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A complete archive of reviews of works by Gordon Getty.

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Beauty Come Dancing, San Francisco Classical Voice

Jeff Kaliss, Beauty Come Dancing
San Francisco Classical Voice

Gordon Getty Aims for Tunes Chopin Might Have Written

Beauty Come Dancing, on the Pentatone label, is an attractive collection that confirms Gordon Getty's twin loves of composing for voice and making poetry into music. Even those familiar with Getty's operatic settings of Shakespeare (Plump Jack) and Poe (Usher House) may be unaware that the composer studied English at the University of San Francisco before earning a bachelor's degree and setting the verses of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Emily Dickinson in song. The poets assembled here range historically from Lord Byron to John Masefield to Getty himself, and the music in many aspects is as varied as the verse, unified by the composer's self-declared affinity for 19th-century tropes of elegance and romance, and his flair for the dramatic.

These qualities are airily and engagingly conveyed by the Netherlands Radio Choir and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by James Gaffigan, and are evident in Getty's own poetry, the source for the album's first two offerings. “The Old Man in the Night” showcases the full instrumental and vocal ensembles in a gentle and reflective account of an interchange between two characters at opposite ends of their lives. “The Old Man in the Morning,” written more recently, elicits plaintive accompaniment on English horn, harp, and strings. Love is an abiding theme here for both poets and composer, as is dance, first manifest in Getty's take on John Masefield's “Ballet Russe.” The poem references Chopin, and Getty, in the liner notes, has stated his “aim for tunes Chopin might have written, but didn't.”

Like his Polish pianist-composer predecessor, Getty's pacing and coloration sound choreographed, the arpeggiated piano sparkling at the center of the choral display, partnered by harp and strings. “Shenandoah,” though its lyric lies in folklore, may be one of Getty's most affecting single pieces to date. The refrain's “rolling river” is audible in the swells and runs, the harmonic arrangement alluring and rustically fresh and unaffected.

The affect for John Keats's “There Was a Naughty Boy” is appropriately jumpy and playful, in short lines like a child's story song. The only setting for women's chorus is matched to “Those Who Love the Most,” the only poem by a woman. The music invokes the magic in the poet's mythic name-checks and palpably positions love as triumphant. For the album's titular “Beauty Come Dancing,” from a poem by the composer, Getty trickily pairs iambic pentameter with waltz time, with giddy accompaniment by flutes, clarinets, celesta, and strings. The waltz sobers up for Edwin Arlington Robinson's “For a Dead Lady,” in an alluring setting for chamber orchestra that ends artfully unresolved.

Another compelling change of scene on Lord Byron's epic of “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” perhaps the most evocative of the masterful mustering of the individual sections and instruments of the orchestra apparent in some of Getty's operatic writing. It's arguably also the composer's closest approach to advanced 20th-century chromatic modulations and anguished voicings. The tale of “Cynara” is the work of “Decadent” poet and novelist Ernest Christopher Dawson, but Getty's deployment of men's chorus and chamber orchestra, effectively dramatic, honor's the poet's febrile longing but avoids the garish. Keats returns for the closer, “La belle dame sans merci,” with which Getty takes on another of his favorite roles, unabashedly sustaining single notes or chords when they serve his role as a storyteller. In an ironic twist on Keats's “wither'd sedge” where “no birds sing,” Getty commands a clarinet to sing anyway. All the poetry appears in the album's booklet, making for a quite satisfying celebration of two forms of creative expression.

 

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Beauty Come Dancing, Epoch Times

Barry Bassis, Beauty Comes Dancing
The Epoch Times

Gordon Getty's Ode to Love and Dance
Gordon Getty (b. 1933) is a distinguished composer of songs and operas inspired by poetry. “Beauty Comes Dancing” is a new release on the Pentatone label of Getty's choral works performed by The Netherlands Radio Choir led by chorus master Klaas Stok, and The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Gaffigan. This is the third album of his choral works.

