astrology: everything is spelt out as in some ghastly symbolist soap opera. Even the friend gets a name: Eddie (no, really: guess who). And the music is anecdotal in the same way: bits and pieces, paste jewels strung on a loose thread of vocal recitative.
Steph Power, Usher Hosue
Wales Arts Review
Director David Pountney did a frankly extraordinary job of presenting the operas back to back without the Getty coming off too much the worse by comparison to the Debussy – that is, theatrically speaking at least...
In keeping with the traditions of Poe on film, the basis for Pountney's success was his cinematic vision, ironically making the most of the very thing for which Debussy and now Getty have stood accused with their respective Usher scores; namely, producing music more suited to film than to opera....
Getty's adaptation...opts for a pedestrian and unvaried 19th century narrative treatment with, it must be said, scant literary or musical imagination....
Getty's wordy adaptation...seems not just mundane but wilfully naive in its refusal to plumb any kind of psychological depth.
Further points are raised when one considers Poe's ‘total' theory of the short story, of which ‘The Fall of the House of Usher' is an outstanding example. In Poe's view, the brevity of the form allows the writer to unify all elements of the work, including close details of technique and style, towards a single effect; the aim being to transform mere narrative into a perfectly integrated work of art. This idea has more than a hint of – dare I suggest – Gesamtkunstwerk. In any case, viewed through this lens, Getty's score falls painfully short of the writer's innovative vision, with hammy pastiche (complete with Addams Family harpsichord at one point) and cardboard characterisation. Having Poe himself appear as narrator hardly adds to the subtlety.
Simon Rees, Usher House
How does Usher House stand up? Like the house, it doesn't. It falls, and on two counts. One is that the libretto, written by Getty himself, is over-long, clumsily written, under-edited and full of absurd touches. There is, for example, a list of ancestral Ushers who don't appear in Edgar Allan Poe's original tale, and whose names would look better in illustrated books by Edward Gorey. The use of Poe as Roderick Usher's friend who witnesses the events is clever, but would work out better if he had been shown to have some kind of relationship with Roderick or his sister Madeline... Musically, the opera is mostly reminiscent of 50s B-movie scores, with spooky woodwind underlying a relentlessly tedious arioso, or heightened recitative, which plays heavily on rising fourths.
Lawrence A. Johnson, Overture to Plump Jack
Chicago Classical Review
The overture to Gordon Getty's opera Plump Jack made a lively curtain raiser. Getty's music is tuneful and individual and deserves to be more widely heard. The overture is a bit episodic yet paints the bibulous knight Falstaff with fine brush strokes, by turns galumphing and energetic. A loopy horn and early trumpet entrance apart, the [Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra] offered a vital and spirited performance with [David] Danzmayr bringing out the quirky humor of this engaging music.
Paul Driver, Usher House
The Sunday Times (London)
Operatic double bills are relatively common, but the one-acters are generally on distinct subjects. Welsh National Opera is trying the possibly unique ploy of an evening juxtaposing different treatments of the same story. It is Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, a gothic tale that obsessed Debussy in later life and has much preoccupied the American composer (and billionaire) Gordon Getty (b1933)....
If there is a touch of vanity publishing about the presentation (its world stage premiere) of Getty's simply titled Usher House, the double take thus provided wasn't without interest. Whereas Debussy (like Getty, his own librettist) focuses intently on the psychological distress of Roderick, whose monologising takes on something of the egotistical gloom of Bluebeard in Bartok's opera, Getty fills the mise en scène with sociability and circumstantial detail....
The technological novelty of the visuals - embracing midair or mid-picture-frame appearances by Roderick's moribund sister Madeleine (Anna Gorbachyova), and hauntedballroom dancers - distracts us from Getty's economical or overthin score, but only confirms his idiom as a kind of stylistically indeterminate film music, fluent but insipid. His declamatory vocal lines are samey: an impulse of crispness promptly followed by a swell. And there is undue abruptness to the dramatic unfolding.
The piece does hold the attention, though, and Pountney has added some striking images, not least the silent downpour with which both stagings conclude.
Anna Picard, Usher House
The Times (London)
Lesser sighs greet Getty's music, a compote of Britten, Barber and Bernard Herrmann, which illustrates the drama with spooky glissandi, chromatic spirals, a plaintive oboe and twig-on-window-pane sul ponticello strings. There is a magpie waltz and a listless love song, Where is my lady, and where has she gone?, for the narrator (Jason Bridges), who is identified here as Poe and accessorised with a crush on the cataleptic Madeline Usher (sung offstage by Anna Gorbachyova and personified on stage by the dancer Joanna Jeffries).
With lines such as "Nothing can be hidden from Eddie Poe!" Getty is at least a better composer than he is a librettist.
Andrew Clements, Usher House
The Guardian (London)
[Getty's] treatment of the story is dull and dramatically plodding, making Poe himself (sung by Jason Bridges) the narrator but using far too many words and setting them in an unvaried declamatory style with over-emphatic orchestral punctuation like a pastiche Mussorgsky or Prokofiev. There's little sense of characterisation, even in the portrayal of Roderick Usher (Benjamin Bevan) and the sinister Doctor Primus (Kevin Short), and no sense at all of what this gothic tale of an ancient family in terminal decline is really about....
George Hall, Usher House
Getty's style derives from nineteenth-century antecedents, rather than from anything more recent: Mussorgsky, for some reason, seemed the dominant influence here, both in the harmony and in the orchestration (which frequently recalled Pictures at an Exhibition in Rimsky-Korsakov's large-scale treatment of his late colleague's piano original). The extensive text is set in a kind of parlando manner that once again could be related to Mussorgsky's practice. The result is neither especially memorable nor original, but it does mark an advance over Plump Jack, Getty's earlier Falstaff opera, even if the word-setting remains effortful when not clumsy and the general level of technical skills fairly limited.
Rebecca Franks, Usher House
BBC Music Magazine
The Fall of the House of Usher, a short story published in 1839, tells the tale of the demise of the noble family of Usher. The last descendants, the abnormally close twins Roderick and Madeline (who is dying) live alone in the sinister, mysterious family home. When Madeline dies, darkly terrifying events unfold. It's atmospheric and chilling, and has been set by Claude Debussy and Gordon Getty, with both works staged as part of Welsh National Opera's current British Firsts season.
Getty...chose to tell Poe's story in a straightforward fashion, turning the unnamed narrator into Poe himself and filling in plot holes. The price of this decision to pride narrative over atmosphere was a text-heavy opera, mostly sung in a relentless arioso style. There was little to distinguish individual characters... And while the orchestral writing was craftsmanlike, clear, and colourfully played by the WNO orchestra, the whole effect was rather short on drama or mystery.....
Ralph Lucano, Usher House
American Record Guide
Best to take the composer's words to heart before listening: "Directors and interpreters are entreated not to research the original, or biographies of Poe, for clues to motivation or personality." Poe's words begin and end the libretto, but just about everything in between has been contrived by Getty himself. The central character is still Roderich Usher, but the doctor who treats his sister Madeline has been given a name, Primus, and may or may not be a relative hundreds of years old. The narrator of the story has become Poe himself, and he's often referred to, jarringly, as "Eddie." Nothing much happens in Poe's tale–it's all gloom and atmosphere until the macabre ending–and nothing much happens in Getty's far less atmospheric makeover, where darkness does not pour forth. Poe visits the courtly Roderick, Primus Usher suggests that he has a plan to perpetuate the family line, Madeline sings "ah" in the distance, and a ball is held, attended by possibly ghostly ancestors. Getty's most interesting gloss on the original is to have the first Usher house (near Exeter in England) condemned and torn down by Edward the Confessor, then rebuild somewhere near Savannah, where it destroys itself again after the joint demise of Roderick and Madeline.
None of it is really scary or oppressive. The music starts getting a bit spooky in Scene 1, when Roderick talks about the party guests coming "from the depths of the house;" but it's pretty conventional spookiness, with wails from the high strings amid some xylophone punctuation. One quickly starts to ache for some richer, louder orchestral sounds. The vocal lines are not memorable or melodic in any way, even in the fake-Poe ballad "Where is My Lady." It's all heightened speech, straightforward enough and easy to understand but not operatic. Poe's overwrought prose might be hard to take seriously, but it casts a spell of its own, and all those words create a palpable ambiance: one feels the "iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart." Getty's music does not capture Poe's tone at all, and by changing and simplifying so much, he has merely managed to make the story boring.
The performance, recorded in Lisbon, is quite good. German tenor Elsner sings excellent English and takes advantage of the few opportunities to let his voice ring out. Dupuis's high baritone is a pleasure to hear, and his words are always clear. Ens's mellow bass is just right for the sinister doctor. The soprano has almost nothing to do except to vocalize a bit. PBS's honey-voiced "Sherlock," Benedict Cumberbatch, is wasted in the speaking role of the Attendant, one assumes the conductor is committed to his task, and Pentatone's sound is excellent. A libretto is supplied.
William Hedley, International Record Review, The Hours Begin to Sing
This is the first music I have heard by Gordon Getty, famous for another reason, and the impression is favourable. Emily Dickinson's verse is sparing with words and the subject matter narrow. Getty's equally sparing music proves an effective vehicle, with the old-fashioned virtue of aiming to complement or enhance the meaning. It is a brave composer indeed who decides to take on Copland by setting “Because I could not stop for death.” Getty refers to the “clip-clop of the hearse carriage,” and indeed the early part of the poet's journey “toward eternity” is jaunty and sounds like fun. The setting makes more sense as it progresses, and the short piano postlude is highly effective.
Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition, The Hours Begin to Sing
I reviewed Lisa Delan's first issue in this “series” back in 2009, And If the Song be Worth a Smile. I said then “I am not sure I have heard a finer American song album since Songs of America made its debut on Nonesuch about 20 years ago.” Well, guess what? I can say it again, with a lot of confidence. Not that it is better than the last one—that is too difficult a call to make—but it is certainly the equal.
We have four more songs from the intensely talented and lyrical genius Jake Heggie, this time a little dark and creepy (with the addition of cello), but still affecting and marvelously intrepid in his ability to match words and text. This time the text is by poet Galway Kinnell, and I would not be lying if I said Kinnell's work is actually improved by Heggie, and there is not a lot of poetry you can say that about. William Bolcom returns as well, again with five more of his Cabaret Songs, and Arnold Weinstein's poetry has never enjoyed such a sensitive treatment, his back room lyrics explored to the hilt by Bolcom's masterly music.
Four other composers are called back for encores. Gordon Getty is on his best and most infectious behavior with his Dickinson settings, perfectly nuanced to the unusual and often quirky pauses of Emily Dickinson in a way that perhaps only Aaron Copland could have managed. Woolf's unusual and evocative love poems by Rumi had to be a challenge as the words themselves are so highly perfumed to begin with. The brilliance of these settings is in the sparseness of the harmonies (also adding a cello), allowing Rumi to shine through in all his glory.
John Corigliano, whose own cabaret songs stood out in the last issue, takes a completely different road on this disc with some Irish folksong settings for voice and flute alone. This was in a response to his vigorous Pied Piper Fantasy way back in 1982 for James Galway. This time he wanted to test a more intimate environment and the results are hauntingly beautiful. Finally, David Garner graces us with his Klezmer-like Vilna Poems, sung in Yiddish with the addition this time of clarinet and cello, to poems by the great Avrom Sutzkever, who lived in the Vilna ghetto for two years before escaping to the forests with his wife. Particularly noteworthy is the exceptional and wailing clarinet of David Krakauer.
Lisa Delan is still the master of this sort of recital, even more affecting and in control than the last album. I for one will be thrilled if there is yet another and I can't think of any reason why there won't be. Pentatone again proves that intimate chamber music can be well-served by judicious use of the surround-sound microphones. Outstanding!
Barry Bassis, Plump Jack
Although it will never supplant Verdi's Falstaff, Getty's work has considerable appeal, especially the orchestral sections… While Getty incorporates some Renaissance music, most of the opera is more modern in tone and darker than the Verdi opera.
Paul Corfield Godfrey, Plump Jack
Music Web International
Most composers would give their eyeteeth to be wealthy enough to get their music performed without the hassle of continually seeking commissions or funding. Even for composers who are multi-millionaires like Gordon Getty life may not be a bed of roses. Then again, to do Getty credit, while he has poured substantial sums of money into music, he has not used his benefactions to promote his own music at the expense of others. The number of recordings of his music is small, but we have enough on disc to be able to judge that his music — written in a conservative but not reactionary style — is fully worthy of the accolade of performance…. Getty regards [Plump Jack] as his best score, but I personally much prefer works such as Victorian Scenes…which shows a much greater sense of ability in Getty's setting of words. Those, like myself, who admire Getty's music, will want to hear Plump Jack, but despite the discovery of some intermittently beautiful passages they should be prepared for disappointment too. Those who do not know Getty should investigate the discs of orchestral and choral music first.
Lee Passarella, Audiophile Audition, Plump Jack
[This] can really be considered an ensemble opera. Not coincidentally, then, the crowd scenes are some of the best things about Plump Jack, mounted with skill that no mere weekend composer could muster…. I'd characterize Getty's music as post-Romantic. If you're familiar with the vocal music of Schreker, Korngold (in his darker moods), and d'Albert, you have a general idea of the style. The music is chromatic, with wisps of melody rather than full-blown tunes. There's little lyricism here; some of the text is more spoken than sung…. In sum, the story is a good one, and if Getty doesn't tell it with unfailing musical justice, the music for the two Henrys, the crowd scenes, the writing for the orchestra are all worth experiencing.
Joshua Robertson, Plump Jack
Gordon Getty's Falstaff opera, Plump Jack, has been gestating since at least 1985, when one early scene was performed with the San Francisco Symphony. Getty says he hears movie music in his opera more than any specific classical influences, and indeed, like the best film composers, he has a sure instinct for using bold, primary colors to tell a story. Even when his vocal melodies occasionally meander, the orchestra provides imaginative texture and characterization. And one always hears Getty's reverence for the beauty of Shakespeare's language. He adapted his libretto with great fidelity from the two Henry IV plays and Henry V. In general, Getty handles his self-avowedly conservative musical language with skill and sophistication. One standout passage is Henry IV's lament for what he foresees as the decline of the kingdom under his son Hal, a thoughtful, mournfully effective blend of vivid accompaniment with an expressive vocal line. Henry's deathbed scene is also emotionally potent; Getty seems to be at his most eloquent with the aging king…. The dramatic high point of the opera occurs when Hal…rebuffs his old crony Falstaff at the inauguration. The painful string tremolos deliver the message with cutting certainty, and the new king ends his long denunciation…on repeated, ringing high Gs…. [It] is an impressive contrast to his beautiful Scene 2 aria, a sincere, triadic and touching appeal to his father for forgiveness…. The “Lament for Falstaff” in the last scene starts with a brief funeral march…compelling enough that it could easily have been extended. Hostess Quickly describes Falstaff's death, amid harpsichord and clanging mallets, in a beautifully dramatized monologue… The score then turns rousing and military, leading to brass and full chorus. The materials for this end sequence are assembled and paced with a sure hand, and Getty has the courage to end the opera softly, rather than with a bang.
Barry Bassis, Usher House
Getty wrote his own libretto and takes considerable liberty with the text, to the extent of making Poe himself…a character in the opera. There is a sense of foreboding throughout the work.
Ingobert Waltenberger, Usher House
Der Neue Merker
[Translated from the German]
The opera, composed in the stylistic succession of Benjamin Britten, is based on Edgar Allen Poe's novel "The Fall of the House of Usher".... Gordon Getty...concentrates on the content of the words of the libretto written by the composer himself. The vocals are predominantly recitative and psalmodic with an orchestrally colorful orchestral part. The Orquestra Gulbenkian under the conductor Lawrence Foster transform the chamber music tonal score splendidly. The specific colors of the individual instruments come into their own and enhance the expressive spectrum of the voices. Finally, a contemporary opera that is poetic, music-dramatically stringent, sound-rich, and entertaining. The vocal part is well sung; in its Impressionist inspired parts one can see reminiscences of Debussy "Pelleas and Melksande". The composer always shows love for the human voice and its possibilities.
Benjamin Ivry, Piano Pieces
A graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory, where he studied with Sol Joseph (1912-2002), Getty has stuck to a musical language akin to middling Northern European ballet scores circa 1840. Determinedly retro and pale, his works are the aural equivalent of Prince Charles's watercolour landscapes.
Defiantly unserious and inconsequential...Getty has created music that can dither in slower works, while up-tempo efforts tend to be merry jigs. Like tycoons in Depression-era Hollywood films whose sour stomachs can only tolerate a diet of digestive biscuits and milk, Getty has opted for musical pablum which, although mildly inoffensive, can ultimately be cloying. The patriotically energised Raise the Colors appears a conscious decision to celebrate life...
The American virtuoso Conrad Tao, still in his teens, can play anything with distinction and gives evocative and sympathetic renditions, like a young Frans Hals creating a dashing portrait of some inherently uninteresting burghers.
Joseph Newsome, Usher House
Voix des Arts
Mr. Getty's finances undoubtedly facilitate his music's journey from creation to publication and performance, but it should not be assumed that the richness of a composer somehow cheapens his music.
As the composer himself acknowledges in his brief remarks printed in PentaTone's liner notes for this recording, Mr. Getty set the essence rather than the letter of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher'....
Conjuring a sense of the darkness and unalleviated mystery in Poe's story is critical to the success of a musical setting of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,' and Mr. Getty's music, though not arrestingly original or melodically memorable, evokes both an apt element of peril and a disturbing but effective suggestion of the inevitability of the destruction of the Usher line. The story's unnamed narrator is made Poe himself by Mr. Getty, and the strangely unnerving physician encountered by Poe's narrator when he first arrives at the Usher mansion is given an increased profile. Musically, Mr. Getty's idiom is predominantly tonal but accessibly modern: there are passages that are reminiscent of the Bartók of Bluebeard's Castle, and the sparseness of the sound and the depictions of emotional and social isolation and their effects upon men's psyches recall the mature vocal works of Britten. If this is not the sort of music that is likely to forever remain in a listener's memory, it is mostly successful in capturing and retaining the listener's attention.
Cedric, The White Election
We don't recall hearing any of Gordon Getty's music thus far, and we weren't blown away. The going from a world we know (some other delightful verses from Dickinson) talks about, well, the going from a world we know, and the mystery of what's beyond the end. Oddly enough, Getty concludes this on the most obvious and trivial of all endings, a tonic-dominant-tonic coda on the piano that has neither poetry nor mystery.
Mary Kunz Goldman, Piano Pieces
Gordon Getty, the octogenarian composer/oil tycoon, writes witty and often lovely music that looks backward to the 19th century. You can do that when you're an oil tycoon, thumb your nose at academia.
