Gordon Getty’s New Album of Choral Works

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GETTY: The Old Man in the Night. The Old Man in the Morning. Ballet Russe. Shenandoah. There Was a Naughty Boy. Those Who Love the Most. Beauty Come Dancing. For a Dead Lady. The Destruction of Sennacherib. Cynara. La Belle Dame sans Merci / The Netherlands Radio Choir & Orchestra; James Gaffigan, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC 5186 621

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 85…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.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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