Getty is a self-described conservative, both in the poetry that inspires him and the music he writes. The only living poet in the collection and the one who wrote the title piece and two other songs on the CD is himself. This is not the first time he has set his own words to music. Like Wagner, whom Getty admires, he supplies his own librettos for his operas: “Plump Jack” (based on Shakespeare's Falstaff), “Usher House” (based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story “The Fall of the House of Usher”), and “The Canterville Ghost” (based on Oscar Wilde's novella).

The opening piece, and the longest and most complex work in the collection, is “The Old Man in the Night.” The lyrics deal with two men, one young and other elderly, both supposedly representing the author at different times in his life. Much of the poem is an evocation of beauty, ending with: “Beauty beyond all keeping, worth all cost/O beautiful and merciless my love.”

“The Old Man in the Morning” shows a more hopeful new day, where it is “all spring, all morning, just as then.”

John Keats (1795–1821) is Getty's favorite poet, and John Masefield (1878–1967) his second favorite. Both are represented in his collection.

Masefield, like Getty, was a ballet aficionado and, in “Ballet Russe,” Beauty returns in the form of a ballerina, “all that a boyhood loves and manhood needs.” The first line of the poem mentions Chopin, and the music suggests the style of the earlier composer.The title piece on the CD, with words by Getty, has all nature dancing, “when the world is young” and “loud with music [and] mirth.”

“Shenandoah” is Getty's choral arrangement of the American folk song. He had written an earlier arrangement for soprano Lisa Delan, who has been a frequent interpreter of his music.“There Was a Naughty Boy” is a lighthearted poem by Keats, and Getty's setting is equally playful.

Sara Teasdale's (1884–1933) “Those Who Love the Most” (the only poem on the album by a female writer) is a look backward to the era of courtly love, with references to Guinevere, Deirdre, Iseult, and Heloise.Edward Arlington Robinson's “For a Dead Lady” is a melancholy waltz, wondering at the end, “Of what inexorable cause/Makes Time so vicious in his reaping.”

“The Destruction of Sennacherib” by Lord Byron (1788–1824) is a dramatic piece, beginning with an attack by the Assyrian army and concluding with the grieving widows of Ashur.Ernest Christopher Dowson's (1867–1900) “Cynara” is performed by a male chorus and orchestra. At one point the poet exclaims, “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! In my fashion.”  This poem was supposedly the inspiration for Cole Porter's song “Always True to You in My Fashion” from the musical “Kiss Me, Kate.” Getty's musical setting is far more serious in tone than the Broadway composer's.Keats's “La Belle Dame sans Merci” again recalls knightly love and ends with the poet alone “where no birds sing.”

The Netherlands Radio Choir under Chorus Master Klaas Stok clearly articulates the text, although where the orchestra reaches an occasional crescendo, the words are sometimes obscured. Pentatone helpfully supplies the poems along with an essay by Jeff Kaliss, a statement from the composer, and information about the choir, the superb Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as its conductor James Gaffigan.“Beauty Comes Dancing” attests to Getty's facility for setting poetry to music.

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Four Dickinson Songs, A Certain Slant of Light, Opera News

Joshua Rosenblum, A Certain Slant of Light, Opera News
Opera News

"Delan previously recorded Getty's cycle The White Election, which consists of thirty-one Dickinson settings. The set featured here, Four Dickinson Songs, consists of songs that were not included in The White Election but are among his best. 

“Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers” has reverent, cinematic grandeur and superb coloristic contrast. “A Bird Came Down the Walk” makes inventive use of fragmented solo harpsichord in its first two stanzas and a romantically soaring vocal line for the rest. “There's a certain Slant of Light,” the album's title track, features clangorous, dissonant chimes representing the “oppress[ive] heft of cathedral tunes.” The famous “Because I could not stop for Death,” which opens with a driving duplet figure on the xylophone, is swirling and ghoulish, with a touch of macabre humor. (There's another setting of the same poem in the Copland set, but Getty's is better.)"