Of course you also need talent to write music in the style of Schumann, Ravel and other masters whose inspirations shine in Getty's work. Tao's crisp precise playing brings out the music's arch sweetness and makes a strong case for how good it is. I could see the components of the “Homework Suite,” music dating from Getty's student days, entering the mainstream repertoire, as a curiosity and on its own merits...
Wayne Gooding, Usher House
[Usher House] is a one-acter in five scenes lasting just over an hour, the scoring relatively spare and the soundscape tonal with, in Getty's words, "hints of atonality." In this scenario, Roderick Usher, who lives with his off-balanced sister, Madeline, has invited an old school friend (Poe himself) to his house to help expunge some ancestral ghosts and revive the Usher family line. Its not entirely clear what's at issue here since Getty has introduced some new elements, including references to a medical archive, an ancient curse and a malevolent character named Doctor Primus. "We ourselves may be at risk if we cannot puzzle it out," Usher sings. Indeed.
This is one of those pieces that may fare better in the seeing than the mere listening. Getty's style is conversational, a kind of unending recitative with only one aria-like piece, a song written for Madeline by Poe and Usher in their schooldays. The singers are good and try hard, including two Canadians, baritone Etienne Dupuis (Usher) and bass Phillip Enns (Primus). Tenor Christian Eisner is Poe, and soprano Lisa Delan handles Madeline's nonverbal lines. Their efforts, however, can't mask the lack of a real dramatic arc in the score. The piece just seems to drift to its nominally catastrophic conclusion.
John Terauds, Piano Pieces
Super-talented young Illinois native Conrad Tao has made a little recorded detour through some piano works of American composer-philanthropist Gordon Getty, with wonderful results — hopefully contributing to the liberation of art music world from some enduring prejudices in the process.
First of all, let's deal with the music itself. The Pentatone Classics album contains 23 sketches and miniatures, most of them collected into two suites: the Homework Suite of five pieces, which dates from 1962, while Getty was studying at the San Francisco Conservatory, and the later Ancestor Suite, which contains 11 pieces.
Although this isn't complex or serious music, having a true virtuoso interpret it puts each piece into the best possible light. Tao (who turns 19 in a few weeks) brings an easy, beguiling lightness to Getty's creations, many of which do make serious technical demands.
There are many young pianists throwing themselves into the performance of miniatures these days. They present a fine challenge in conveying mood, structure and narrative in a very short space of time.
So that's prejudice No. 1 dispelled. There is value and enjoyment to be had from short works.
Prejudice No. 2 is also in the process of being demolished: that tonal writing has no place in the new music universe. Getty, who is in his late-70s, has spent his whole life battling an atonal aesthetic.
As he relates in the album notes: “My teacher at the Conservatory, Sol Joseph, once asked me if I expected to move on to atonalism. I told him I kind of doubted it.”
And so Getty would have been dismissed there and then.
Which brings us to Prejudice No. 3, concerning the wealthy dilettante.
Getty inherited billions in oil money, so anything he has done has been for the sheer pleasure of doing it rather than to make a living. As is the case with a 17th or 18th century prince taking an interest in music, we condescendingly smile, nod, then return our attentions to the serious composers, the ones who had to struggle for their art.
But Getty has a clear sense of what he's trying to do. The results are not just coherent but compelling. And we should applaud that.
Jeff Dunn, Piano Pieces
San Francisco Classical Voice
Gordon Getty is a major musical philanthropist in the Bay Area, and a composer as well. His PentaTone SACD release will be of value to those who appreciate terse, melodic, and simplistic piano music that at times evinces a subtle sophistication. The 23 tracks on the CD, half of which last less than two minutes each, consist of three suites and four individual numbers.
The Ancestor Suite is the longest set on the release at 10 tracks. The program notes, even more abbreviated than the music, relate nothing about this composition or its title. However, a search on the Internet reveals that the music was composed for a ballet on Poe's Fall of the House of Usher. Perhaps the story appealed to Getty because in it, the ancestors of Roderick Usher had been noted for “repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity” as well as a “passionate devotion to the intricacies … of musical science.” In any case, the dances of the suite are far lighter entertainment than the tone of the Poe. Most of them are in an obvious ABA form; some are two or three ABA dances strung together. Many are given central European titles (Zwei Walzer, Schottische, Ewig Du). Chords are uncommon; linearity is emphasized in a predominate two-part harmonic texture. Some numbers display a child-like naiveté; others move briefly into more mysterious realms. My favorite of the bunch is “Waltz of the Ancestors,” which you can hear in the excerpt from the CD.
The Three Traditional Pieces are the most attractive numbers on the CD. “The Fiddler of Ballykeel” features a melody with a nice Scotch twang. While the title of “Tiefer und Tiefer” (deeper and deeper) doesn't make sense to me, in the absence of a booklet explanation, it is a pleasant waltz. Unlike most of the other music on the CD, “Ehemals,” (German for “formerly” — why?) offers a few technical challenges for the pianist, has a more complex form, and toys with a paraphrase from the third movement of Beethoven's “Emperor” concerto.
Two of the four individual pieces are light and brief, one referencing a phrase from the “Irish Washerwoman” jig. The last two, Andantino and Scherzo Pensieroso, are the most recently composed. Contrary to Getty's assertion that they “might easily” have been composed in 1962, the year of the CD's Homework Suite, a collection of pieces written when he was a San Francisco Conservatory student, they display far more melodic and harmonic variety, and a more malleable rendering of materials. Whether he admits it or not, Getty has matured over the years, and for the better.
Pianist Conrad Tao rightly takes Getty's pieces on with a minimum of flamboyance, emphasizing clarity and linearity. A couple of the endings sound a bit too abrupt for my taste; perhaps a greater ritard may have been in order. But other than that, his work is flawless, deserving of Getty's accolade to him: “Everything came out as I had imagined it.”
Robert Markow, Piano Pieces
Classical Voice North America
It would be all too easy to regard what he writes as claiming attention only because of [Gordon Getty's] billionaire status, but this would be as unfair as it is unwarranted. On the basis of Conrad Tao's program of piano music, Getty has genuine talent. He has at least a dozen recordings to his credit, and with his 80th birthday approaching next year (Dec, 20, 2014), maybe it's time serious attention was paid to this serious composer.
The CD offers a program of miniatures composed over the span of half a century (1962 to 2012), but with no stylistic development. As the composer says in his brief program notes, they might as well have been written in reverse order. Two approach five minutes in length, but most are in the two-to-three minute range. I listened to the curiously titled Homework Suite (five pieces) and Ancestor Suite (eleven pieces), the bulk of the program, before I learned the names of the individual numbers, and couldn't help trying to guess what each might be describing. In character, they much remind me of Schumann's Kinderszenen and Album for the Young, each a unique gem, light in spirit but generous in content. Heard in succession, they provide enough variety to warrant continuous listening. It turns out most of them bear dance titles (waltz, polka, gavotte, etc.), but regardless of what you choose to call them, they exude charm and elegance. Getty freely admits that “my music seems to belong more in the nineteenth century, with inklings of others…” Think Schubert distilled through the alembic of Satie or Poulenc in a playful or irreverent mood.
The 19-year-old American pianist (and violinist and composer) Conrad Tao plays these pieces with obvious love, commitment and meticulous care in matters of dynamics, color, contrast and rhythmic nuance. This is no toss-off exercise. Tao tells a story, paints a picture or creates a little adventure with every piece. His playing is so imaginative and persuasive that he virtually commands your attention. The music is for the most part technically simple enough for a third- or fourth-year piano student to handle, and offers highly attractive material for recital purposes to complement well-worn repertory. The recorded sound is clear and clean, though the piano (a Steingraeger) is rather brittle and clanky in the upper register – my only complaint about an otherwise highly enjoyable release.
Lynn René Bayley, Piano Pieces
As I've mentioned in these pages on other occasions, I am generally a fan of the music of Gordon Getty, my unhappy review of his opera Plump Jack conditioned by the fact that it was an abridged performance and conveyed little or nothing of the theatrical atmosphere that the composer put into it. Tonal he is, but uninteresting he is not.
On this occasion, we are presented with a program of solo piano music written over a period of 50 years: The Homework Suite was composed in 1962, the Andantino and Scherzo Pensieroso written in 2012. As the composer put it in the liner notes, his composition teacher, Sol Joseph, once asked him if he "expected to move on to atonalism. I told him I kind of doubted it." The Homework Suite, as it turns out, is an utterly charming set of very short pieces (four of them either a half-minute or a minute in length, only one-the "Berceuse"-running on for a lengthy two minutes), yet wit and charm imbue these works, as they do nearly all of Getty's music. The Ancestor Suite is apparently Getty's homage to his European roots, consisting of waltzes, a schottische, polka-polonaise, gavotte, march, one enigmatic little piece entitled "Madeline" and another called "Ewig Du." In listening to these works, I couldn't help reflecting on the similar style of Karim Al-Zand which I had listened to the day before (see my review elsewhere in this issue). A similarly light approach to composing, but what a difference in quality! Every single piece in Getty's suite sparkles with not only wit but invention; there are, indeed, touches of polytonality or atonality here and there; and the music holds your attention. (And yes, I think that even a child, at least one over the age of six, will be attentive to Getty's pieces.) In a certain way, this suite is almost like Debussy's Children's Corner: The music is light in character but not in quality. It has sparkle, rhythmic drive, and also numerous little surprises within each vignette...particularly the "March-Sarabande-Presto," which starts out with a conventional (and tonal) march, but then veers towards a strangely modal and atmospheric "sarabande" before winding up with a quirky, bitonal Presto. Also the last two pieces, "Ewig Du" and "Finale," begin with the exact same little melody, but what stays relaxed and charming in the former quickly develops into a swirling mélange of sound, becomes quiet and mysterious, and then suddenly ends.
The Three Traditional Pieces begin with the Irish-tinged "Fiddler of Ballykeel," yet once again Getty's vivid imagination takes him onto side paths in his musical excursion. "Tiefer und Tiefer" (Deeper and deeper) is a slow waltz, while "Ehemals" (Formerly) is a lively piece that Getty once again breaks up into smaller musical fragments and puts together again in his own unique and charming way. First Adventure and Raise the Colors are brief, simple works, much like the component parts of the Homework Suite, but the Andantino is quite fine, with a quirky and unexpected atonal bridge, while the Scherzo Pensieroso wends its quirky way along a path of finely chosen single notes in the upper range of the keyboard, meeting the left hand in the middle before the latter rolls its way into a faster tempo, in which the left joins it for a bit of minor-key fun. Getty's music often has that effect on me: It raises my good-humor level.
Pianist Conrad Tao, with whom I was unfamiliar, plays these works with a great deal of charm and warmth, and in Gordon Getty's world charm is half the musical content... On musical grounds, this disc is a winner.
Sang Woo Kang, Piano Pieces
American Record Guide
Tao's recording of Getty's piano pieces offers a hearing of seven works spanning the breadth of the composer-philanthropist's career. The miniatures on this recording are playful and simplistic. They do not threaten or disturb.
Some listeners might find this refreshing, but Getty's stubbornly tonal language might be a detriment to the sense he tries to capture. He says of his compositions, "Whatever it was that the great Victorian composers and poets were trying to achieve, that's what I'm trying to achieve." It is hard to tell whether that is apparent here. When I think of Victorian poetry, I associate it with elegiac melancholy and the "long, withdrawing roar" in the sound- scape of Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach', or the anguish and dejection that borders religious crisis in Gerard Manley Hopkins's later poetry. If this is the case, Getty's pleasant tonal language is not very well suited to Victorian poetry. This is true for his other literary influences: I hear nothing of Edgar Allan Poe in the Ancestor Suite. In fact, if not for some Internet research, I would never have guessed that the pieces derived from a ballet on Fall of the House of Usher. A more varied harmonic vocabulary might have helped him convey Poe better, if that was his intention....
When compared to Dorken's Janacek or Koroliov's Prokofieff, these pieces cannot help but sound like an attractive surface, pretty but never going beneath that. Nevertheless, this is light, brief, and pleasing.
Georgia Rowe, Four Traditional Pieces
San Francisco Classical Voice
Getty's lovely Four Traditional Pieces opened the program in a performance of disarming sonorities. Each episode in the quartet explores harmonic conventions through a distinctly nostalgic lens; the music's echoes of vivacious dance tunes and sweet, folk-tinged melodies recall the parlor songs of a bygone era. With Salerno-Sonnenberg spinning out the solo violin part with warm, yearning tone, the score made an apt curtain-raiser…
Michael White, Opera Now, Plump Jack
Plump Jack is Getty's addition to the growing library of operas based on the figure of Falstaff; and to be treading where masters from Verdi to Vaughan Williams have gone before (with varying success) is bold…His music doesn't dazzle with technical achievement or melodic richness. It can sound mechanical, congested, like Prokofiev without the tunes. But there's an urgency, a sharpness of attack, and a determination in the writing that excites the ear. It's not to be dismissed. When critics do dismiss it, one suspects an extra-musical agenda colouring their words.
Stephen Eddins, Plump Jack
Getty writes mostly in a lyrical post-Straussian idiom. The opera has many lovely sections, especially when characters are expressing tender emotion, and from moment to moment the music is engaging, but a sense of dramatic direction and momentum is missing. Getty's vocal writing is characteristic of many mid- to late 20th century American operas that use a conservative harmonic palette; it's pleasantly lyrical, a sort of heightened recitative that only rarely bursts into sustained, memorable gestures or melodies that drive the drama forward. The choral sections are some of the opera's most attractive, and the orchestration is skillful, varied, and inventive.
Lynn René Bayley, Fanfare, Plump Jack
I couldn't escape the feeling here that without a visual (stage) image to accompany it, this music — though well written — conveys more atmosphere than characterization. In fact, this is my general impression of the entire score (or, I should say, as much of it as is presented here). There is much to admire in Getty's imaginative use of modal harmonies, the richness of his orchestration using surprisingly simple forces, and his occasional use of authentic pieces from Shakespeare's time…but the broken-recitative style of much of the music mitigates against full enjoyment without seeing the characters onstage. In this respect, and I do not make the comparison lightly, Plump Jack is a work somewhat akin to Britten's Death in Venice…Getty also manages to evoke, without copying, Britten's mature style in the scene of Pistol's blustering (“Pistol's News”), who the composer compares to Yosemite Sam, and there is some truly dramatic, stabbing music in the banishment scene. I keep feeling that the orchestral music would also go better if this were a live performance. There is just too much of a stop-start, episodic feeling to it as a purely listening experience. What we really need is a Plump Jack DVD, and the whole score, in order to judge it more fairly. Yet in many ways, you can say the same thing of Verdi's Falsaff, so this is certainly not an indictment against Getty's composition. For those who enjoy Getty's music (and I am certainly one of them), this disc may very well be indispensable to your collection. For the rest, perhaps, maybe, we'll get the real, full Plump Jack and be able to fully involve ourselves in its wonderful if discursive musical intricacies.
American Record Guide, Plump Jack
Getty may have been worried about writing too long an opera, but I would have welcomed more. He has a real knack for setting words well and sensibly…His spare orchestration can be quite vivid (as in the final scene). He compares much of what he writes to movie music, citing such characters as Sylvester, Tweety, Yosemite Sam, and Mr Magoo, which is perhaps carrying self-denigration too far. Plump Jack is far more sophisticated than anything from Looney Tunes and would probably be effective on stage for an audience already familiar with Shakespeare's plays. One of the most familiar lines from Henry V is given to Pistol: “O for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.” How bright a heaven Getty ascends should probably be decided by each individual listener. I loved Nell's heartfelt eulogy for the dead Falstaff, “Nay, sure, he's not in hell, he's in Arthur's bosom,” and the byplay among Falstaff, Bardolph, Shallow, and Pistol earlier on; the speeches of the two kings are rather stiff and less striking. We've reviewed quite a lot of Getty's music in ARG (check the index), and our critics have generally been positive. Here's another interesting recording to add to the list.
Klassik, Plump Jack
(translated from German) The libretto and music at first glance take a story-telling attitude…It is hard to imagine that a staged version of the opera works well, but on the other hand it may work well indeed. Plump Jack clearly offers two things: a high class Shakespearean text and catchy music, the entertainment value of which should not be underestimated.
Janos Gereben, Ancestor Suite
San Francisco Classical Voice
The evening opened with a surprise.... This was Oath of the Ushers, to a score by Gordon Getty, a complex, strange 30-minute work. It is a movement from Getty's Ancestor Suite, the story based on Poe's 1839 The Fall of the House of Usher, about the mysterious destruction of the Ushers' immortality....
Getty has long concentrated on Ancestor Suite, having The Oath of Ushers movement premiered by the Bolshoi dancers and RNO in 2009, in Moscow, Perm, Voronezh, and Krasnoyarsk. Friday night was the U.S. premiere.
Besides the dancers' performance, the good thing about this dramatic discombobulation is the music, perhaps Getty's best. It begins as gentle circus music, transforming into something reminiscent of Prokofiev ballets, and ending in hesitating, stretched-out phrases. It could work well as abstract music, without reference to Ushers, et.al.
Jason Victor Serinus, Plump Jack
It has been a long time coming, but Gordon Getty's most widely discussed composition, the opera Plump Jack, has finally made it to disc — the 75-minute concert version, that is, which omits two of the opera's scenes. And while it's not clear that we as yet have the opera in final form — since the first performance of the “Boar's Head Inn” scene (Act 1, Scene 5) at San Francisco Symphony in 1985, 11 additional scenes and an 11 minute and 18 second long overture have been added and orchestrated, and the entire opera has been recently revised — what we do have is an engaging musical enterprise that invites critical commentary.
With a libretto that Getty himself adapted, in large part, from Shakespeare's Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V, Plump Jack follows the rotund Falstaff, the elder King Henry IV, Henry's son Hal (eventually Henry V), and their not-so-merrie comrades, cohorts, and acquaintances through a series of ambushes, schemes, and deaths. Although I am far from a Shakespeare scholar, both SFCV editor and musicologist Michael Zwiebach and UC Berkeley Shakespeare scholar Hugh Macrae Richmond's video collection of Shakespeare stagings confirm that the Falstaff of these plays, who predates the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor, is a dissolute knight whose wit, in Zwiebach's words, “is razor sharp and not clownish.” The earlier Falstaff's actions, he writes, “show a man with a significant dark side,” one capable of cheating men, both honorable and far less so. In short, Getty's title, Plump Jack, may suggest a barrel of belly laughs, but neither libretto nor music invites such.
Getty pulls no punches when discussing his compositional aesthetic. In the remarkably candid liner notes to the superbly recorded Pentatone hybrid SACD release, he acknowledges that his music is derivative: "I find it much easier to rank my favorite composers, past and present, than to figure out which ones have influenced my music. … I am something like an unwed mother who cannot name the father. What I hear more of [in Plump Jack] is movie music.… Movies, after all, are spoken operas where the score tells us what to expect and how things feel."