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Beauty Come Dancing, Art Music Lounge

Lynn René Bayley, Beauty Come Dancing
The Art Music Lounge

Gordon Getty has long been one of my favorite contemporary composers, which many of my readers—knowing my proclivity for modern music that is harmonically spiky, bitonal or atonal—may find surprising. But as I've said many times before, my criteria for judging new music is not how spiky the harmonies are but whether or not the music is well-constructed and says something, regardless of the tonal base, and too many modern composers just write “sensational” music that really doesn't develop or say anything.

Fortunately, Getty was musically trained the old-fashioned way, not meaning simply that he writes tonally but meaning that he learned how to create themes and develop them logically, and this is what one hears in this excellent new collection. As in the case of his solo vocal music, Getty is particularly adept at writing for voices, even in choral settings. Unlike his song cycle of Emily Dickinson songs, The White Election, which was purposely written in a simple strophic manner to simulate Dickinson singing and playing the piano herself, the harmonic language of these works is more sophisticated, like that of his excellent opera Usher House.

Interestingly, some of these pieces are set to poems by Getty himself such as the first, The Old Man in the Night, the longest and most complex piece on this album. The text concerns two men at opposite ends of their lives, which Getty claims are his own young and old selves (he is now 80…hard to believe, considering the youthful enthusiasm of his composition style). The Netherlands Radio Choir is a fine group of singers but not very clear in their diction; without the lyrics printed in the booklet, I wouldn't have a clue what they were singing. Only a few consonants are clearly articulated (mostly from the women, not the men), which leads to a confused muddle of sound rather than a succession of words. On the other hand, James Gaffigan is an excellent conductor, bringing out the power and sweep of Getty's music superbly, and the orchestra plays with commitment and drive behind him.

Although a separate piece with a different text, The Old Man in the Morning almost sounds like a second movement to the first piece. No, the music is not exactly the same, but the mood, the rhythm and the feel of the music make it sound like, perhaps, an early draft of the first piece, at least musically speaking. By contrast, Ballet Russe, set to a text by John Masefield that begins, “The gnome from the moonland plays the Chopin air, the ballerina glides out of the wings, like all the Aprils of forgotten Springs.” Perhaps a bit more variety in dynamics contrasts could have been put into the music, but again, it is very effective in its own way.

The fourth piece is Getty's arrangement of the famous tune Shenandoah, and it is one of the finest I've heard of that over-performed tune. Here, too, Getty's orchestration is particularly varied, using light textures and a transparent sound palette. John Keats' There Was a Naughty Boy is set to rapid strophes, highly rhythmic with irregular beats and accents. The orchestration in this one is also quite original. Those Who Love the Most, based on Sara Teasdale's poem, is a broad adagio with soft horn and trombone textures sprinkled with glockenspiel and piano.

Beauty Comes Dancing, based on another original poem, is a lilting waltz featuring a solo violin (possibly played by concertmaster Joris van Rijn) and, later solo clarinet, again with irregular metric divisions of the beats and harmonic shifts that add interest. For a Dead Lady begins as a waltz, not quite as elegiac in mood as you'd expect, which morphs into 4 with continually changing accents, often pitting two different meters (chorus and orchestra) against each other.

I was particularly impressed by Getty's very dramatic setting of Lord Byron's The Destruction of Sennacherib with its powerful rhythms and aggressive brass chords—quite different from everything else that had preceded it. Musically and dramatically, this is clearly a masterpiece, and should be performed regularly by American choruses. Without going into too much detail, the music is built around similar lines as the preceding pieces but geared towards a more dynamic aesthetic. I was blown away by it!Getty's setting of Ernest Dawson's Cynara also uses a dark-sounding orchestral palette, and has an undercurrent of menace about it (mostly achieved via downward minor-key passages played by both the cellos and violins), but at a slower tempo and quieter volume. He is such a diverse composer that he knows, at this stage of his career, exactly how to gauge effects without making them sound contrived. I recommend this piece, and the preceding, to young contemporary composers as an example of how to be creative without being formulaic. This piece also includes a contrasting central section that is quieter, reflecting the words at that point, before becoming more aggressive and powerful.

The album concludes with Getty's setting of Keats' La Belle Dame sans Merci and here we encounter another, entirely different sort of setting, dramatic and strophic, with pregnant pauses in the music for emphasis. The diminuendo effect at the two-minute mark is an interesting touch, although the chorus doesn't quite bring it off as effectively as they could have. The sort of downward, minor-key passages one heard in the previous work are here assigned to the harp as well as the violas and violins, and used much more judiciously. The bitonal chord assigned to the chorus just around the six-minute mark also adds interest and makes the music highly effective.

This is clearly one of the finest collections of Getty's music extant, and I'm deeply grateful to Pentatone Classics for recording and issuing it. Even with my few caveats regarding the performance, it is a fine achievement all round.

 

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Richard S. Ginell, Scare Pair

Gordon Getty might be the wealthiest classical composer in history this side of Felix Mendelssohn or Frederick the Great. The resulting celebrity guarantees him an audience, but respect has been harder to come by.

Nevertheless, Getty has persevered in his late-blooming career as a composer, writing three relatively short operas, several choral works and song cycles, and some orchestral, piano, and chamber pieces, many of which can be heard in SACD splendor on PentaTone label. The recordings reveal a capable composer and a fairly reticent one – no grandiose shouting at the balcony for its own sake. Heir to an oil fortune, Getty has said that he is “two-thirds a 19th-century composer,” but what I hear is an unmistakable 20th-century man who has sidestepped the main trends of the era and prefers to write in a self-effacing, tonal, non-ear-threatening style. His closest musical soulmate, intended or not, is probably Benjamin Britten.

Getty's most recent one-act operas, Usher House and The Canterville Ghost, were meant to be paired together – and indeed they do offset each other well, with Usher being immersed in the murky morbid world of Edgar Allan Poe and Canterville a setting of a rollicking ghost story by Oscare Wilde. So on June 22, LA Opera Off Grand, the company's ever-adventurous offsite offshoot, put both of them on the Broad Stage under the label "Scare Pair"...

Liberally based upon Poe's enigmatic Gothic short story "The Fall of the House of Usher", Usher House is a followup piece to Getty's ballet Ancestor Suite, which was also inspired by the same Poe story. With the exception of the central ballet sequence, the opera's musical language is very different from that of the suite; the opera is spare-textured, inward-looking, and almost all recitative, with plenty of room for the voices to be heard. Getty injects Poe in the flesh into the opera as the narrator and longtime friend of Roderick Usher...

Yet nothing in Usher's score is terribly inspired, and there is little dramatic tension in the buildup to the conclusion....

In The Canterville Ghost, a wealthy American family circa 1890 buys an English manor whose resident ghost, Sir Simon de Canterville, tries and fails to put the willies in them. The work was unexpectedly delightful; Opera Leipzig's recording doesn't convey as much fun as this production did. Here, too, Getty put in something of his own: an opening scene set in 1960 in which the eighty-something couple Cecil Cheshire...and Virginia Otis...tell the great-grandchildren about what happened 70 years before, making the rest of the opera a flashback. The scoring is lighter in mood and thoroughly tonal, but not in a white-bread way, with flashes of humor that got the audience chuckling....

Bursts of amplified sound effects helped to relieve any tedium during the frequent breaks between Canterville's 20 mostly short scenes. Canterville's final scene, with the lovers Cecil and Virginia singing and the celesta playing the only memorable Getty tunes to be heard all night, was saved from sentimentality by Virginia's refusal to admit that she had helped the ghost achieve his long-sought eternal rest.

The composer, now 84, was on hand to take a bow with the rest of the cast, playfully acting like one of his ghosts. Of course, neither he nor his two operas scared anyone.

 

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The Canterville Ghost, Scare Pair, Usher House, Bachtrack

Laurence Vittes, Scare Pair
Bachtrack

While Usher House and The Canterville Ghost may have been Oscar Wilde retro they turned out to be nearly as charming as their counterparts were the first time around. Both operas had a genuinely American feel to them – the cowboy lilt of a waltz or a simple populist tune – they also shared a common theme: of being haunted by inheritance. Of course they they come to different conclusions. Usher House ends anticlimactically in dust and a last echo of Rheingold; the Ghost in a Norman Rockwell hymn of peace.