This quasi-cinematic opera's extended overture, wonderfully performed by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under the baton of Ulf Schirmer, immediately signals what's in store. The music may be tonal in the traditional sense, yet its dark drama, arresting percussive exclamations, and intriguing dynamic contrasts immediately draw us — certainly me — in. Most of the ensuing dialogue far more resembles speech than melody, with Getty's notably rich and compelling orchestration conveying the underlying emotions.
Many of the oft double-cast singers, including the well-known soprano Melody Moore (singing Boy/Clarence), mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer (Hostess Nell Quickly), bass-baritone Christopher Robertson (Henry IV/Pistol), tenor Nikolai Schukoff (Hal/Henry V), and baritone Nathaniel Webster (Bardolph/Chief Justice), sound reasonably like you'd expect their characters to sound. The big puzzlement is baritone Lester Lynch as Falstaff. He has a fine voice, with lots of strength, but the crucial flaws, irony, and nervy humor that are essential to drawing a compelling characterization of Falstaff are absent. Getty's orchestration says one thing, yet Lynch's vocal quality and inflections do nothing to send it across the imagined footlights.
Nonetheless, Getty's writing retains its eloquence. Even as I acknowledge that I want the opera to succeed — Getty is, after all, one of the Bay Area's and the world's great music and education philanthropists, whose generosity enables a host of organizations (including SFCV) to perform with excellence — I can honestly affirm that much of it does. The immensely colorful overture may be too long to present online, but the two scenes excerpted herein (albeit in sonically compromised 320 kbps MP3 form) should certainly give you a good sense of how much there is in Plump Jack to enjoy and savor.
Jeff Dunn, Homework Suite
San Francisco Classical Voice
The opening night concert at Oakland's Paramount Theatre for the OEBS officially celebrated Democracy, in tune with the recent national election. As Music Director Michael Morgan's "Message from the Maestro" put it:
We should celebrate the fact that we live in a country where nearly everyone is eligible to vote and therefore has a role in running the Republic. There has been a great and historical struggle to bring us to this point and for those who choose to participate, it is a moment that brings us together....
The concert began with American Fanfare (1985) by the African-American educator Adolphus Cunningham Hailstork... Next came the lightly scored Homework Suite (1961-62) by Bay Area composer and philanthropist Gordon Getty, written while he was a conservatory student. Its five very short unassuming movements run eight minutes in total. The most memorable is the first, "Seascape," which suggests a calm but wistful day on a lonely shore by means of a beautiful but unexploited melody for oboe.
John Allison, Plump Jack
BBC Music Magazine
It cannot be easy being a venture capitalist and philanthropist – once listed by Forbes as America's richest man – and expect to be taken seriously as a composer. Equally, it can't be easy for artists or record companies, however serious, to resist any offers of working on such a man's music. So it is also difficult to overlook these issues when approaching this new CD of Gordon Getty's opera Plump Jack, which unbiased ears will probably hear as no worse – and no better – than many contemporary operas. Plump Jack scrapes into the ‘contemporary' category, however, only on account of being written (in stages) over recent decades. Getty is a ‘neo-con' composer, whose style here ranges from harmless film music in the unduly long overture, to sub‑Wagnerian recitative for most of the vocal scenes.
Basing his opera on Shakespeare, Getty is of course pitting himself against Verdi. Getty's opera is stuffed with period-evoking quotations, and even this shortened ‘concert version', squeezed on to a single disc, feels long and unmemorable.
Lou Fancher, Homework Suite
Contra Costa Times
Bay Area composer Gordon Getty's earliest piano pieces emerged in the symphonic world premiere of "Homework Suite," a collection of five movements whose only disappointment was their brevity. From the mesmerizing "Seascape" through "Giga's" Irish-laced jig to the galloping "Night Horses," the symphony here demonstrated what was to be the evening's shining achievement: a tenacious command of American composers' widely diverging styles.
Ralph Lucano, Plump Jack
American Record Guide
Getty may have been worried about writing too long an opera, but I would have welcomed more. He has a real knack for setting words well and sensibly, but he deprives us of almost all of the most famous lines from the plays--no "Uneasy lies the head", no St Crispin's day speech. To reinforce the realism of his story, he quotes some Renaissance music and Latin plainchant. His spare orchestration can be quite vivid (as in the final scene). He compares much of what he writes to movie music, citing such characters as Sylvester, Tweety, Yosemite Sam, and Mr Magoo, which is perhaps carrying self-denigration too far. Plump Jack is far more sophisticated than anything from Looney Tunes and would probably be effective on stage for an audience already familiar with Shakespeare's plays.
One of the most familiar lines from Henry V is given to Pistol: "O for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention." How bright a heaven Getty ascends should probably be decided by each individual listener. I loved Nell's heartfelt eulogy for the dead Falstaff, "Nay, sure, he's not in hell, he's in Arthur's bosom", and the byplay among Fal staff, Bardolph, Shallow, and Pistol earlier on; the speeches of the two kings are rather stiff and less striking.
We've reviewed quite a lot of Getty's music in ARG (check the index), and our critics have generally been positive. Here's another interesting recording to add to the list.
Aimee Tsao, Ancestor Suite
The opening Oath of the Ushers, based on Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, has surprises both good and bad. Under the baton of Emil de Cou, currently Music Director and principal conductor at Pacific Northwest Ballet, the orchestra brings to life the original score by San Francisco-based composer Gordon Getty from his Ancestors Suite. The combination of an experienced ballet conductor with a talented ensemble highlights the composition's structure, shifting between neo-classical and a more contemporary feeling while still providing a clear rhythmic framework for the dancers.
Jeffrey Williams, The White Election
New York Concert Review
The work has the flavor of the 19th century salon. The writing is strictly tonal, with the occasional dissonance. Mr. Getty has a definite talent for setting text to music in a fluent, natural way, but his skeletal writing for the piano accompaniment lent a monochromatic element to many of the songs. One might call this an astute choice by the composer, in keeping with the style of Dickinson (which a Dickinson-loving colleague calls “close to the bone”). Also, there was a heavy reliance on recitative, which could give the listener the impression that there is not enough melodic material for the great number of poems chosen. One would have to admit, though, that some of the songs were quite striking and effective and could be done independently of the entire cycle. “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed” had a saucy, playful quality; “My First Well Day, Since Many Ill” had the soprano and pianist in perfect union; and “I Like to See it Lap the Miles” had delicate beauty in the piano writing (which proves that Mr. Getty has the ability to write effectively for the piano). Finally, “There Came a Wind like a Bugle” can hold its own with Copland's setting of the same poem. To this listener, it was the highlight of the entire cycle. “The White Election” is at once sublime, primitive, clever, repetitive, innocent, morose, and compelling—just like Emily Dickinson herself.
John Sunier, Audiophile Audition, Orchestral Works
The vocal works of San Francisco-based Gordon Getty have been the major part of his compositional ouevre as well as previous recordings. So it is a change of pace here to focus strictly on the instrumental music of this composer who proclaims himself “two-thirds 19th century.” He writes in an essentially conservative style while observing: ‘“there's still a great deal to be said in C Major”…The opening overture is from probably his best-known work, his opera on Shakespeare's fat and funny character Falstaff. It is filled with good humor, but ends with a baleful sound representing Prince Hal's banishment of Falstaff. The eleven short sections of the Ancestor Suite are from a Getty ballet which was premiered in Moscow in 2009 and is based on the 1839 Poe short story The Fall of the House of Usher. Some of the movements sound perfectly tuneful and upbeat, while others have a subtle macabre edge to them as befits the stimulus for the ballet…The usual excellent hi-res surround quality provided by PentaTone makes it easy for those of us not heavily into vocal music to get a taste of the instrumental compositional style of Gordon Getty.
Dan Morgan, Orchestral Works
Music Web International
The rumbustious opening to Plump Jack instantly suggests Malcolm Arnold, but without the latter's volatility and wit. Simply scored, it's played with all the elegance one expects of this band. The recording is equally refined, the snare drum and harp wonderfully tactile and the brass well blended. It's enjoyable enough, albeit in a slightly anodyne way…Getty's Ancestor Suite, from his ballet based on Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, is well crafted but ultimately rather leaden—not at all what one expects from a dance score. There are pleasing instrumental touches, the vaulting brass figures in the Waltz – Ländler especially attractive, and there are more than a few memories of Copland at his most homespun. As for the Polka – Polonaise, there's a hint of Arnold's Tam O'Shanter, the ensuing Gavotte most gracefully turned…”
Anna Reguero, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Orchestral Works
Not many contemporary composers call themselves two-thirds 19th Century in style, but San Francisco composer Getty makes no apologies for his use of traditional composition techniques. Nonetheless, his compositions are anything but regurgitated material. There are always surprises and unique colors to be found, always written with detailed attention to orchestration and character. This PentaTone Classics release paints Getty as someone adept in varied styles, from opera suites to busy marches, and from transparent textures to colorful marches.
Jeff Simon, Buffalo News, Orchestral Works
A scrupulous and appealing performance of Getty's charming, if unremarkable, music…
Kevin Filipski, Orchestral Works
The Flip Side
Gordon Getty…composes facile but propulsive music, to which this CD makes a good introduction. In the space of 12 minutes, the delectable overture to his opera Plump Jack, based on Shakespeare's immortal Falstaff, creates a juicy musical characterization of the Bard's unforgettable fat man. The discs' other works, which include the Ancestor Suite and the Homework Suite, have the same attractive qualities as the overture, and they are all played robustly by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner.
Lynn René Bayley, Fanfare, Orchestral Works
Gordon Getty, who describes himself as “two-thirds a 19th-century composer,” is nevertheless a creative and original one and, as this CD proves, the other one-third makes its presence felt often enough to provide interest and flexibility…. The performances by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields display this orchestra's metamorphosis from its chamber roots in the 1960s to its more robust sound today. PentaTone's sound, undeniably resonant as a result of SACD mastering, is nevertheless clear and transparent at all times.
Barry Kilpatrick, Orchestral Music
American Record Guide
Gordon Getty...[is] a fine composer who speaks a very tonal language. This collection of orchestral works shows that, while vocal music is Getty's specialty, he obviously has no trouble working with instruments.
The 12-minute Overture to Plump Jack (Shakespeare's nickname for Falstaff) is a collection of loosely connected themes and episodes, some contemplative, others dramatic, all easy on the ears. Ancestor Suite (2009) is a ballet score written for the Russian National Orchestra. The 12-movement, 36-minute work is about Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, where the living (Poe and friends) meet the immortal members of the Usher family at a ball. Much of the time, you'd swear you are hearing 19th century ballet music, but the interesting twists and turns are contemporary.
'Tiefer und Tiefer' (Deeper and Deeper, 1991) is a haunting little waltz. Homework Suite is an orchestrated version of a piano piece Getty wrote in 1964; its five little movements are character-pieces with solo lines for oboe, piccolo, violin, English horn, and harp. 'The Fiddler of Ballykeel' and 'Raise the Colors' salute Getty's Irish roots.
If you want new music that sounds old yet fresh, this is for you.
Robert Benson, Orchestral Works
Classical CD Review
Getty's attempts at composing are admirable, and he is to be commended for writing music that most listeners find very pleasant to hear, even though it is far removed from major musical statements. He knows how to orchestrate, and this new SACD shows him in a lighter mood: the overture to his opera Plump Jack, two colorful orchestral suites, and two pleasant miniatures. Distinguished conductor Sir Neville Marriner (b. 1924) leads vigorous performances of this pleasant music, and it has been very well recorded in surround sound that keeps the orchestra in front.
Rita Felciano, The White Election
Soprano Kristin Clayton performed a selection from Gordon Getty's The White Election, a song cycle based on Dickinson's poetry. Getty is a rather conservative composer but these settings display lovely vocal lines and a deft sense for the poetry. Some of them tend toward the operatic - especially as interpreted by Clayton - but others are elegiac or wispy and reminiscent of folk songs.
Jason Victor Serinus, And If the Song Be Worth A Smile
San Francisco Classical Voice
These three songs are immensely enjoyable. Sung with considerable feeling by Delan, the songs in Getty's vision of Elizabethan England (or thereabouts) are distinguished by haunting lyricism and, in “Tune the Fiddle,” by body-engaging rhythms.
Dominy Clements, And If the Song Be Worth A Smile
Gordon Getty's set of three songs Poor Peter is well crafted…
Jason Victor Serinus, Orchestral Works
San Francisco Classical Voice
A joyful experience, overflowing with lovely, richly scored pieces…Listening to this disc would be a genial way to spend the afternoon.
Benjamin Fontvella, Diverdi, Orchestral Works
(Translated from Spanish) Gordon Getty says of himself that he is “seventy percent a nineteenth century composer,” and so he is, but it appears that the other thirty percent channels Copland, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, and that isn't a bad thing…The truth is that these pieces are very enjoyable: his music is sweet, delicate, simple, easy, and sentimental. That this approach is the most hated by the old guard of the 1970s and today's academia doesn't seem to keep people from enjoying it…Those who like to listen to all kinds of music…can have a good time with this disc.
Hans Visser, Gooi en Eemlander, Orchestral Works
Gordon Getty is mainly known for his vocal works but that he writes very well for orchestra proves the CD Orchestral Works. Neville Marriner leads the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in contemporary music that touches the listener surprisingly well. It begins with the overture to his opera Plump Jack. American Getty, in his sixties, does not feel embarrassed to say that for two/thirds he stands in the nineteenth century. That other part is responsible for the fact that his music sounds everything but old-fashioned. Stravinsky, Copland and Prokofiev have inspired him here and there without affecting his originality. For example the Ancestor Suite smells very American although it is a series of old European dances: waltz, Scottish dance, polka, gavotte and sarabande. It is very colourful composed ballet-music, inspired by the story The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe. A beauty is Tiefer und Tiefer for strings. What a splendid intense sounding simplicity. The Homework Suite opens seductively with an oboe part, followed in the other small movements with beautiful, dancing-like roles for the other soloists. With The Fiddler of Ballykeel he refers catchingly to a neighbourhood near Belfast where his ancestors came from. Raising the Colors is a beautiful fanfare-like encore for brass, virtuoso finished with wood and strings. Not only in super audio this music is a surprise.
Classical CD Review, The White Election
Gems don't make jewelry. The most blinding fact about Gordon Getty is his share of the Getty fortune. In many ways, it has obscured his work. Getty came to study composition in his late twenties, somewhat after most composers get started. Despite his training, he has never struck me as a professional composer in the sense that someone like Morton Gould was -- rather a gifted amateur, most comfortable with small forms. Perhaps the fact that he's never had to earn a living at it has hindered him, although money certainly never hindered Elliot Carter. On the other hand, his music certainly stands apart from various academic trends. Primarily a vocal composer, Getty turns out mainly small pieces. The White Election is one of his more extensive works and probably one of his most performed.
I'm probably not the person from whom to expect a sympathetic review, since I dislike most of Emily Dickinson's poetry. The monotony of the hymn meters drives me nuts, and I often feel as if she's merely pushing around Big Words, a kind of fill-in-the-blanks. No poet myself, I can nevertheless fall into her idiom very easily:
If angels dance around the sky
To lie stock-still in bed would be
Anathema to me.
I have no idea what it means, since it might mean so many things, and furthermore I wrote it just now, in under two minutes. Can anybody tell me by internal evidence why it wouldn't be included in an Emily Dickinson anthology? Consequently, for me a composer must find both a way to subvert her rhythms as well as a musical line interesting in itself, since the poems by and large don't interest me in themselves. In both respects, Ernst Bacon's Dickinson's settings seem right to me, as does Aaron Copland's magnificent cycle 12 Poems by Emily Dickinson, a monument of American art song.
Getty gets through with mixed results. He began with the conceit that Dickinson wrote the poems to be sung to melodies she composed. It's not a far-fetched notion. We do know she was musical and liked to improvise at the piano. Getty accordingly comes up with an idiom that links to 19th-century parlor music with some surprises thrown in, a musical equivalent of Dickinson's verse. It reminds me greatly of Virgil Thomson's faux-naïveté. Accompaniments are generally simple, sometimes downright sparse. Following Thomson is no easy task, and Getty does pretty well without falling into mere imitation. I consider every individual song sensitively, often beautifully, set. The problem is, with thirty-two of them, Getty doesn't escape the charge of repetitiveness. Too many songs fall into the Dickinson trademark rhythm. Getty overuses certain melodic tropes, blameless in themselves ("mi-sol-do-mi" started to grate on me after a while). Certainly, Getty wants a complete recording, but I question whether he's written a real cycle. I don't find a meta-narrative that takes in the whole, as I do in Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin or Winterreise. One could switch songs from one of the four major sections to another, and not affect the overall impression of the cycle at all. One listens to the entire piece with difficulty, although in short bursts it's fine. Thank goodness for programmable CD players.
I complain not at all about the performers. Soprano Lisa Delan sings beautifully, with careful attention to the musical phrasing and to the meaning of the poems. Few sing English words better than she. Getty has given the pianist little to do, but Fritz Steinegger gets more meaning into a single note than I'll bet even the composer knew was there.
S.G.S. (April 2010)
Phil Muse, And If The Song Be Worth A Smile
Gordon Getty's settings of three of his own poems, ranging from the delicate tracery of Where is My Lady, (“In footfall and starfall again and again, / beauty and grace she is, beauty and grace / Hang in the air like chimes when she goes by”) to the rousing, stamping high spirits of Tune the Fiddle and the poignant sense of pristine beauty lost in, bring forth an impressive range of interpretive responses from Delan, in collaboration with the sensitive accompaniment of pianist Kristin Pankonin. “Upon a day, along a way, / I met a child. / She said, “˜Come find me if you can: / you lost me when the world began.' / I asked her meaning but she ran / into the wild.”
Sandra M. Gilbert, The White Election
Kathryn Roszak's Pensive Spring—A Portrait of Emily Dickinson, onstage at the Berkeley City Club on October 19, offered spoken, sung, and danced performances of magical words from the great poet's letters and poems... Her portrait of the artist in "pensive spring" locates Dickinson in a season of writing, reading, and reaching out to the world, with her extraordinary language uttered in rich, suave cadences. And these keenly shaped cadences are reinforced by Gordon Getty's music, vigorously rendered by Kristin Clayton's strong and skilled soprano.
Rendered with equal vigor at the piano by Kristin Pankonin, Getty's music also shapes and shadows the impassioned dancing of Hally Bellah-Guther, who sweeps across the stage like an embodiment of the yearning soul that Dickinson's poems often simultaneously reveal and conceal....
Phil Muse, The White Election
These 32 poems that Gordon Getty has set to music have the thematic and musical unity to constitute a real cycle. The subject is Death (the “White election” of the title), and the poems look at the subject subjectively from every angle. Getty organizes them in four Groups: 1, The Pensive Spring; 2, So We Must Meet Apart; 3, Almost Peace; and 4, My Feet Slip Nearer. A noticeable progression occurs as the poet delves ever deeper into the mysteries of life and death, which are not the diametric opposites we commonly imagine.
As scholars have observed, Dickinson's poetry seems to spring from origins in church music, especially in the shape of her discrete four-line stanzas, though the flow of the thought often carries over between those stanzas, and they are not as foursquare metrically as many church hymns often are. Getty conjectures that Dickinson, who had studied voice and piano, must have set many of her poems to music for her own satisfaction. These “odd, old tunes” (her description) were certainly not intended for publication, which would have been out of character for someone who never sought to publish her poetry during her lifetime. In setting them to music, Getty confides, “I have set them, in large part, just as Emily might have if her music had found a balance between tradition and iconoclasm something like that in her poems.”
As played by Fritz Steinegger, the perfect partner for Ms. Delan in this recital, the piano accompaniment is ideally suited to the sense of the lyrics. It seldom takes the form of a florid line, but usually occurs in the form of widely spaced chords or even single notes, either quietly stated or powerfully expressed, depending on the emotion of the poetic line. Occasionally it becomes more florid, as it does in a poem that celebrates the reunion of mother and son in death after many years, he a recent casualty in one of the Civil War's terrible battles... The vigorously extended piano introduction before the first stanza suggests the rapid call of bugles; in this case, the martial music is both unusual and appropriate to the idea of death as a victory over the unnatural pain of separation, numbed though it may be with the passing years....
Of course, even a first acquaintance with Dickinson's poetry gives you the impression that it is at the same time simple in form and very sophisticated, both in her daring use of approximate and vowel rhymes and in the way a simple declaration or a striking images can resonate with meanings far beyond the stave's end. You can't just set them to music and sing them without interpreting fine nuances of significance. To that purpose, Getty's song accompaniments often continue beyond the last stanza, extending and amplifying the mood and purpose of the poem...
Ivan March, Orchestral Works
There are a growing number of composers of a new generation who are writing music aimed at the ordinary music lover, and who have returned to the idea that music should be both tuneful and directly communicative. Gordon Getty...shows that the tuneful contagion has spread across the Atlantic and, fascinatingly and unexpectedly, his melodic style is in no way jazz-based. “I am two-thirds a 19th-century composer,” he has remarked without apology. His opera Plump Jack tracks the fictional career of Shakespeare's Falstaff and the Overture portrays its hero with jollity and pathos, if not a great deal of wit. But the Ancestor and Homework Suites offer a winning series of orchestral miniatures, beautifully, sometimes robustly scored.
There is much gossamer delicacy in the strings in the lovely Berceuse from the Homework Suite, and also the tenderly delightful portrait of Madeline in the Ancestor Suite. This is part of a ballet based on Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher and the following number, “Ewig Du”, describes Madeline's sinister final dance to her death.
Getty is taken with writing waltz themes and there are some memorable examples here. The opening “Seascape” of Tiefer und Tiefer is hauntingly memorable, while the following “Giga” using solo piccolo and violin makes a piquant contrast. The Fiddler of Ballykeelis engagingly, rhythmically folksy, while Raise the Colors is spectacularly scored for wind and percussion with roistering horns, to close the programme in the highest of spirits. Marriner and the Academy play all this music with great character and finesse, and the pianissimo strings are often exquisitely beautiful. Very good, resonantly realistic recording, though careful balancing between the four speakers is essential. If you admire melodies, as do I, there are plenty to enjoy here.
Greg Stepanich, La Belle Dame sans Merci
Palm Beach Arts Paper
Getty's tonal language here was modern but conservative and evoked the gloom of the poem's famous lines — The sedge has wither'd from the lake/And no birds sing — with slow, stern phrases and the kinds of harmonies that were similar to Prokofiev's, especially when heard back-to-back.
Stephen Estep, Orchestral Works
American Record Guide
I love tonal music. I love modern music. I even generally like modern tonal music. As Gordon Getty himself says, "there is still plenty to be said in C major". Whatever can be said in C major, however (music is not a zero-sum game), could certainly be said with more originality - and fewer cloying melodies and anemic harmonies. Andrew Lloyd Webber's melodies are at least pretty; most revivalist hymns have more interesting harmonic progressions; even some Czerny etudes have more wit than this....
Other works of Getty's have been praised in these pages, but there's no musical thought here that couldn't be written better by someone else.
American Record Guide, The White Election
Gordon Getty (b. 1933) has written mostly for the voice, and The White Election stands as a clear masterpiece...Each work here is a small jewel and should please just about anyone, whether you're familiar with Emily Dickinson's poetry or not.
Fanfare, The White Election
Getty is a skilled and imaginative composer who does, in fact, use dissonance to create tension and, as he says, "to suggest a degree of disorientation." His music is melodic, often tuneful, but always well crafted...
Joshua Rosenblum, The White Election
With only a few exceptions, the songs are simple–even simplistic, as if the compower were channeling music that Dickinson herself, an amateur pianist and singer, could have come up with for her own poems. As Getty puts it in the notes, “I have set them, in large part, just as Emily might have if her music had found a balance between tradition and iconoclasm something like that in her poems.”
Mary Kunz Goldman, The White Election
Getty, in this well-traveled 1981 song cycle, wisely matches the poetry's no-frills tone...It's touching how he takes her words to heart.
Joanne Sydney Lessner, And If The Song Be Worth A Smile
Getty gives [soprano Lisa Delan] room to soar, particularly in “Where is my Lady?”
Robert Commanday, Overture to Plump Jack
San Francisco Classical Voice
The [Overture to Plump Jack] benefiting from considerable re-working by the composer since it first appeared, is the sampler type of opera overture, incorporating several prominent themes such as martial flourishes in the brass referring to Henry V's battles in France, and comic characterizations. The orchestra played it well under the evening's guest conductor, self-assured, young, Mexican Alondra de la Parra, who secured the many quick tempo and mood changes. The Plump Jack Overture ends not with a bang but quietly, meaning to segue into the opera. For performance by itself, it could benefit from an alternative concert ending....
Chris Mullins, Poor Peter
Gordon Getty composed the texts for his Poor Peter, three songs in faux-19th century folk mode, with touches of chromatic modernity in the accompaniments, more ostentation than inspiration.
Scott Foglesong, Young America
San Francisco Examiner
A fascinating and extremely expressive work written by a man who is not only one of the City's most generous musical patrons, but a fine composer in his own right.
Walter Simmons, Poor Peter
I have not been terribly impressed by the music I've heard by Gordon Getty. Though I have no problem with his brazen musical conservatism, I find his work too complacent in inhabiting the styles of the past, with the result that a strong individual personality fails to emerge. Poor Peter, set to three texts by the composer himself, and written for Delan, is a modem romantic evocation of the world of "Merrie aide England." These songs are more effective than much of Getty's music that I've heard, although I could have done without the foot-stomping in the second song.
Terry McNeill, Four Dickinson Songs
San Francisco Classical Voice
Often the repertoire and locale of summer festivals seem, on first glance, a disconcerting mix, as the music we are used to hearing in a formal concert hall setting doesn't smoothly combine with bucolic surroundings. This anomaly kept coming to mind while attending the July 16 concert at Napa Valley's Festival Del Sole, produced at Castello di Amorosa....
Before 450 people, in the Castle's sun-spotted courtyard, two big repertoire mainstays, featuring two international stars, were preceded by a premiere, Gordon Getty's Four Dickinson Songs.
The radiant soprano was Lisa Delan, singing with clear diction and chaste phrasing. All four songs had bantamweight endings, with “There's a Certain Slant of Light” and the famous “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” especially telling. Most of these works lie comfortably in the middle range, and Delan's narrow vibrato and palpable emotion seemed just right for each. Pianist Kristin Pankonin was an attentive and often forceful accompanist.
Robert P. Commanday, Plump Jack
San Francisco Classical Voice
Opera throughout its first three centuries has depended on private underwriting, aristocratic and otherwise. Where before has the composer himself been the patron? And why not?
Plump Jack, San Francisco composer and philanthropist Gordon Getty's favorite obsession, has gone far as a piece since its 1984 San Francisco Symphony premiere. While writing other pieces, Getty has worked and reworked it continuously. Lines have been simplified, music adjusted and replaced, orchestration revised, and other trims made, similar to the "editing " musicals and even some operas regularly undergo.
So it was that an essentially new opera, born, cultivated, and fledged in San Francisco, took off on a great journey last week — and probably a unique operatic adventure. Getty's Plump Jack, with a crack cast, put in first in Albuquerque, where the New Mexico Symphony, a solid orchestra, took it under its wing, playing most of Act II in concert May 11 and 12. Next stop, Mazatlán, Mexico, for the entire opera in concert at the jewel-box 19th-century Angela Peralta Theater last Friday, the cast joining up with a new yet surprisingly sharp symphony orchestra and opera chorus from Culiacán (the capital of Sinaloa province). Who knew?
It went over very well with the audience of largely local residents who had streamed in from a lively, colorful old-town plaza, filling the theater, anticipation high. Supratitles in Spanish conveyed the sense of the strictly Shakespeare text (mostly from Henry IV), and the eight visiting American singers brought the intricate play alive. This is a veritable pageant with vivid characterizations and a complex score, a tough order to bring off in concert, minus the 16th-century costumery, Shakespeare-styled scenery, and broad stage caperings — the rowdy roistering of the outrageous Sir John Falstaff, Pistol, Bardolph, Nell Quickly, and company. Yet, with the high-powered baritone Steven Condy as Falstaff front and center, setting the broad vocal and gestural scale of the performance, and with conductor Gordon Campbell's orchestra keeping Getty's high-contrast sonic "staging" on track, the piece worked.
Condy produced a torrent of energy, a whole glossary of Falstaffian gestures and mercurial changes in expression and voice. From sly, undertone asides to climactic rousing high Gs, his baritone was potent and pervasive. He was Falstaff — Getty's Plump Jack.
The pageant opera courses through 12 scenes, two or three of them a little slow. Getty sets up the glorious excesses and consequences of Falstaff's riotous behavior and Prince Hal's involvement with that gang. Hal then repents and promises his aged and declining father, Henry IV, to reform. The fine tenor Robert Breault captured the opera's first telling moment, singing Hal's "I promise thee" and ending on a pianissimo high G. That is exactly paralleled or echoed when Hal later promises himself to banish Falstaff.
Playing the role of his father in comic play in the Boar's Head Inn, Hal had denounced the fat knight in every cutting way. Falstaff responded with his great scena, an aria that drives to its climax with the words "banish Plump Jack and banish all the world!" the last on a triumphing high G. Then in response but just to himself, Hal sings, "I do ... I will." The second words are on that self-same soft high G of his earlier promise. Following that, the first act concludes with Nell Quickly's declaration of love, touching the feelings as Zheng Cao sang it. Falstaff departs for Gloucestershire, ducking out of fighting in Henry IV's war against the rebels.
The opera's high point occurs after Falstaff has rushed to Westminster on the news of Henry IV's death, expecting to be embraced and elevated by the newly crowned Henry V. He is instead rejected and banished. The suspense at that moment is great, helped by the chorus' singing and shouting as a crowd and the orchestra's strong brass gestures. Breault made Hal's rejection of Falstaff devastating, his tenor lancing in clarion tones, his lines alternately pianissimo and raging forte. Condy dropped limp onto his chair in Plump Jack's sudden deflation, the single defeat of an indomitably pretentious life. It was a stirring moment, underscored with plangent music in the strings. The scene ends with the chorus chanting the "Agnus Dei ... Dona Nobis Pacem" that concluded the Mass of coronation.
Another strong juxtaposition followed, Pistol's announcement of Henry V's impending invasion of France and Henry V giving the rallying call to arms, cutting to the scene of Falstaff's cronies, grieving over the knight's impending death. "The king hath killed his heart," they sing. Then Zheng Cao was most moving with Quickly's poignant aria about his death. Without pause, we hear the English soldiers marching off to go to France, the "Agincourt Song" sung, a fleeting impression of bagpipes in the orchestra. The chorus bids them "Adieu ... Away, away" and sings a touching, soft, drawn-out "Farewell" to the troops, and implicitly to Falstaff, as well. The close is affecting. Getty's musical idiom is tonal, but not 19th century by a long shot, no more than that of others who write operas in the tonal idiom today: André Previn, Jake Heggie, Dominick Argento, and so on. The keys shift colorfully, the harmony stays on course, and the orchestration, vastly improved with Getty's reworkings over more than 20 years, is effective. Much of the musical continuity (and dramatic commentary) is in the orchestra as it supports the sung dramatic narrative. That in itself is too angular, disjunct, and often propulsive to be called simply "recitative." There is
Getty's musical idiom is tonal, but not 19th century by a long shot, no more than that of others who write operas in the tonal idiom today: André Previn, Jake Heggie, Dominick Argento, and so on. The keys shift colorfully, the harmony stays on course, and the orchestration, vastly improved with Getty's reworkings over more than 20 years, is effective. Much of the musical continuity (and dramatic commentary) is in the orchestra as it supports the sung dramatic narrative. That in itself is too angular, disjunct, and often propulsive to be called simply "recitative." There is generous and catchy melody in the orchestra, thematic elements that are expressive and recalled in association with dramatic ideas or moods, some that really stick. The overture introducing most of these is nicely done, but it's too long at 10 minutes.
The challenge for orchestra and singers alike is the rhythm, the score's constant change of tempo, the mercurial dialogue. Between the speech pattern of the Shakespeare text and the dramatic punctuation of that speech by the instruments, the music is exceptionally tricky. With all that in consideration, the clean performance that this large Mexican-American ensemble pulled off was impressive. Gordon Campbell, who has been drawing considerable talent from afar into this 62-piece orchestra, kept a firm rein on the ensemble and continuity. His orchestra musicians, of many nationalities, performed well. So did Sergio Martinez Chávez's 3-year-old opera chorus of 32 good singers. All Mexicans, they remained on top of the English text, much of it in fast dramatic responses.
A larger issue is the structural one. The opera wants a big line, a sweep, continuity, but the separation into a dozen scenes breaks the flow. Musical transitions between the scenes would help as might stronger, finality-defining cadences, or even scenic blackouts.
A Seasoned Cast
The eight principal singers, with their craft and significant experience, did much to compensate for that problem. Zheng Cao has sung six major roles with San Francisco Opera. Bass-baritone Bojan Knezevic, admired in his five major parts for the S.F. Opera, sang the role of the serving-man Davy with a strong, lusty fervor. He was also Henry IV, of an earnest dignity, his rich, deep voice conveying nobility. Tyler Nelson, a young tenor living in Florida, did a captivating number on Justice Shallow. His diction was impeccable and his animation as the silly, ridiculous squire won for him alone laughs that were independent of the lines. His bright, keenly focused, vibrant tenor invites Mozart. He has a big future.
Michael Dean played Falstaff's "lieutenant" Pistol, not as the scruffy rascal seen in the play but, in Getty's view of him, as an "important" stalwart show-off and a kind of herald. Dean's robust, resonant baritone was commanding, with a full and focused sonority. Mischa (for Michel) Bouvier, a young American baritone with an extraordinary and varied background for his years, has a firm, finely directed sound with a distinctive fast vibrato. He used it excellently as a lively Bardolph with a cockney accent. The part of the page, called "Boy," was sung by Robin Massie in a star-bright and shining high soprano, a lively persona.
In the earlier Albuquerque performances of May 10-12, the part of Prince Hal/Henry V was sung by great trouper William Lewis, riding a distinguished career. He gave it a fervency, authority, and projection for which he's always been known. The New Mexico Symphony and its fine 100-voice Symphony Chorus (Roger Melone, director), gave just the last four scenes of Plump Jack, beginning with Pistol's announcement of Henry IV's death and Hal's succession. It was a strong performance, but entirely different from that in Mazatlán, because of the larger forces used and the scale of the attractive Popejoy Hall, some three times the capacity of Mazatlán's 800-seater. (The Angela Peralta Theater is a miniature La Scala, with three tiers of iron-filigree-faced opera boxes embracing the orchestra seating.)
Conducting a Second Career
Guillermo Figueroa, in his sixth year leading the New Mexico Symphony, has come to conducting as a second career (earlier he was the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's founding concertmaster, then violist with the Emerson Quartet). He has one of the more elegant techniques you'll see today — calm, refreshingly undemonstrative as he conducts the phrase, not so much the beat. Next spring Figueroa will be one of the Berkeley Symphony's guest conductors, and also will conduct Symphony Silicon Valley in San Jose. After a clear performance of the Getty's four scenes, he led Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy-Overture, in a highly musical reading. (There's nothing much he or any conductor can do about the piece's tasteless slam-bang ending.)
Then followed Respighi's Pines of Rome, sensitively done, atmospheres nicely shaded and shaped. The organ was a big help in the later going because the hall's poor bass response seriously undersells the cellos and basses. The solo trumpet, John Marchiando, was first-rate, and James Shields' floating clarinet solo in "The Pines of the Janiculum" utterly beautiful. Naturally, "The Pines of the Appian Way," the finale of finales, with extra brasses in side boxes, brought down the house.
Returning to the principal matter, Plump Jack, the premiere of what Gordon Getty regards as essentially the final version, was performed four times, staged, at the University of Texas at Austin in the third week of April preceding the Mazatlán concert performance. Next, it will be recorded, perhaps after more fine-tuning. Of course, it's an entrepreneurial investment for him, but that's no different from the self-publishing that authors do regularly today.
Shakespeare gave Pistol words to describe the history to be played out during Henry V's new regime: "the kingdom for a stage." That might well be Getty's view.
Primarily the orchestra serves as punctuation rather than narrative or true accompaniment. The harmonic idiom is eminently tonal and certainly listenable, but despite a varied palette of colors, it cries out for a memorable melody or two.
The music has a kind of charming, late-Romantic appeal, spiced with some more modern harmonic touches. If you listen to the program straight through you notice that Getty relies on particular mannerisms, such as setting a line of poetry to an upward-rushing musical line, holding on a chord, then descending rapidly in a mirror image of the initial gesture. And after a while, the music does seem a little too well-behaved for its own good. For example, one of the poems in Victorian Scenes is “Blow, Bugle, Blow” from Tennyson's The Princess, which Benjamin Britten included in his famous Serenade. There, where it contrasts with much darker, more dangerous music, Britten achieves a stunningly evocative effect with these lyrics. Getty's setting is simply pretty.
Barbara Rose Shuler, Overture to Plump Jack
Monterey County Herald
The overture by Gordon Getty...to the opera "Plump Jack" proved a scintillating concert opener, spiced with moods and flavors from Shakespeare's "Henry IV," wherein the rotund Sir John Falstaff shows up prominently.