In each, Getty's ability to write for singers trumps almost all his shortcomings. It's clear that the singers can't wait for their next big set piece, or their next bit of business, because they know that the audience will love them (if they sing beautifully) even if the vehicle is not yet Mozart. It made for a delicious, slightly overlong afternoon in which everybody on the stage, was magnetic, and the audience responded not only with applause at the end but a surprising volley of cheers.

The better of the two operas was the Usher House, which had its world premiere in 2014 at Welsh National Opera. Its title is a gracious gesture to distinguish it from the Poe story from which it is adapted; it needn't have worried. Getty has his own way with the very curious tale that is alternately intriguing, downright sexy, and just plain dolorous, all in a sort of comic bookish way....

The Canterville Ghost had its moments. It was originally given by Oper Leipzig in 2015 in an incongruous double bill with Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, but some of the narrative was really too long and a series of scene changes as the end neared were longer than the scenes....

 

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The Canterville Ghost, Scare Pair, Usher House, Los Angeles Times

Richard S. Ginell, Scare Pair
Los Angeles Times

Having reached the ripe age of 84, composer-philanthropist Gordon Getty can look back upon a fairly sizable body of work, mostly for the voice, that he has written over the last three decades.

His music gets a mixed bag of reviews which — good, bad and indifferent — are unflinchingly documented on his website. Yet the PentaTone label diligently records much of his output, and his music does get live performances — if more in his home base, the Bay Area, than in Southern California. To round out its 2017-18 season, Los Angeles Opera Off-Grand took a chance on two recent Getty works, a pair of hourlong one-act operas.

Composed of “Usher House” and “The Canterville Ghost” — which are based upon tales by Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde, respectively — the double-header was marketed as the “Scare Pair,” though neither piece would scare a fly... The two operas do make a logical twin-bill — the spooky, enigmatic “Usher” followed by the comic relief of “Canterville” — much like LA Opera's pairing of Bartók's “Bluebeard's Castle” and Puccini's “Gianni Schicchi” back in the Kent Nagano era (2002). Of the two, though, only “Canterville” strikes me as something that might catch on, and the lively cast and staging had a lot to do with that.

In “Usher House,” Getty inserted Poe himself into the opera as the narrator who visits his old “friend” Roderick Usher, the inhabitant of the doomed house. Much of the opera is an overly talky back-and-forth between Poe and Roderick, with a gracefully written instrumental ballet sequence in its center featuring Roderick's writhing, contorting, terminally ill twin sister Madeline and some onscreen ghostly ancestors.

Getty's score is spare, inward-looking, unapologetically tonal, channeling Benjamin Britten in mood and texture if not actual style, and consisting of mostly unmemorable recitative with little connection between the orchestra and the singing line. Poe's murky tale doesn't seem to inspire the best in composers — Debussy couldn't finish his own version and Philip Glass' take on “Usher” consists of mainly routine minor-key underscoring — so Getty is not alone in being unable to come up with a compelling piece of music theater.

Ultimately, Dave Dunning's scenery designs and David Murakami's elaborate projections scored the main points in “Usher's” favor. Through direct projections on Gothic-shaped (of course) arches onstage and others from a giant 20 foot-by-24-foot video monitor in the back of the stage, they provided stunning simulations of the dark, gloomy Usher library and observatory, as well as a ballroom in which hologram-like images of ghosts danced.

“The Canterville Ghost” came off as the more engaging piece, with 20 mostly brief scenes tracing Wilde's storyline about a rich American family circa 1890 that buys an English mansion with its own resident ghost. There is satire about how Americans rely upon consumer products and litigation to solve their problems, and the ghost (Sir Simon de Canterville) can't scare the bejeebers out of any of these Yankees, least of all a pair of twin boys who torment the poor fella.