Getty's understanding of this pre-eminent Shakespeare character is impressive and the music clearly prefigures the drama from the sack-drinking revels to the challenges of the battlefield. It was delightful to hear Getty's music. He's a talented composer and this piece made a zesty complement to the other works on program.
Philip Greenfield, Young America
American Record Guide
Gordon Getty is a self-confessed 19th Century romantic composer who's alive, well, and still writing music 150 years after his defining sensibilities were considered de rigueur....
In this program, the composer's anachronistic melodies and lush orchestral textures are placed at the service of Stephen Vincent Benet and Getty himself, whose words combine to form the texts for Young America, a set of six songs. They are performed by the San Francisco delegation, as is the setting of Poe's 'Annabel Lee'. From the Swedish choir and Russian orchestra, we get the composer's settings of Tennyson and Housman in seven vivid Victorian Scenes plus three Welsh folk songs: 'Welcome Robin', 'Kind Old Man', and the beautiful 'All Through the Night'. The opera scene also comes from the Russian conductor and orchestra, with names that sound Slavic and Scandinavian singing the male roles. (In rather clenched fashion, too, I might add.)
I enjoyed the choral songs very much. Emotions rise quickly to the surface in interludes like 'Daughter of Asheville' from the Young America set--a gentle, nostalgic waltz hinting at the country's loss of innocence, then and now. There's more than a little melancholy in the Welsh group (Housman's 'With Rue My Heart is Laden' is gorgeous--the most affecting thing here, for my money). 'All Through the Night' with its sweet, arpeggiated symphonic accompaniment offers more comfort than we probably deserve in our agitated, violence-ridden world.
With such a mood established chorally, the 11-minute operatic scene seems out of place, musically and emotionally. The most evocative moments are heard immediately as the offstage choir chants 'Kyrie eleison' and other sacred texts. Frankly, I'd need to hear more to comment intelligently on Getty in opera mode. The Ericson Chamber Choir and San Francisco Chorus are first-class outfits, as are the bands and conductors backing them up. Sumptuous SACD sound flatters Getty's intentions even more. All in all, this offering is so not run-of-the-mill that I think you'd enjoy checking it out.
RedLudwig.com, Young America
Gordon Getty has mastered the art of traditional tonal composition. After spending some time with the composer in person, you would conclude further that he thoroughly enjoys doing it. This enjoyment is easily shared by listeners who do not insist that contemporary music must be complex and dissonant. The texts of these choral works are of 19th-century vintage: poems by Tennyson, Poe and A. E. Housman, arrangements of Welsh folk songs, a scene from an opera about Falstaff, with text mostly by Shakespeare. The music is limpid and beautifully presented.
Tom Gibbs, Audiophile Audition, Young America
...the works included here evoke a mood musically that easily could have come from the pen of Beethoven or Schubert, and Getty' s texts are derived from sources as diverse as Steven Vincent Benet, Edgar Allan Poe, Tennyson and Housman. He also includes his own translations of an excellent Welsh folk song cycle. The performances are outstanding. Sound quality, as usual from Pentatone, is superb. Highly recommended, especially for lovers of choral music, or anyone that yearns for a bygone age.
San Francisco Classical Voice, Young America
Much of the lyrics are written by the composer and he has an easy direct way, producing what could easily be taken for traditional or folk poetry...Tilson Thomas catches the character of the parlante or speech rhythm to give these the feeling of immediacy and directness of expression. It comes right to you...The orchestration is selective and effective, and the restraint in the orchestral writing in all the music on the CD is admirable...The choral and orchestral performances throughout this CD are elegant, the music in its style and expressiveness, human, warm and sympathetic, giving song and voice to these poems.
William Grim, Young America
Getty's choral works feature a real affinity for the rhythms of the English language...Indeed, there is such a wonderful feeling for the prosody of English in Getty's compositions that he is able to imbue the poems of Benet, Housman, and Tennyson with a freshness that invites a reappraisal of the poetry of the pre-Modernists.... These are choral works in which the chorus takes center stage. I was particularly impressed with "Jerusalem," a scene from Getty's opera Plump Jack, which is based on the Falstaff/Henry plays of Shakespeare...Getty's genius is in knowing that tonal music is alive and well and has a level of referentiality and self-reflexivity that is beyond the limited palettes of the atonalists.
Bob Benson, Young America
Classical CD Review
These performances present a strong case for the music, which should be popular with choruses searching for Americana to program.
Henry Fogel, Fanfare, Young America
...Getty is an extremely talented, communicative composer—one who writes in an extremely conservative, audience-friendly style, but who manages to find his own authentic voice. The more of his music I have heard, the more I've come to appreciate him as a powerful musical personality...While his music is tonal and tuneful, it is not without touches of 20th-century harmonic grammar...For any listener who enjoys robust choral writing, good tunes, lively rhythms, and ethereal beauty, this disc can be enthusiastically recommended. The texts of Young America were mostly written by Getty...This music and the texts recall just what the title implies, a young America, and the work is evocative and powerful despite or perhaps because of its simplicity. Getty also has a nice feel for orchestral colors. The Three Welsh Songs are settings by Getty, and "All Through the Night" is a remarkably beautiful closing to the group. Victorian Scenes is a setting of poems by Tennyson and Housman, and evokes scenes of nature very effectively. Annabel Lee is a setting of Poe's heart-on-sleeve poem paying tribute to his wife who died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. What saves Poe's words from excessive sentimentality is their deeply felt sincerity and the elegance of his outpouring of love and sorrow, and Getty captures this in his music...
International Record Review, Young America
There's clearly a strong personal voice here [and] the results are consistently winsome, sometimes even hauntingly beautiful...Those attracted to the spirit behind this music will find that the performances are fluent and that the soundas usual with PentaTone - is exceptionally natural.
Stephanie von Buchau, Young America
The Daily Review
Gordon Getty does great things for music, mostly financial, but composing is not one of them. His music plods rhythmically, drearily in the case of Poe's "Annabel Lee"; not even the excitements of Shakespeare (Henry IV's death from "Plump Jack") can kick him out of a too-regular jogging pace.
Joshua Kosman, Joan and the Bells
The afternoon's most thoroughly satisfying offering came courtesy of the Bay Area's Gordon Getty, whose 20-minute cantata "Joan and the Bells" preceded intermission. In this skillfully wrought triptych, Getty uses a few swift dramatic strokes to conjure up Joan of Arc's trial, internal anguish and execution.
Getty's harmonic palette is constrained by his neo-Romantic idiom, but the melodic ingenuity of the writing is irresistible -- especially in Joan's long and heartfelt central monologue, which continuously circles back on itself in whorls of doubt and reassurance. And in the work's powerful ending, as chorus and orchestra leap ever higher, Getty makes you hear the flurry of angels' voices and even the ascension of Joan's soul.
Delan, who has sung this music since its 1998 premiere, was a sensitive, probing soloist, handling the wide vocal leaps gently and precisely and lending an air of other-worldly grace to the performance. Chernov, singing in heavily accented English, was a formidable presence as Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais, and the singing of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, led by Vance George, was robust and well blended.
Joshua Kosman, Young America & Annabel Lee
San Francisco Chronicle
The program began with two choral works by San Francisco's own Gordon Getty, both of them recorded live for release on the PentaTone Classics label. "Annabel Lee," a short, chiaroscuro-laden setting of Poe's poem of young love, has been done here before.
A newer and more ambitious offering was "Young America," a six-part song cycle written in 2001 to mostly original verse. This proved to be a sort of neo-Carl Sandburg deal, launched by exhortations to admire the breadth and scope of the nation ("Hark the Homeland") and continuing with some intimate and even sentimental offerings.
Getty's musical language is resolutely staid, which saps the score of some of the Ivesian energy it could use. But there is plenty of lovely writing, particularly in an original folk-song ("Heather Mary") whose blend of English and American melodic strains deftly straddles the Atlantic.
Marc Rochester, Joan and the Bells
A powerful work given a refreshingly unpretentious performance.
J.F. Weber, Fanfare, Joan and the Bells
If you can forget about Getty's money for 20 minutes, just listen to his 1998 cantata Joan and the Bells and evaluate the work on its own merits. Yes, it ignores almost every musical technique developed during Getty's lifetime (he was born in 1933), and yes, it calls to mind the styles of other composers, most especially Samuel Barber, with a whiff of Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony in the choral writing. Yet it is a highly effective work, well written for the voices, ably orchestrated, thematically coherent, dramatically persuasive…. Unless your heart is hardened against new music that doesn't really do anything new, Joan and the Bells is a fully engaging cantata, with its shimmering orchestration and vocal lines that are actually singable.
Joshua Rosenblum, Joan and the Bells
Gordon Getty's cantata Joan and the Bells is a distinctive and musically appealing version of the Joan of Arc story, beginning with her trial for heresy and witchcraft, and building to a startling climax as she faces death at the stake…The second section, an eight-minute monologue for Joan…displays thematic unity and a consistent melodiousness. [Joan and the Bells] is dramatically assured, structurally sound, and likable without being obvious…eminently recommendable.
Ivan Moody, International Record Review, Joan and the Bells
Getty's music is fluent and well orchestrated, and there are some very effective moments. It is, in fact, a skillfully written, very traditional kind of oratorio (the composer describes it as a cantata, but it fits squarely within the oratorio tradition as Walton, for instance, would have understood it).
John Sunier, Joan and the Bells
This [CD] was quite a surprise to me… the words of the two excellent soloists and chorus [are] intelligible and very moving. The climax of the work comes when [Joan of Arc] is burned at the stake and in spite of the court having silenced any churchbells, loud bells from heaven are heard. The recording was made at a live concert in France and this section benefits tremendously from the realistic envelopment of the tumultuous pealing bells, which has a vertical dimension to it even though height channels are not being used. Talk about a big finish!
David Hurwitz, Joan and the Bells
Joan and the Bells is a dramatic cantata in three movements that lasts about 21 never-boring minutes…The performance recorded here features the excellent Eric Ericson Chamber Choir…Soprano Lisa Delan has the right instincts for the title role as well as a sweetly innocent timbre… As Joan's principal accuser, baritone Vladimir Chernov sounds aptly weighty and judgmental… Alexander Vedernikov and the Russian National Orchestra give [a] very committed performance of the score, and certainly Gordon Getty's use of traditional harmony and his Romantic approach plays to the strengths of all concerned.
Paul Shoemaker, Joan and the Bells
Music Web International
…a rising dramatic tension, a brilliant sonic resolution and a genuine emotional impact…Soprano Lisa Delan sings beautifully and with absorbing drama.
Gil French, Joan and the Bells
American Record Guide
With his 21-minute cantata Joan and the Bells, Gordon Getty (born 1933 in California) has created a highly dramatic masterwork. In I, the chorus joins [Vladimir] Chemov (the Judge) in condemning loan of Arc. The music is stylistically reminiscent of Menotti's Death of the Bishop of Brindisi as it wraps around, enhances, and accents the strong text. Chernov's voice is rich, nuanced, and firm, though the printed text helps us understand his accented English. in II, Delan's lack of tone color and throaty tightness in her upper register gives loan's prayer far too much sameness, making 7 minutes seem more like 17. In III it's mainly the firm, excellent chorus that takes over as the text turns the scene of the burning into a highly poetic, exhilarating, triumphal climax.
James Reel, Joan and the Bells
...If you can forget about Getty's money for 20 minutes, just listen to his 1998 cantata Joan and the Bells and evaluate the work on its own merits. Yes, it ignores almost every musical technique developed during Getty's lifetime (he was born in 1933), and yes, it calls to mind the styles of other composers, most especially Samuel Barber, with a whiff of Vaughan Williams's "Sea Symphony" in the choral writing. Yet it is a highly effective work, well written for the voices, ably orchestrated, thematically coherent, dramatically persuasive.
The arresting, driving opening bars hurl us into the final moments of the trial of Joan of Arc, with her condemnation by Bishop Pierre Cauchon (a baritone) and denunciation by the chorus. Joan (a high soprano) remains quietly defiant. The town's bells have been silenced, for they represent the heavenly voices Joan claims to have heard guiding her in her military exploits against the invading English. The cantata's second movement is a long soliloquy for Joan, who recounts to the saints in heaven (or at least in her head) her call to action, and implores the saints to return to her. The final movement is mostly choral, with a few lines from Cauchon; initially, the chorus takes the part of villagers witnessing Joan's auto-da-fè, and then it gives voice to saints almost breathlessly urging Joan on to heaven. Bells sound only in the final measures, ending the work in tintinnabulation.
Unless your heart is hardened against new music that doesn't really do anything new, Joan and the Bells is a fully engaging cantata, with its shimmering orchestration and vocal lines that are actually singable. Getty is not exactly a naiäf; his bachelor's degree in English literature surely prepared him for assembling this capable, never self-consciously poetic libretto, and Getty's musical background includes lessons in piano and voice, and (after "four years in family businesses," as the bio coyly puts it) studies in music theory at the San Francisco Conservatory. Getty is trained to do what he does well.....
Joan and the Bells is a compelling cantata that gets better with each audition. Set aside your various prejudices, and buy this disc for the Getty.
Joan and the Bells
What is most important is that Gordon Getty has produced one of the most dramatic, exciting and tautly constructed tone poems it has been my pleasure to hear for a long time. The forces are large as befits the subject and the listener is gathered up and swept into the turmoil of Joan's final trial and execution for which retry emphasises her inner tension and the pride of her faith in her voices, his scoring for chorus particularly effective in the final pages when the Saints urge Joan's spirit to join them.
Robert Matthew-Walker, Plump Jack
Musical Opinion (London)
Whether the opera is complete enough, at this late stage of its existence, is another matter. The score, as it stands, sets a libretto by the composer from both Parts of Henry IV and Henry V. Plump Jack, therefore, cannot but invite comparison with Getty's notable predecessors, not always to his disadvantage, and we applaud the dedication he has brought to his self imposed task. The result is a score of clarity, colourfully and powerfully orchestrated, spurring the familiar story onward, and in which the words are almost always audible.
But a price has been paid for cramming so much into such a time-scale. The libretto is too wordy for an opera of this length. Getty gives himself scant opportunity for reflective contemplation and the characterisation, in this of all subjects, is not musically well drawn in the First Act. The Second Act is better in this respect, for by then we know the characters. In avoiding any obviously English colouration Getty relies too much on predictably short-breathed arioso-recitativo, with many similarities in word-setting, when specific melodic expression is called for. The lack of an orchestral Prelude is a serious mistake, as is that of female characterisation. Consider how Verdi solved this latter problem, or imagine what Britten or Korngold might have made of the subject, to get the point.
The Second Act is, in these terms, more successful. Falstaff's rejection by the young King is well accomplished but the old man's death passes by too quickly and the final pages are long drawn-out.
Jeff Dunn, Traditional Pieces and Three Welsh Songs
21st Century Music
Orchestration was also a problem with philanthropist Gordon Getty's Three Pieces for String Orchestra, which sounded like a student work despite some nice melodies....
Getty redeemed himself, however, with his words and composition of the second of his Old Welsh Folk Songs, performed by eight choristers and the Symphony: “The kindest man alive? / Then bury me in state, boys / ... / Underneath the grate boys...” all interpolated with “Fal-dee-re-dee-ree-do” and sung at breakneck speed. Unlike the earlier suite; this number was on the money.
Robert Thicknesse, Plump Jack
The Times (London)
You have to be brave, or mad, to take on Shakespeare: you can count the successful musical translations of his works, from Otello to Kiss Me, Kate, on the fingers of one hand. Gordon Getty has been working on his Falstaff opera Plump Jack for years, but this performance at St John's was the premiere of the complete work.
This is the chap from the Henry plays, not the reduced Sir John of The Merry Wives; and Getty's 12 scenes include all those you would expect - Gad's Hill, Hal and Falstaff's kingly role-playing, the death of Henry IV, the coronation - interspersed with the capers of Shallow and co. The words are straight from the plays, in filleted form.
Oh, and the music. "Two hours of recitative," a grumpy fellow said as he made for the door: a bit unfair, I'd have called it more a kind of free arioso, admittedly of a sort that became increasingly annoying. Set against an orchestral score ready for a film to be made around it, the angular vocal lines have a curious habit of always ending on a high note, giving every speech an inflection more usually associated with Neighbours than Shakespeare.
But it seemed unnecessary for the music to be so mean with its favours. The style is hardly modernistic, tending more to a free succession of chords or a minimalist-type repetition of short figures, but tunefulness is strictly limited to the very occasional episode - Falstaff's uncanonical wooing of Mrs Quickly, for example - and is gone in a flash. It is a procession of ideas going nowhere: there is little for the ear to get hold of beyond a few recognisable motifs and a certain flavour of scoring for different characters; only a couple of the scenes, notably Falstaff and Shallow in the garden, manage to sustain a mood. It's not awful, just frustrating, a mix-and-match of opera and musical techniques which doesn't reap the benefit of either.
Richard S. Ginell, Traditional Pieces
Los Angeles Times
John Farrer [presided] over the Los Angeles premiere of Gordon Getty's Three Waltzes.... The Getty pieces, originally written for piano, turned out to be a very pretty, courtly, melodic, unabashedly diatonic set of miniatures with an occasional bent for the unexpected--like the violent chromatic gusts from the violins in the first waltz. Getty does have his own voice, a reticent, solitary one that keeps the noises from the 20th century at bay but not entirely out of earshot.
Joshua Kosman, Annabel Lee
San Francisco Chronicle
Gordon Getty's aptly gloomy choral setting of Poe's mournful poem of lost love.
Scott Duncan, Three Waltzes
Orange County Register
Schmaltzy, shallow, diatonic in the most simplistic and cliched style, Getty's waltzes apparently were intended as some feeble homage to the Viennese waltz. They belong more in the realm of easy-listening music than to works considered fit for a serious symphonic program.
Chris Pasles, Three Waltzes
Los Angeles Times
Getty...doesn't seem to trust his own lyrical instincts or creativity. He comes up with ideas and gestures that have attractive profiles, but two bars later, he either repeats himself or goes on to something else. The music starts and stops and loses any flow.
Dina Kirnarskaya, Annabel Lee
The program included Rakhmaninov's "The Bells" to poems by Edgar Allan Poe, and settings by the American composer Gordon Getty of works by English Romantic poets. Commenting on the program, Pletnev said that they had wanted to draw attention to the influence of American and English poetry on 20th century culture as a whole.
Edgar Allan Poe died in the middle of the last century, but the year before the First World War his work became topical with its premonitions that ranged from the Messianic to the sepulchral. In common with all the late Romantics, Rakhmaninov described man's progress from the cradle to the grave, embracing the joyful peal of bells at festival time, and the thunderous tocsin. The music calls us to a better world which is still our own. Everything was readying itself for portentous events and world-shattering changes.
On the eve of the 21st century, we are once again in a period of expectation. Composers are again dusting down their copies of Edgar Allan Poe. Recently Gordon Getty has set to music the poem "Annabel Lee", a classic example of the "Poems of Youth and Death"....
On hearing Getty's music, one feels that it is not so much about eternal feelings as about what remains of them. His melodies sigh gravely and melt, away like a consumptive maid in Pushkin's poem. Truly "she is alive today, but gone tomorrow." In the music, the sound of horn calls, rural round dances, songs of confession and songs of remembrance is only half complete, sketched-in sparingly, as if it was somehow distorted and compressed....
Composers like Gordon Getty, who have not lost natural feelings, are still writing romantic music, and conductors like Mikhail Pletnev are still performing it. It is to be hoped that they will continue their happy partnership for some time to come.
The White Election, Music and Letters
Emily Dickinson and Music
Designed as a complete recital, minimal in technique but not minimalist, it makes an effect through total absorption in the subject. There is a cleanliness about the limited materials and triadic harmony which is particularly fitting, but this is certainly not true of the weak reliance on recitative, which sometimes even blurs the sense of the text. Contem- poraries of Copland also responded with a type of limited means.
Stacey Anderson, Plump Jack
"Plump Jack" premiered in San Francisco in 1985, and has only been performed with full orchestra two or three times since. Phrased in dramatic bursts between solos, the opera sounds a bit like the soundtrack to an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
Robert Commanday, Three Waltzes
San Francisco Chronicle
They were pleasing and...even a bit seductive and more pliant than in their local premiere two years ago.
Paul Hertelendy, Three Waltzes
A light souffle was provided in the middle of the program, with "Three Waltzes" by Gordon Getty.
Robert Commanday, Victorian Scenes
San Francisco Chronicle
The University Chamber Chorus, conducted by John Butt, gave clear, fresh performances of ``Victorian Scenes'' (1993) by Gordon Getty, a guest composer on the program. These are six settings for two-part choruses of women and of men, with piano, of poems by Tennyson and A.E. Houseman (three each). As the music picks up very nicely the speaking rhythm of each poem, after the manner of Britten, they are refreshingly direct pieces. This approach is not varied however and the songs repeat on themselves, the lack of contrast constituting this as a set not a cycle.
Paul Hertelendy, Annabel Lee
Ever since philanthropist Gordon Getty wrote "Plump Jack," his quasi-opera on Falstaff, in the 1980s, Getty-bashing has been a sport among music critics. But I see nothing remotely bashable about his new choral piece, "Annabel Lee," sung by 65 men. The work combines orchestra and choir in a skillful setting of Poe's poem on the death of a beloved. Some will gainsay Getty's tonal, retrospective harmonies, which are just a tone's throw from the more Eastern moments in Menotti and Britten. But the hand-in-glove integration of the elements was exquisite. Many of the effects were supremely sensitive, as when harp and gentle percussion lead into the chorus that voices those ear-catching intervals known as augmented seconds.
Marilyn Tucker, Annabel Lee
San Francisco Chronicle
Gordon Getty's "Annabel Lee,'' for orchestra and low voices, set to the poem by Edgar Allen Poe, gave a nicely registered Gothic imprint to the program.
Robert Commanday, Three Waltzes
San Francisco Chronicle
Jekowsky opened with the premiere of three waltzes by the prominent San Francisco patron Gordon Getty. They are pleasant and brief, as their material and aspiration dictate. Unpretentious in the manner of incidental music for a play, they faithfully reflect their origins as pieces homemade for the piano, essentially melody with waltz bass, transcribed for orchestra.
The first waltz, "Madeline," named after a ghost in Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," interpolates sections with light spectral effects. The second, "Tiefer und Tiefer" ("Deeper and Deeper"), rather stays on its nice, even surface, whereas "Ehemals" ("Formerly") did not so much lilt as hop a bit.
Paul Hertelendy, Three Waltzes
...Engaging, consonant salon music that did not show Getty at his most creative, by any stretch. He is comfortable at orchestration, but painfully repetitive in this placebo background music.
Joshua Kosman, Plump Jack
San Francisco Chronicle
This production by the Marin Opera, directed by William Lewis and conducted by Hugo Rinaldi, marked the opera's first fully staged performance...
"Plump Jack" is in one act, and runs just under an hour and a half. It has a libretto cobbled together by Getty from the two "Henry IV" plays and a snippet of "Henry V" (unflattering comparisons with Verdi's "Falstaff" are forestalled a little by Getty's decision to avoid "The Merry Wives of Windsor," the main source for that opera).
The composer's notes tell of his plan to differentiate between the worlds of the court and the tavern by setting the tavern scenes to music and leaving the court scenes spoken. With much of the evening thus devoted to straight recitation of Shakespearean lines, the score itself doesn't end up having much impact on the proceedings.
Not that the music has anything particularly important to offer. Getty writes in a listlessly conservative idiom, stringing together snatches of melody that cling timidly to the text without attaining a life of their own. The orchestral writing - as far as one could tell from the threadbare playing Friday - is competent but unimaginative. There was little in the score that lingered in the memory five minutes after the curtain came down.
Getty's opera is a work of no particular merit and - appearances to the contrary - no particular ambition. Shakespeare's plays are great enough to withstand any use that can be made of them, whether by great artists or by workaday craftsmen; I think an operatic treatment of Eugene O'Neill by Getty would have been more worrisome. "Plump Jack" may not inspire enthusiasm, but it's too modest and negligible to inspire much outrage either.
Paul Hertelendy, Plump Jack
Ambitious but anemic...The carving of a whole new "Falstaff" drama from various Shakespeare plays was a provocative exercise on Getty's part. Instead of exploring Falstaff's preposterous attempts at amorous escapades a la Verdi and Nicolai (which were taken out of "The Merry Wives of Windsor"), Getty brings forth a central theme of reform and noblesse oblige (mostly out of the "Henry IV" plays) that demolishes that pompous, paunchy pretender Sir Jack Falstaff...
Where the two other composers turned to broad comedy, Getty takes up the serious issues of moral fiber, meeting a leadership challenge and the need to throw off accumulated effects of being irresponsible.
Undeniably, the music is thin; Getty is a self-taught orchestrator... Whatever his shortcomings, Getty did achieve a model intelligibility, partly because he used a lot of lower singing voices.
His historical fanaticism brought some memorable touches, such as resurrecting the actual Latin chant sung at King Henry V's coronation.
That scene is the drama's best, a fitting finale. Confronted with Falstaff, the crowned king renounces his past hellion life with the words, "I know thee not, old man." The icy blow and sudden estrangement is exquisitely caught in a brief musical moment of dissonant strings.
The cut post-finale scene, heard at the symphony in 1987, had the static monologue of Hostess Quickly reminiscing in a Falstaff postmortem.
Robert Masullo, Plump Jack
The world premiere of Gordon Getty's first opera, Plump Jack, took place Friday at the Palace of Fine Arts in a handsome production by Marin Opera...
Getty, whose other musical efforts have won him sufficient praise to distinguish him from your average billionaire dilettante, uses the orchestra unlike Verdi. Where Verdi's orchestra accompanies, Getty's orchestra punctuates.
Listening to the Getty work is not unlike a dramatic reading of Peter and the Wolf. The narrator describes an action in silence, stops reading, and the orchestra mimics the sounds described. For the most part the singers in Plump Jack sing with little or no orchestral accompaniment. When they end a phrase, however, the orchestra comes in to echo and/or amplify what they sang. Frequently, that comes from the percussion section.
Getty's music, nevertheless, is bright, cheerful, melodic. The plot flows less smoothly. I failed to find a point to it.
Bruce Burroughs, Annabel Lee
Los Angeles Times
Getty's attractively orchestrated setting of [Annabel Lee], for male voices only, follows speech rhythm relentlessly. The sweet, accessible melodic line doesn't stretch single syllables over many notes, or soar with emotion or color. A whopping, self-indulgent exercise in overkill might have gotten nearer the hyper-Romantic tone of the poetry than this tepid solecism.
Bruce Burroughs, Victorian Scene
Los Angeles Times
As for Getty's musically callow settings of Tennyson and Housman poems--old pieces, new orchestrations--they miss the emotional point of such miniatures as the latter's "With rue my heart is laden."
The first one (1959) is no more unimaginative--as opposed to merely simple--a composition than its newer companions: too much orchestral unison with choral melody lines, no four-part writing--three settings for women alone, three for men--no counterpoint, no harmonic or rhythmic adventures, no thematic development.
It was a soporific administered six times. Momentary variety provided by chimes and a single cruelly low alto line felt welcome.
Paul Moor, The White Election (1988)
To judge from this injudiciously attentuated cycle on the poems of Emily Dickinson, Getty still has a great deal to learn about the art and craft that mean so much to him. He employs an idiom only a trifle less spare and simple than the New England hymnals of Dickinson's time....
In far, far too many of the songs, he falls back on a sort of punctuated recitative style, instead of devising interesting musical ideas and then organizing them into a true aesthetic entity...Getty does have an apt feeling for the poetry, and his sense of prosody, a few lapses excepted, stands him in good stead.
Joshua Kosman, The White Election (1988)
San Francisco Chronicle
Nobody likes to be patronizing, especially not to the richest man in the known universe or whatever Mr. Getty is. But the only response I can muster to this sweetly wrong-headed song cycle is to mentally pat the composer on the head and say, "Yes, yes, very nice." The texts are by Emily Dickinson, and the songs are arranged in four matching groups of eight that trace a roughly chronological and biographical course through "Emily's" life. Erickson sings bravely, with a lovely tone and firm technical control.
Getty's aesthetic principle in this cycle is to close his eyes very tight , and pretend very very hard that it's 1870 again. Melodically, the writing is often quite imaginative; Getty provides a number of pretty tunes in which to dress up Dickinson's poetry. But there's no rhythmic or harmonic life to the music at all, and the whole cycle is so proudly, determinedly anachronistic that it's hard to take seriously. Some of the songs would merit an A in a model-composition class, some a C; none of them have much business out in the real world.
James Chute, Plump Jack
Orange County Register
Composer and multimillionaire Gordon Getty raised a number of moral issues in his concert opera "Plump Jack," but the most weighty question posed by the production of his work Wednesday at the Los Angeles Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was, how could anything as bad as "Plump Jack" be produced by such a reputable company as the Los Angeles Music Center Opera? ....
"Plump Jack" is ghastly from every musical perspective: The opera's melodies are fragmented. They lack character and seemingly have little to do with the nuances of the text. Its mildly dissonant harmonies are as bland as the melodies. Its rhythm is ill-defined. Its form is amorphous and incoherent.
But most damning, there is little evidence of a strong personality behind the music. Getty wanders from one idea to another, as if he is presenting various musical elements for the sake of argument rather than out of strong musical or emotional conviction.
The works' weaknesses were put into relief by performances of the original texts on which the opera was based by actors Tony Church (as Falstaff) and Paul Whitworth (as everyone else) that proceeded the opera. Despite some eccentricities in the dramatic performance (Falstaff in a sequined tuxedo), Shakespeare's lines rang true.
In Getty's music, despite the superb singing of bass John Del Carlo and tenor Jonathan Mack, the meaning of the text is obscured rather than clarified. In the opera's climatic moment, when Falstaff is rejected by King Henry, Getty has so much going on (choirs singing and chanting, trumpet calls, and who knows what) that the drama of the moment is lost in a muddle of sound.
Composers, or would-be composers, would be well-advised not to set a poetic or literary text unless the music improves, or at least illuminate the text. Getty made Shakespeare seem nonsensical.
Richard S. Ginell, Plump Jack
Los Angeles Daily News
Gordon Getty's "Plump Jack" came to Los Angeles Wednesday night more or less as an afterthought to the Los Angeles Music Center Opera's second season. Perhaps this was the token nod toward presenting so-called contemporary music. Perhaps there were other, more base considerations in mind, given who the composer is. Perhaps none of the above.
At any rate, it was a rather different presentation of "Plump Jack" than the one that was unleashed upon the suspecting world last June in San Francisco. In some ways, the "concert opera" itself sounded stronger than it did at the premiere. In other ways, though, the total presentation was weaker.
First, the good news. Getty has said the version of his piece heard at the Music Center Pavilion was "improved" in small ways over the San Francisco version, like re-arranging furniture a few inches here, a few inches there. If anything - and it may be illusion on the listener's part - the piece did sound richer in its orchestration, though still spare in its Britten-like decoration of the vocal lines and pointed in its knockabout wit. Again, Getty knows how to keep his audience's attention, and it makes one look forward to hearing a purely orchestral piece by him someday.
What Getty needs is more confidence in his obvious talent and a longer attention span. One could hear some marvelous ideas that were aborted seconds after they materialized without any development - particularly in Part II, which musically is the strongest segment. Also, "Plump Jack" remains dramatically static; it does very little to advance the piecemeal Shakespearean story line. Yet one must admit, it has staying power upon repeated hearings, and that's the best news of all.
But the total presentation made it a much more exhausting evening than it could have been. Parts I and IV of "Jack" were prefaced by 26 minutes and 17 minutes, respectively, of interminable spoken dialogue patched together from ''Henry IV" and "Henry V." However deftly acted by Tony Church and Paul Whitworth, and bizarre in its staging - Falstaff came out in a modern-dress leather jacket and crash helmet - these scenes turned out to be a drag on the whole evening. Getty had originally planned to have spoken interludes for ''Jack" (not these particular ones, it was learned), but the idea ought to be scrapped.
Andrew Massey led the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra with point and humor when he and the orchestra weren't just sitting around on stage watching the actors. John del Carlo, if anything, sounded even more resonant and authoritative in his portrayal of Falstaff than at the premiere, and Jonathan Mack was his reliably intelligent self as Prince Hal and King Henry V.
Melinda Bargreen, The White Election (1988)
There's nothing that says a fabulously wealthy man can't be a good composer, and Gordon Getty fits both categories. Getty, whose surname explains the circumstances of his wealth, is a music lover who has produced respectable works in genres as different as the art song and the opera; his song cycle based on poems of Emily Dickinson, ``The White Election,'' has been performed in Seattle as an added attraction to past Wagner Festivals by Kaaren Erickson, the soprano who sings the cycle on this new Delos recording
Like Dickinson's poems, these songs are spare and uncrowded, with almost grudging use of Armen Guzelimian's piano (often restricted to a single line, or to a sustained chord, rather than the dense and powerful music a piano could make). The focus is on the words, and the singer is allowed a recitative-like freedom in spinning out those words. Getty is adept at mirroring the mood of the poem in the music, which is largely consonant; the sung melodies are often angular, with big intervalic leaps.
Getty's own program notes are revealing of his compositional motives as well as Dickinson's life, whose unconsummated passions were represented by the white frocks she wore and the bridal/death imagery of many of her poems. The 31 poems set here include two settings of ``I Sing to Use the Waiting,'' which begin and conclude the cycle.
Richard S. Ginell, Plump Jack
Los Angeles Daily News
Gordon Getty, composer.
That is the way the fourth son of the late oil tycoon J. Paul Getty wants to be known, first and foremost. Amazingly enough, he may get his wish.
For those who don't keep track of the concert world, the emergence of Gordon Peter Getty as a composer who is being taken seriously is one of the more improbable developments of the 1980s. It reached a new peak last June 26 in San Francisco, when Getty's concert opera "Plump Jack" - based on portions of Shakespeare's plays featuring Sir John Falstaff - received its world premiere at the hands of the San Francisco Symphony.
Many critics entered Davies Symphony Hall that night burning with skepticism and left convinced that "Plump Jack" was indeed, a pretty good piece. It may not be a dramatic thriller, but Getty knows how to keep the listener's attention, peppering the vocal lines with spare, humorous, often colorful orchestral comments and backdrops.
Joseph McLellan, The White Election (1988)
According to her friends' reports, Emily Dickinson used to sit at her family's piano late at night improvising "weird and beautiful melodies." Those melodies have vanished, but in his carefully elaborated cycle "The White Election" (Delos D/CD 3057, with booklet), composer Gordon Getty has set 31 of her poems (one of them twice as beginning and end) as he thinks she might have done "if her music had found a balance between tradition and iconoclasm, something like that in her poems." Like the poems, the music has a deceptive air of simplicity and the power to wound -- deeply, suddenly, unexpectedly. The cycle, arranged in roughly chronological order, tells a story (conjectural in some details) about the unfulfilled love that led the poet to become a recluse in her late twenties.
Setting Dickinson to music has become a sort of cottage industry among American composers, but this thoughtful, quirky cycle stands out in sharp relief from similar efforts. The performance by soprano Kaaren Erickson and pianist Armen Guzelimian is excellent and the composer's detailed program notes are worth careful reading.
Daniel Cariaga, Plump Jack
Los Angeles Times
Though skillfully assembled and, in its Southern California premiere performance, tastefully presented, Gordon Getty's "Plump Jack," a work the composer calls "a concert opera," resembles nothing so much as a vanilla cookie: innocuous and undistinctive.
But its first local performance, given by forces of Los Angeles Music Center Opera in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center on Wednesday night, proved fascinating nonetheless....
This is no "Falstaff"; neither is it an opera. It is, rather, a mosaic, not yet focused, without a central point.
Composer Getty, a longtime arts patron and amateur singer, has been writing music for many years. His song-cycles have been published and performed. He is clearly not without talent nor without sensitivity and sophistication.
His settings of these Falstaffian texts often emerge graceful, musical, canny and comprehensible. Though the six singers in this concert performance showed particular skills at delivering the words, the composer had already made their work grateful.
But no totality grows out of these disjunct and apparently non-continuous scenes. No vision emerges. The musical line remains unarched. Characterizations are not developed, dramatic climaxes unachieved.
Getty's pastel, eclectic modern style--he himself acknowledges his debt to models by Richard Strauss and Verdi--deals competently in recitative. There are no distinctive tunes (other than purposefully borrowed ones, as in the quotations at the top of Scene 3) and no arias; neither lightning nor inspiration ever strikes.
William Glackin, Plump Jack
"Plump Jack'' is about Falstaff, and Scene 1 -- one of the most vividly and effectively dramatic of its four parts -- sets to music that moment in the Boar's Head Tavern (''King Henry IV,'' Part 1, Act 2, Scene 4) when the fat old knight and Prince Hal rehearse for the prince's interview with his father. There are moments of humor, underscored by the orchestra (whose role is as important as those of the two singers), and ironic overtones of the sharp turn this friendship is to take when H al becomes King.
This is the fourth time I've heard the work in the two years it has been before the public, and it is more impressive than ever. I kept hearing things -- sharp touches of theatricality -- I hadn't noticed before. The piece worked beautifully, thanks also to a keenly considered, magnificently well sung and played performance. David Livingstone Tigner, a roundish bass-baritone with a tremendous voice, was an incisive, total Falstaff (except for the age) and tenor Keith Ikaia Purdy was a forceful, convincing Hal. Nice and the orchestra contributed dynamically to the conviction of the performance.