The scoring is lighter in weight than in “Usher,” still mostly recitative, but now with flashes of humor like the interpolations of “Yankee Doodle” and “Rule Britannia.” And in the final scene, for the first time all night, Getty hits upon a couple of attractive melodic ideas for the audience to take home from the theater. The video screen displayed a riot of bright, vibrant color in the cemetery, as well as in the scenes of croquet in the park — and a library of amplified sound effects during scene changes mostly added to the hilarity....

Altogether, LA Opera Off-Grand's cast made a much better case for Getty's ghost comedy than the PentaTone recording.

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The Canterville Ghost, Scare Pair, Usher House, LA Weekly

Scott Feinblatt, Scare Pair
Scare Pair

This weekend, Santa Monica's Broad Stage held two performances of L.A. Opera's double bill of works by composer Gordon Getty. The two pieces were based on Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher (first performed by Welsh National Opera in 2014) and on Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost (first performed by Leipzig Opera in 2015). The show, which featured Getty's adapted librettos, was called Scare Pair, and it successfully achieved a unique fusion of classic spooky stories and opera....

The show began with the Poe adaptation titled Usher House. The libretto made several departures from Poe's classic tale. Principally, these included having Poe as a character in the story (in the place of the unnamed narrator from the original); the addition of a mad scientist/doctor, Dr. Primus; and a romantic history between Poe and Madeline Usher (Jamielyn Duggan).

The performance, which was in English, featured projected subtitles over the stage; these helped one's understanding of the libretto quite a bit due to the complexity of the archaic verbiage throughout Usher House... In Usher House, the principal number was in the form of an old poem that symbolized the bond between Poe and Madeline. The score was alternately whimsically lighthearted and suitably threatening. Such dynamism conveyed the natures of both light opera and stories of gloom and doom.

The inherent challenge of Usher House is that Poe's tale does not have a lot of action. Thus, several sequences were added to the story, including a ball of spectral attendees (the Ushers of generations past) and a visit to the house's astronomy room, wherein Dr. Primus explains the connection between the cosmos, life and death, and the arcane scientific knowledge held by the Usher family. These sequences were successful at conjuring a strong mood, and the sparing use of the Madeline character (who elicited the passion of the Poe character) was successful at generating the sense of mystery. While Usher House succeeded in its ambiance, the dialogue was excessively expository, and this revealed the limits to attempting to adapt Poe's words to opera. Furthermore, although the score was very good in the hands of conductor Sara Jobin, the opera might have benefited from more individual songs to punctuate the piece as a whole.

The second opera, The Canterville Ghost, was a great complement to Usher House. While Usher House was successful at maintaining an unsettling tone throughout, The Canterville Ghost took the theme of haunting to the light side. Wilde's tale features an ages-old ghost named Sir Simon, who meets his match in an obnoxious American family, which seems immune to his attempts at scaring them or causing them harm....

The Canterville Ghost made for an enjoyable short opera (the entire running time of Scare Pair was about 2 hours and 20 minutes). Like Usher House, this piece was punctuated with a single love song... Adaptations of literary works into theatrical productions are always a challenge. In this case, the challenge of adapting Poe to opera yielded an appropriately atmospheric show with some chilling and enthralling moments, but it never quite broke free of its literary roots. Perhaps this was done intentionally so as to show reverence for Poe's writing. In any case, Wilde's comedy provided a more relaxed piece that did not challenge the linguistic capacity of its audience. Collectively, L.A. Opera's Off Grand presentation of Scare Pair...was an entertaining hybrid of spooky stories and opera, providing fans of scary stories with an eloquent theatrical experience and fans of opera with a particularly colorful program.

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Four Dickinson Songs, A Certain Slant of Light, Epoch Times

Barry Bassis, Four Dickinson Songs
Epoch Times

He creates a cathedral-like sound for “There's a Certain Slant of Light” and ends with the same poem as Copland's “The Chariot,” using the original title, “Because I could not stop for Death.” Including both versions shows how two composers can create compelling settings for the same words.

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