Robert Commanday, Plump Jack
San Francisco Chronicle
Friday night in Davies Hall it was a heartwarming, only-in-America story. An ordinary man was propelled to the heights where only a few of the top talents visit, and one in a million remains to dwell. It was as though a plain actor had been elected president.
It was Gordon Getty, just a regular San Francisco citizen with modest musical training, feted by the San Francisco Symphony and his peers at a well attended world premiere of his concert opera, "Plump Jack," on the Symphony's New and Unusual Music series....
What of the music, what of "Plump Jack" that the audience seemed to like a lot? It was music that its first listeners could understand instantly, every whit and jot, effortlessly. Nor did they need be concerned that there might be more beneath the surface to hear and to consider. They didn't even need to follow the texts of the four scenes: Shakespeare's "King Henry IV, Part One, Act II, Scene 4; Part Two, III, 2, and V, 5, and "King Henry V," II, 3.
It was mostly accompanied recitative in one-, two- and three-part writing. The orchestra, with a selective choice of its instruments, followed under the voices in a discreet kind of scenic background, pointing up the action and mood described.
The singers did well projecting and characterizing their roles, taking full advantage of the vocal gratefulness of the writing. Getty has done some singing, is a longtime opera devotee and knows what for he is writing. The ensembles are modest to a fault. So is the part for the chorus (a monk's plain chant, a coronation welcome hymn, some crowd noise and commotion).
The four scenes describe Falstaff's downfall. The first is the Falstaff-Prince Hal dialogue in which each, in turn, impersonates Hal's father, Henry IV, on the subject of Falstaff himself. We heard this scene performed by the Symphony in March 1985. Next comes Falstaff's plot to fleece the justices, Shallow and Silence. Part II begins with the devastating rejection of Falstaff by Hal, the newly crowned Henry V, and finally the description of Falstaff's death by the tavern hostess, Nell Quickly.
Everything meaningful in the score is for the voices and carried nicely by them. No arias however. None at all. The music otherwise is a hand-over-hand setting, its continuity following the text, utilizing a minimum of recurrent motivic material in the spare recitative support. There were some high duetting trumpets, after Britten's "Billy Budd," associated with the coronation scene, French horns in a hunting theme, a brief motive for English horn. Otherwise, the musical ideas and color changes came and went with much use of harps, the chimes, later the timpani. In the parts that sounded like Prokofiev, the tuba figured largely. There were some distant suggestions of Strauss, but these more involved passages were brief.
Andrew Massey, the symphony's associate conductor, led a good performance, preserving the score's transparency. As before, in March 1985, Paul Sperry was a fine and lively Prince Hal, singing musically in his distinct and clear tenor. As Henry V, he entered at the Terrace level and slowly descended to the railing to address his rejection to the "Fat Knight." Bass-baritone John Del Carlo was once again splendid as Falstaff, developing the later fall from grace with touching solemnity.
Mezzo soprano Clarity James sang the Hostess with a certain charm and fine restraint in the sadness of her narrative. Tenor Michael McCall sang the Bardolph and First Groom, coming through nicely eventually. Bass-baritone Arnold Voketaitis gave a dignified account of Pistol. Baritone Peter Lightfoot did creditably in the brief roles - cameos - of Silence, Nym and Second Groom. The Symphony served effectively, as well it might.
Paul Hertelendy, Plump Jack
Is financier Gordon Getty a worthy composer of serious music? Yes, indeed.
Is he a musical dilettante? No.
Is his piece of musical theater, "Plump Jack," dramatically viable? Absolutely, though it rambles even more than Falstaff himself.
Is Getty an orchestrator? No question, yes.
But would all-Getty evenings such as the San Francisco Symphony's Friday night concert take place if he were not one of America's wealthiest men and leading philanthropists? Very doubtful.
A Getty program comes with a built-in budget, a built-in audience, a built-in celebrity and some voyeurism akin to watching "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."
My Number One recollection was not of music from this "concert opera," but of Getty on stage at the end of the Davies Symphony Hall concert, before a three-quarters filled house. The tall, lean, 53-year-old was like a jubilant but inhibited high-schooler, applauding back vigorously to the standing ovation made up of his guests, well-wishers, critics and a generous number of unrelated and elated ticket-buyers.
Getty is genuine, and so is his music. But where he is personally charming, his "Plump Jack" is introverted, both in a strangely naive way.
He gave the fat knight Falstaff the lean treatment musically, doing what Shakespeare never succeeded in doing: serving up a long but skinny Falstaff.
''Plump Jack" spreads out Falstaff texts in an overly elongated way, with recitative-like singing that you can understand much of the time. Getty puts these solo recitations at the very core, surrounding them with highly effective orchestral gestures and punctuation that do not blur intelligibility.
He is thoroughly tonal, no more modern in sound than Modeste Mussorgsky or Benjamin Britten, and not inclined to copying recognizable styles of past masters.
His design is no more economical than Shakespeare's. His hourlong piece has no less than 13 solo parts, taken by seven singers. With such copious forces, duets and ensembles (and spirited arias) would have been effective musical devices. But Getty decided to forgo them. In addition the large symphony chorus is required briefly for Scene 3. And though a large orchestra with much percussion is called for, 90 percent of it appears to be maintaining a silent vigil at any given time in his Spartan score.
A greater failing is the excessive length, with little contrast. In single scenes, Getty can be marvelous. One scene -- Falstaff's rebuffed meeting with the new authoritarian king, formerly the drinking buddy Prince Hal -- is prime stuff of opera. It comes complete with an authentic ancient church chant appropriate to the very day on which the real-life Prince Hal had been crowned. Another effective quote is Big Ben's ominous chime when Falstaff's advanced age is revealed.
The Santa Clara University concert of "Plump Jack" in April ended with this scene. Getty's recent completion, with Scene 4, weakens the work. The Hostess' endless recitation about the death of Falstaff is anti-climactic, and the scoring here proved even lighter than the music that had gone before.
The largest work that Getty has attempted, "Plump Jack" is a viable effort with expected miscalculations. It can be deliciously ironic as it calls for harpsichord to portray the fussiness of the fat knight, or for a delectably simulated bagpipe (with oboe and English horn) for Bardolph's exit, or for plucked strings to echo Falstaff's wink.
Of particular note Friday night was the semi-staging. An unruly chorus entrance suggested a noisy coronation crowd, and the newly crowned king sang imperiously in the terrace seats high above stage for Falstaff's banishment.
Where Verdi used comedy (and revised text) to skewer Falstaff in his opera taken from "The Merry Wives of Windsor," Getty went directly to three of the "King Henry" plays to treat Falstaff with greater deference and fewer subplots. The results were mixed. Getty's style is closer to neoclassical, stiff-upper-lip English opera than anything in Verdi's Italian milieu.
The nearly all-male cast was excellent, sparked by a bulbous John Del Carlo in the title role, the clear-cut lyric tenor Paul Sperry as Prince Hal, and Opera San Jose's softer- contoured lyric tenor Michael McCall in multiple supporting roles. The symphony and chorus were very effective under Andrew Massey's sympathetic leadership.
Will "Plump Jack" thrive elsewhere? Perhaps, given enough of a budget.
A bigger question is whether this orchestra or the San Francisco Opera is willing to invest similar resources for premieres by impecunious but ingenious area composers, of whom there are many, none named Getty. Such ventures could halt the snide cracks about checkbook premieres and purchased performances that may still be echoing around Davies Symphony Hall.
William Glackin, Plump Jack
With the completion of the fourth and final scene of his concert opera about Falstaff, ""Plump Jack,'' and the premiere of the complete work Friday night in Davies Symphony Hall by the San Francisco Symphony and its chorus and several superb soloists, Gordon P. Getty has good reason to be satisfied, and looked it, as he stood with the performers on the platform, clapping for them with the audience.
He is also faced with a pleasant but difficult question: What now? ""Plump Jack'' in this form is a success on its own terms, and I would guess it is going to be given quite a few performances. The European premiere, by the BBC Philharmonic in London's Royal Festival Hall, is already scheduled for July 19. But as effective as it is in tracing a kind of outline of the story of Shakespeare's fat and rascally but appealing knight, from his pinnacle as the drinking companion and reprobate mentor of Hal, the wild son of King Henry IV, to his rejection and eventual death, ""Plump Jack'' leaves us wishing we had more. These are glimpses -- well-chosen and telling in their effect, but glimpses -- of one of Shakespeare's most memorable and original creations. In about 65 minutes of music, they tell us about him well enough to wish the composer would give us something like the whole picture.
Following the course of ""Plump Jack'' as it has developed over the last two years has also been an interesting study in the character and effectiveness of the score. From the beginning, with Scene 1 as done by the San Francisco Symphony two years ago, it was clear that the orchestra would function in an unusually important way, as a kind of Greek chorus reacting to and commenting on what was being said. With the addition of Scenes 2 and 3, at Santa Clara University last April, Getty's handling of the orchestra seemed more various; individual instrumental voices were speaking out as much as the full orchestra. And the chorus now entered the picture, not only singing but furnishing the hubbub of the crowd at the coronation of Hal as King Henry V.
Scene 1, in the tavern early in ""King Henry IV, Part 1,'' has Hal and Falstaff taking turns pretending to be Hal's angry father. Scene 2, from ''King Henry IV, Part 2,'' shows us Falstaff gulling the fatuous Justice Shallow and then, in a scornful soliloquy, denouncing his lying, boastful ways. Scene 3, longer than the others, is the bitter, humiliating public rejection of Falstaff by the newly crowned King Henry V. Friday night, it was clear that this scene, given excitement and atmosphere by the orchestra no less than by the crowd, and framed beautifully by Gregorian chant authentic to the occasion, is the most powerful and interesting of all.
But Scene 4 turned out to have power of its own. It is the scene from ''Henry V'' in which the death (in bed) of the old knight is described to his longtime confederates by Mistress Quickly, called here Hostess, who ran the Boar's Head tavern and waited in vain for 29 years for Falstaff to marry her. Like the three previous scenes, this one finds its climax in one long speech, and mezzo soprano Clarity James, singing in rich, tender tones, made the moment both beautiful and real by the conviction of her performance. The orchestra, which had reacted to the word ""dead'' in a heartbroken fall of strings, followed her with a commiseration of single instrumental voices. When she said goodbye as Pistol and the others went off to war in France, her ''Farewell! Adieu!'' was clearly addressed to the spirit of Falstaff, and with a whispering snare drum and a long, soft note in the deep strings, the orchestra added its own valedictory.
Now seen whole, ""Plump Jack'' fulfills the promise of its partial performances. What seemed strong before -- especially Scene 3, which is very close to being real theater and not concert theater, what with the crowd and the chant and the ""Hymn to St. George'' and the denunciation of Falstaff by the new king, delivered from the balcony near the orchestra -- seems even stronger.
A fundamental problem also appears. The music the orchestra plays in ''Plump Jack'' is at least as interesting and meaningful as what is sung, but it often constitutes an interruption of the dialogue. This won't do if Getty ever tries to turn the work into a theater piece; in fact, there were times Friday, partly due to some unwise stage direction, when the orchestra's comments, by spacing out the dialogue with unnatural pauses, took away some of the theatrical effect of the scene. Even if ""Plump Jack'' remains a concert opera, it's a problem that should be dealt with.
The performance, conducted by Andrew Massey, was first-rate. Bass-baritone John Del Carlo seemed an ideal Falstaff -- big, rotund of voice, imposing in manner, a real presence in both the flavor and the intellect of the character. Tenor Paul Sperry delivered Hal -- especially the denunciation -- in burningly clear, felt terms. James was an equally ideal Hostess, tenor Michael McCall was a satisfyingly strong Shallow, bass-baritone Arnold Voketaitis sang Pistol with authority, and Peter Lightfoot showed an excellent voice in several smaller roles.
Peter S. Ginell, Plump Jack
Los Angeles Daily News
True to its word, the San Francisco Symphony's New and Unusual Music series unveiled something partly new and certainly unusual at Davies Hall Friday night.
Some were appalled by the prospect of it all. Others were amused. All were curious to hear the world premiere of "Plump Jack" by one Gordon Peter Getty struggling composer and also perhaps the richest man in America.
Struggling? Well, given the handicaps of; 1). being the youngest son of a legendary, fabulously wealthy, ruthless tycoon; 2). a reputation as a generous benefactor of the arts; 3). willing to undergo the risk of not being taken seriously as an artist because of the above, Gordon Getty has a lot of strikes against him.
But let's forget about the name Getty and take this 57-minute so-called concert opera at face value, rather than name value. And you know "Plump Jack" is not bad.
The title is a good-natured nickname for the aging, portly knight, Sir John Falstaff. Shrewdly, perhaps, Getty chose to set four Falstaffian scenes from Shakespeare's "Henry IV and V" rather than compete with Verdi's formidable setting of "The Merry Wives of Windsor."
Getty claims that his idioms of choice were Richard Strauss and Verdi, but what actually comes over loud and clear is Benjamin Britten. You can hear it in the extended unaccompanied vocal passages, the understated march in Scene IV, the spare, cryptic, sometimes humorous underpinning by the orchestra.
Yet this music has its own eclectic personality, full of unpredictable quirks and flashes of imaginative color. Getty wouldn't be mistaken for a flaming member of the avant-garde, nor is he a memorable tunesmith, but he holds one's interest with his bag of accessibly tonal tricks. If the gut question of the moment is; would we want to hear more from this composer, the answer would be an unhesitating yes.
There are, however, serious problems with the dramatic structure of this piece. The four sections the first three of which were performed separately on previous occasions do not fuse together; the storyline is episodic, the crucial confrontations diffusely molded. After you get over the shock of realizing that Getty actually has some talent, the first two scenes build a sense of anticipation that the final two could not fulfill.
Getty's "opera" certainly received a sympathetic performance from Andrew Massey and the alert San Francisco Symphony. John Del Carlo made a youngish but authoritatively resonant showing as Sir John Falstaff, and tenor Paul Sperry could expertly point out the words in the parts of Prince Hal and later, King Henry V.
This being a concert performance, the singers had little stage business beyond entrances and exits, and an uneasy spotlight shone upon Sperry when he entered as Henry V. Also the laughing (on cue) San Francisco Symphony Chorus clambered noisily and confusingly onstage in Scene III.
At the close of his work, the grinning, shy, curly-haired Getty took some curtain calls, clapping in a compulsively mechanical manner. The applause, though, was not exactly tumultuous.
Judith Green, Plump Jack
Consider Saturday's concert at Santa Clara University, an expensive undertaking called "A Celebration of Shakespeare's Falstaff." In order to produce three sections of Getty's concert opera, "Plump Jack," the university had to hire a lot of people:
(check) 57 musicians from the San Francisco and San Jose Symphonies.
(check) Two professional singers, including the rising bass- baritone John Del Carlo to perform the title role.
(check) Tony Church, a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran actor.
(check) Paul Whitworth, an actor, and Michael Edwards, a director, both of the University of California at Santa Cruz theater faculty.
This doesn't begin to count the 50 members of the Santa Clara University Concert Choir, five actors from the university's theater department and conductor Lynn Shurtleff, a Santa Clara faculty member, who all came free....
Getty, 54, has musical gifts, but they are small and finite. As in his song cycle of Emily Dickinson poems, "The White Election," he understands the art of musical declamation: the wedding of words and music to bring text into sharp relief. His problem, I think, is an excessive fidelity to the text.
In the terse and exquisite Dickinson poems, it was right for him not to cut or repeat a single word. But in the whole scenes he has extracted from Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2," cuts are badly needed. Getty hasn't sliced so much as a line, and the cantata feels saturated, burdened, weighty with words. Compare Verdi's Shakespearean operas -- "Macbeth," "Otello" and especially "Falstaff" -- to the original plays and you'll see that his librettists cut more than two- thirds of the text. The music more than fills in the gaps.
The orchestral accompaniment is strangely and problematically scored for a chamber orchestra of strings but with lots of extra brass and woodwinds, a large percussion battery, a harpsichord, two harps and a celesta.
There are delightful moments such as the orchestra's raspberry when Falstaff lies about his age or the jangly chords that speak while a singer mouths the word "whoremaster." A muted trumpet choir heralds the coronation procession of King Henry V, and there are subtle echo effects for the speaking chorus as the parade approaches and disappears. The choir also has a lovely Gregorian hymn during the coronation scene. Getty has written a gleaming night-music of chimes, insect noises and horsemen passing in the distance to set off the nocturnal conversation of Falstaff and Justice Shallow.
But such style as he has is mostly derivative. Bartok, Stravinsky, Debussy and Benjamin Britten are among those most readily discernible. And except for a magnificent striding theme that takes hold momentarily in the Justice Shallow scene, there's little to reward the listener for wading through the libretto to keep up with the singers.
Richard Morrison, Plump Jack
The Times (London)
[Plump Jack] has merits, brevity, and an excellent text. And there is nothing wrong with composers returning to a 'tuneful' idiom. But it does help if you can write tunes. Nearly all the text here (the Boar's Head scene from Henry IV, Part One) was set in dry, parlando style - whole sentences on a single pitch - with the voices often shadowed by cataclysmic percussion effects in crude, strip-cartoon fashion. Elsewhere the orchestra played whole-tone scales in unison fortissimo, or a harpsichord tinkled desultorily.
Martin Bernheimer, Plump Jack
Los Angeles Times
...Painless, faceless, unabashedly eclectic, pleasantly decorative, sporadically engaging music....
Getty, 53, is not without talent. He has assimilated a century of operatic cliches with crafty zeal. He knows his away around Verdian parlando and Straussian ooze. He savors the impact of a pretty melodic fragment here and a pompous bit of declamation there.
He obviously loves his literary source. He also has the good sense to avoid anything deja-entendu involving the fat knight and the merry wives of Windsor.
However, his biggest talent--doubtlessly a dubious one--involves his uncanny ability to be pretentious and naive at the same time.
The pretension is reflected in the unrealistic grandeur of his rhetoric and the self-confidence of his ambition. The naivete emerges in the simplistic, antiquated devices he chooses to recycle.
No one in this blighted day of minimalist formulas and neo-romantic mush would claim that novelty is an aesthetic end in itself. Nevertheless, it is difficult for some of us fossils to abandon the idea that original thoughts are important.
In "Plump Jack," Getty is content to embroider his text with safe sound effects. There is no room in this tight little structure for the dramatic amplification or thematic development implied by the old-fashioned idiom. Nor are Getty's one-shot expressive strokes bold enough to command much interest as isolated statements.
The static little scenes...certainly don't work as new music. For all their economy and accessibility, they don't work particularly well as old music either....
One had to admire him, in spite of "Plump Jack." This philanthropist at least puts his money where his art is.
Mark A. Stuart, Victorian Scenes & Annabel Lee
What a pleasure to attend a concert that includes three pieces (one a world premiere) written by contemporary composers, and come away beguiled, spirits soaring. No screeching of strings. No wailing of wind instruments. No washboard percussions. Just beautiful music that uplifts the soul.
Praise for this belongs to Gordon Getty for two of three items on the program, to William Hawley for the third, and to Robert Bass, music director of the Collegiate Chorale, for having the good taste to present them.
It all happened Sunday afternoon at St. Bartholomew's Church on Manhattan's Park Avenue. The concert was the first of five to be presented by the church, that magnificent landmark whose architectural integrity has been so much in the news lately.
Gordon Getty's contribution included "All Along the Valley," part of six a cappella choruses that had their New York premiere in April. His is a delightful, ethereal setting for Tennyson's poem of the same name, sung by sopranos and altos. It's an unpretentious piece, yet deeply felt and sung beautifully by the choir.
Who doesn't know Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee? " It was part of the curriculum in the nation's schools until the era of relevancy caused the abandonment of Poe, Hawthorne, and Emerson by so many of our high school English teachers. It was a favorite of soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, as well as a staple of parlor musicales until the advent of radio. Getty ventured his own setting last April in Carnegie Hall. In July, he expanded the instrumental interludes and divided the voices in certain spots. The revised version, given for the first time Sunday, is haunting and thoroughly modern without violating the poem's romantic integrity. I don't know of a better acoustical setting than St. Bart's for this absorbing piece.
Charles McCardell, The White Election and Annabel Lee
Composer Gordon Getty, when questioned about his style by a Terrace Theater audience member last night, confessed to being "a backward-looking guy."
That seemed a pretty fair description given the program preceding this remark, a collection of melodically rich vocal works and piano miniatures drawn from throughout his career.
Backward in Getty's case means composing tonal music with conviction, stressing clarity above all else. It's an art equivalent to writing prose simply. Conservative, yes; but very effective when communicating poetry.
Sixteen selections from his song cycle "The White Election" -- Emily Dickinson's life story told in her own words -- proved the virtue of simplicity, with soprano Martha Ellison and accompanist Wendy Glaubitz attentive to Getty's rhythmic scheme.
His ear for verse was particularly well displayed in the choral setting of Poe's "Annabel Lee," in which 20 male voices packed a subtle dramatic punch.
Getty described his pieces as showing "no evolution, just an increase in confidence." Confidence that promises there's plenty more where these came from.
Above all, in an era when serious music has thundered inexorably along paths of increasing elaboration, Getty's works are simple. They have a direct, immediate appeal to the average, not especially sophisticated listener. Getty knows how to write a tune, how to make a harmony sound distinctive, and particularly how to use the psychological overtones of music. Otherwise, he avoids undue elaboration like a plague.
Will Crutchfield, Choral Music
New York Times
The concert served to introduce some new choral songs by Gordon Getty, who at his best stands honorably in the line of Frederick the Great, Prince Poniatowski and the other wealthy or titled amateurs who have turned their leisure to pleasant musical purpose. A predilection for monotonous rhythm (equal notes punctuated by holds on a single note) and for unison writing lends the choruses a chant-like quality at times, but elsewhere, Mr. Getty showed a sure feel for the shape of an effective vocal line.
Tim Page, "No My Good Lord"
New York Times
An aria from Gordon Getty's ''Plump Jack'' was ill-served by its placement on the program: its slight charms seemed even slighter when wedged between Mahler and Bach. The aria is very simple, even rudimentary - little more than a series of accompanimental figures surrounding declamatory passages for the voice - but it is unpretentious, serves the cadence of Shakespeare's language faithfully, and is not without a certain appeal. Ben Holt sang with dapper style and careful enunciation.
Harold C. Schonberg, Plump Jack and The White Election
New York Times
Mr. Getty's music is not going to strike terror into the heart of Aaron Copland or Pierre Boulez. It is frankly, even defiantly, derivative music, stemming from Mendelssohn, Schumann, Verdi and Puccini. Some might call it the work of a sensitive amateur. But Mr. Getty feels that he is a composer who can pick up the threads of what he calls ''the grand tradition.'' More and more composers, he claims, are looping back.
Perhaps he is right. The last decade has indeed seen a headlong flight from strict serialism. But Mr. Getty's music leans so far in the opposite direction that professional composers will probably refuse to take him seriously. Audiences, on the other hand, seem to respond to Mr. Getty's simple music and open lyricism. He received a very good press on the West Coast for his most ambitious work, ''Plump Jack,'' and critics around the country have had good words to say about his Dickinson cycle. Some well-known artists are beginning to look at that piece, and it has been programmed by several singers, including Mignon Dunn and Judith Blegen.
''Plump Jack,'' with its elements of Puccini and Verdi, might be described as contemporary in the sense that the vocal line is largely recitative, with the orchestra carrying the melodies and commenting on the action.
Robert Commanday, Plump Jack
San Francisco Chronicle
There was so much media interest in the San Francisco Symphony's premiere of a composition by the wealthiest man in America, people may have forgotten that his piece was embedded, actually inserted, in an attractive program of well known works.
Musically, Gordon Getty's scene for tenor, baritone and orchestra, ``Plump Jack,'' Scene 1, was not a main event, but a pleasant, lightweight entertainment. Getty made a virtue of simplicity and directness in his setting of the Shakespeare text taken from ``Henry IV.'' The parts for Prince Hal and Falstaff were eminently vocal; tenor Paul Sperry and bass John del Carlo projected them well, in singing and acting; the orchestra did little more than provide elementary support and pictorial and reinforcing comments.
The audience was able to get everything, effortlessly, and afterward, clearly showed its enjoyment and, possibly for some, relief that it had come off. ``They said it couldn't be done . . .''
In this scene, the first of a set Getty plans to write, Falstaff and Hal take turns impersonating Hal's father Henry IV. Falstaff characterizes himself as a saint, Hal (as his father) denounces Plump Jack as villain. Falstaff defends himself and protests, Getty's sympathetic treatment making this the climactic moment. The scene ends with Hal's quietly renouncing his fat, old drinking and carousing companion.
The orchestra part was a thing of snatches and effects, including a couple of harpsichord passages in period dress, a brass raspberry, and a lot that just underlined and variously illustrated what the words are up to. The orchestral parts sounded all right, but there's no getting around it, if you or I had written this, it wouldn't have gone beyond the living room.
All the same, the piece was mildly diverting and curiosity was satisfied. We saw once again that riches are no impediment to writing music, and learned that the Symphony doesn't discriminate for reasons of wealth either.
Sperry, his tenor a little darker than remembered, gave a flexible, attractive performance. Del Carlo portrayed and sang Falstaff neatly, with tasteful restraint and in good character. Edo de Waart conducted, doing all that was important.
William Glackin, Plump Jack
Deep-seated musical urge in the great and famous is a known phenomenon; witness King David and Frederick the Great, Einstein and Harry Truman. But in the case of Gordon P. Getty there seems to be a difference: His ambitions are serious.
He may not succeed in making people forget the connotations of his name, his fortune and the family oil business. But by the evidence of Plump Jack, Scene I, which was given a resoundingly successful first performance by the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall Wednesday night, he may indeed succeed in getting people to take him seriously as a composer.
It's a brilliantly theatrical piece. Only 13 minutes long, it is the first step in an inspired idea: to set to music four or five of Falstaff's scenes in Shakespeare's Henry IV and Henry V. This first scene is the one in Henry IV, Part I (Act II, Scene 4) in which the fat knight challenges his protege, Prince Hal, to justify his roistering in a mock audience with his father, the king. First Falstaff plays the king, seeking a good word for himself; then Hal takes the role away from him and denounces him as an old fat man a white-bearded Satan. The raillery turns suddenly serious at the end with a hint of Hal's future rejection of Sir John:
Falstaff protests: Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world. The prince says: I do, I will.
The work is scored for bass or bass-baritone (Falstaff), tenor (Hal) and orchestra. The writing for voices is satisfyingly expressive of the lines. As as for the orchestra, Getty uses it in resourceful, imaginative and effectively theatrical ways to surround, illuminate, underline, jostle, inflate, mock and, in general, have fun with what is being sung. The sound& ranges from the tinkle of a solo harpsichord and a muttering of tympani to a veritable screech from all the the brass to cover Falstaff's use of the word whoremaster. The idiom is tonal. There are a few orchestral phrases so loud they cover the words, but that's easily corrected. What counts is that the piece works extremely well as musical theater.
Its success Wednesday certainly owed something to a superb performance. John Del Carlo, the towering bass-baritone of the San Francisco Opera, cut a fine figure as Falstaff, and Paul Sperry, who made such a strong impression at last fall's New American Music Festival at California State University, Sacramento, made clear Hal's intelligence and wit. The singing was magnificent and was reinforced by just the right amount of physical acting. Edo de Waart conducted like a man enjoying his work. Plump Jack could hardly have had a more promising beginning.
Bernard Holland, The White Election
New York Times
At the center of Mignon Dunn's recital at Alice Tully Hall Thursday night were 18 songs from ''The White Election,'' Gordon Getty's setting of 32 Emily Dickinson poems. The cycle, as Mr. Getty's long and elaborate program notes tell us, is shaped in more or less biographical form and is intended to carry us through the spiritual progress of Emily Dickinson's uneventful, yet intensely felt, life in mid-19th-century America.
Mr. Getty has evidently responded to the laconic style of the poems; but while Emily Dickinson, the poet, has managed to compress great force into small spaces, Mr. Getty's settings are terse to the point of emptiness. There is, in other words, great deference to the text but hardly any music at all. What there is is expressed in popular 19th-century American harmonies, colored by occasional Schubertian devices and interrupted with a dissonant chord or two. Many of the songs avoid melody altogether and replace it with chanted text and single line accompaniments.... Thomas Fulton was the excellent pianist.
Joseph McClellan, The White Election
..."The White Election," a cycle of 32 songs on texts by Emily Dickinson, turned out to be a base hit, if not a home run. At first this outcome appeared unlikely. For one thing, the cycle is somewhat longer than either "Dichterliebe" or "Die Schoene Muellerin," in fact, so long that it constitutes a total program.
There seemed to be problems very early in the music's world premiere last night at the National Gallery. You couldn't call the first few songs amateurish exactly, but they seemed rather simple-minded for a classical program. The vocal lines often veered toward a sort of old-fashioned pop style. The music could have been composed at the same time as the poems--from 1858 to 1884--though some of it would have sounded a bit quirky then, like the poems, which themselves still sound a bit quirky.
The piano accompaniment was particularly strange. It showed a reluctance to use the full resources of the keyboard and little knowledge of harmony (or perhaps little interest in it). Most of the time, melodic fragments in the middle of the keyboard accompanied the soprano voice. Sometimes they did not seem very well coordinated with it. Occasionally, there were some ecclesiastical-sounding chords if they suited the mood of the words, or a melody that sounded like an echo of an old dance tune or a fragment of a children's song. But mostly, the piano seemed to be making a free-form comment on what the voice was doing. Until "I Should Not Dare to Leave My Friend" (1860), the last song in the first group and quite a good one, there was a certain sameness about the music.
All the poems in the second group were written in 1862; the Civil War is not exactly the subject, but it seems to loom in the background, and the rather sunny mood of the first group has become somber, preoccupied with death, loss and isolation. The music, too, changes; it becomes less disciplined, more expressive and, on the whole, considerably more interesting, certainly more varied. The interest continues and the variety grows throughout the rest of the cycle, though after one hearing the second section seems the best. One sees changes taking place, new possibilities opening up, a complex character portrait being formed by the words and music.
One does not usually go to the National Gallery early to read the program notes. Most of the time, there are none, except for the title and date of the composition. This time, however, there was a booklet--and when I finally had a chance to look through it, the composer's comments clarified what had been slowly dawning through the sequence of songs. Getty has tried to set the poems to music that Dickinson herself might have written. If he has not produced a masterpiece, he has developed a rather interesting idea.
Soprano Martha Steiger sang the cycle in a voice that was clear, accurate and usually sweet if not very rich in tone. Pianist Wendy Glaubitz tackled her rather unusual part intelligently.
Jason Victor Serinus, Plump Jack
It has been a long time coming, but Gordon Getty's most widely discussed composition, the opera Plump Jack, has finally made it to disc — the 75-minute concert version, that is, which omits two of the opera's scenes. And while it's not clear that we as yet have the opera in final form — since the first performance of the “Boar's Head Inn” scene (Act 1, Scene 5) at San Francisco Symphony in 1985, 11 additional scenes and an 11 minute and 18 second long overture have been added and orchestrated, and the entire opera has been recently revised — what we do have is an engaging musical enterprise that invites critical commentary…The music may be tonal in the traditional sense, yet its dark drama, arresting percussive exclamations, and intriguing dynamic contrasts immediately draw us — certainly me — in. Most of the ensuing dialogue far more resembles speech than melody, with Getty's notably rich and compelling orchestration conveying the underlying emotions…Even as I acknowledge that I want the opera to succeed — Getty is, after all, one of the Bay Area's and the world's great music and education philanthropists, whose generosity enables a host of organizations (including SFCV) to perform with excellence — I can honestly affirm that much of it does.
Jeff Kaliss, Usher House
San Francisco Classical Voice
“The Fall of the House of Usher” was Poe's most famous piece of prose. But even the biggest fans of that early American master of Gothic storytelling shouldn't be put off by Getty's canny twisting of the tale: He's made Poe himself the participant narrator, framing the single-act story with the author's mood-setting Prologue and somber Postlogue, in a manner evocative of Captain Vere's role at the beginning and end of Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd. In addition, Getty…has added elements to the devolution of the ancient curse on the Usher family, and has chosen to put the Usher Ancestors into the production (as either silent performers or projections). These alterations heighten the dramatic impact of the show, effectively conveyed in this recording by the emotive and powerful voices of the small international cast… The cast enlivens Getty's primarily discursive score, with Poe delivering the single closest thing to a set-piece aria — the harmonically chimerical “Where is my lady”… Another compositional standout is the extended orchestral writing that accompanies the entrance in Scene 2 of the Ancestors to the ballroom…and the dancing that follows. Getty grows more lyrical in this scene, with a smartly sardonic aside to Johann Strauss, and an occasional macabre stagger to the dance rhythm. The gestural aspect of much of the vocal score involves many repeated figures and octave leaps, well-paced and artfully accompanied by the Orquestra Gulbenkian… After the Prologue, the theatrical tone becomes deceptively collegial and upbeat, with Roderick welcoming a visit from his one-time school “Eddie” Poe… The transition to Roderick's revelation of his family's bleak history is a bit jarring and complex, but nonetheless entertaining…Getty colors the noir settings of the story and its location with effective deployment of horns and woodwinds, and interposes a celesta to represent the apparition of Madeline.
Jason Victor Serinus, Orchestral Works
Judging from their playing, which pours forth in one melodic stream after another, Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields must have relished their assignment. Their recent multi-channel SACD sampler of orchestral music by Gordon Getty (b. 1933), released by Pentatone, is a joyful experience, filled with one easy on the ear, richly scored piece after another....
Getty's melodic, tonally conservative potpourri begins with the 12-minute Overture to Plump Jack, a two-act opera that the San Francisco Symphony premiered in a concert production in 1987. Since played by major orchestras in Los Angeles, London, Spoleto (Italy), Aspen, Puerto Rico, New Mexico, and Mazatlan (Mexico), the opera depicts the Falstaff of Shakespeare's Henry IV and Henry V.
Getty writes, "The Overture is a synopsis of the story, quoting scenes of Falstaffian high jinks and of courtly grief by turn, along with a few idyllic episodes, interrupted by occasional distant fanfares warning of the banishment." It certainly has its share of rollicking moments, as well as an orchestral plushness that brings to mind the tone poems of Richard Strauss.
Jumping ahead two decades, the 12-movement Ancestor Suite was premiered in Moscow by the Russian National Orchestra in September 2009. The ballet score is loosely based on Edgar Allen Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. You'll be hard put to hear Poe's sinister menace and horror. This is far more the music of fairy tales, of characters waltzing and waltzing until they can waltz no more. To single out two of the movements, the lovely loneliness of Madeleine, and the wistfulness of Ewig Du, are especially pleasing.
The remaining shorter works are dominated by the five-movement Homework Suite. Initially composed for solo piano in 1964, when Getty was studying music theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, it includes a short Berceuse (at 2:14, the longest movement in the suite) that is especially sweet.
As the disc ends with Raise the Colors, a lively C-major march for winds and percussion, the overriding impression of sometimes rollicking loveliness remains. Getty's is the kind of genial music that, were you to hear it on the radio, you'd be tempted call the station to ask what you heard and where you can buy it.
Dina Kirnarskaya, Plump Jack
Sir John Falstaff, known to those close to him as "Pot-bellied Jack", appeared in the Grand Hall of Moscow Conservatory and as two different people at the same time. Scenes from the famous opera of Verdi, "Falstaff", and from the opera of our contemporary, American composer Gordon Getty, "Plump Jack", were performed on the same evening.
Both authors are known to all, one as a musical genius, the other as a very wealthy man. In this, however, he was not too lucky, strange as it may seem.
The composer Getty honorably lived up to the comparison with Maestro Verdi, included in the program of the concert. Just like the Shakespeare of comedies, the Shakespeare of "A Midsummer's Night's Dream" or the "Twelfth Night" does not resemble the author of "Hamlet" or "King Lear", Getty's music, clear-cut, chary and with a tragic shade does not resemble the juicy music of Verdi, full of buffoonery. Here both composers are faithful to the literary original: Verdi to "The Merry Wives of Windsor", Getty - to "Henry IV". The drunkard and jester Falstaff is represented in Getty's opera to the manner of Shakespeare's joker, where burlesque and irony are inseparable from prophetic implication.
Getty's modern opera is more favorable to the actors than the old man Verdi. Despite the orchestra of Mikhail Pletnyov, brilliant in every respect, the secrets of belcanto proved to be independent of the singers. But, instead, in the opera "Plump Jack" everyone managed to make a brilliant display....
The Moscow premier is one of 40 performances of "Plump Jack". But there will be only three full productions, all in the USA. This is far too few for an opera which is staged so well. It simply suffocates without a theatre, without scenery and costumes....
Joan and the Bells
When I took off my 3D glasses and stopped peering into the screen, I could finally truly enjoy the evening... And this is exactly what I value about the RNO's performances: you are guaranteed to be impressed. [These] musicians have that rare talent of reminding us about the nature of true art, which doesn't grow old, which is always original and fresh. And the eighth Russian National Orchestra Grand Festival has become yet another testimony to this fact.
[Translated from Russian]