Playbill Arts: 20 (Plus) Questions with Ricky Ian Gordon

The original cast recording of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Grapes of Wrath will be released by PS Classics Aug. 26. The busy composer recently took time to contribute his opinions, loves and wit to this new Q&A series.

Ricky Ian Gordon’s Green Sneakers recently premiered at Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival to enthusiastic acclaim. His "Orpheus and Euridice"(OBIE Award) has been touring the country, and his hugely successful opera of Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath, (written with librettist Michael Korie) is touring the country with stops in Pittsburgh in November, and Opera Pacific in January.

A live recording of the original Minnesota Opera production comes out on the PS Classics label on August 26. There will be a launch event 5:30 PM that day at the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble, with performances by Tony Award-winner Victoria Clark and others.

Gordon currently has commissions from The Metropolitan Opera, Minnesota Opera, Virginia Opera as well as The Virginia Center for the Arts, Playwrights Horizons, and The Signature Theater.

On October 6, 2008 he will present a 9:30 PM concert of his work at Joe’s Pub with friends Kelli O’Hara, Elizabeth Futral, Mary Testa and Jesse Blumberg.

Reading Ricky Ian Gordon’s responses to 20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS is enormously entertaining, simultaneously daunting (how does he know so much and about so many different things?) and inspiring (wow, there’s so much to learn about in this world!).


1. A few works of classical music that you adore:
Alban Berg’s Lulu, Benjamin Britten’s Death In Venice, Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony, Paul Hindemith’s Kammermusic # 2 (Piano Concerto), Michael Tippet’s 2nd Symphony and The Knot Garden, Hugo Weisgall’s The Tenor and The Stronger, Hans Werner Henze’s Cantata Della Fiaba Estrema, Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, Rückert Lieder, and Kindertotenlieder, Messiaen’s Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine, and and and and I love Michael Torke’s Proverbs too…but I like a LOT of music! Bartók is awe inspiring, and I love Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto.

2. Classical music recordings that you treasure:
Janet Baker singing Mahler with Sir John Barbirolli conducting; all of the Britten operas with him conducting! Ned Rorem’s Ariel song cycle with Phyllis Curtin singing (I love Phyllis Curtin); the Shostakovich 14th conducted by Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Phyllis Curtin and Simon Estes; the original Nonesuch recording of Steve Reich’s Tehillim; an old recording that had Hans Werner Henze’s Cantata Della Fiaba Estrema on it with Edda Moser who was one of my favorite singers ever! Plus, the Otto Klemperer recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

3. Favorite non-classical musicians and/or recordings:
Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and Ladies of the Canyons and Songs to a Seagull and Clouds; Adam Guettel’s Light in the Piazza and Floyd Collins; Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party; Neil Young’s album After The Gold Rush; movie composers…lots of them! Delerue, Fusco, DeSica…Laura Nyro, especially New York Tenderberry, and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Wait…I also think Gerald Busby’s film score for 3 Women is incredible!

4. Music that makes you cry – any genre:
The bass aria from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, "Mache Dich, Mein Herze, Rein," with Walter Berry singing (the Otto Klemperer recording); Janet Baker singing Mahler’s Ich Bin Der Welt Abhanden Gekommen; Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Bach’s "Ich Habe Genug;" Georges Delerue’s Film Music for The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim and Hiroshima Mon Amour (with Giovanni Fusco) and Manuel DeSica’s music for The Garden of the Finzi-Continis; Ethel Waters singing "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" in Member of the Wedding. Audrey Hepburn singing "Moon River," and anything my mother sings…Eve Gordon who was once Eve Saunders of the Borscht Belt.

5. Definitely underrated work(s) or composer (s):
Hugo Weisgall! His operas The Tenor and The Stronger are masterpieces! Also, when I was growing up, I loved an opera by Richard Mohaupt called Double Trouble! Now there’s a name most of you won’t remember! But I loved all the Louisville Recordings as well as a label called Desto and both had tons of rarities.

Also, a composer named David Ward Steinman who wrote beautiful settings of Sappho! I think MANY MANY MANY American composers are underrated…Harold Shapero, Robert Ward, I LOVE Mark Blitzstein! Wait…a film composer named Paul Dunlap whose wonderful score for Fuller’s The Naked Kiss should be recorded!

I really get irritated when people talk about Barber’s score for Vanessa in pejorative terms. They should only write something that beautiful! I think an underrated composer is Donald York who used to be Paul Taylor’s musical director and composed fantastic scores for his dances (Diggity, Polaris, Last Look, Snow White, Syzygy among others)
6. Possibly overrated work(s) or composer (s):
Oh, now that’s a dangerous question…I rarely like to read for example, composers’ criticisms as it really feels unseemly for composers to join in all the mud slinging that goes towards composers in the first place…but if I must, and I had to pick a composer I thought was overrated, it would be Virgil Thompson. There are others but it would be damning for me to name them. Ask me when I’m 90!

7. Live music performance (s) you attended – any genre – that you’ll never forget:
Joni Mitchell at Carnegie Hall when I was a teenager and she said hello to me from the stage and called me her pen pal! (I have a letter from her over my piano, if you wanna see it); Phyllis Curtin singing Ned Rorem’s Ariel song cycle at Alice Tully Hall for his 50th birthday; Peter Pears in Death In Venice at The Met when I was a teen at Carnegie Mellon University, and I came home for the American premiere; Theresa McCarthy in Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins.

OHHHH…one of the greatest things I have ever seen – and I saw it four times – was Meredith Monk’s Quarry at BAM’s Lapercq Space; Janet Baker doing the American premiere of Britten’s Phedre; Renata Scotto…I was working as an usher at The Met and I had to good fortune to pull curtain at the end of her Madama Butterfly, which was incredible…James Levine was crying backstage. Teresa Stratas in Lulu was spellbinding!

Oh…any genre…Andre Serban’s production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at Lincoln Center; Tony Kushner’s Angels In America; Bergman’s production of The Doll’s House at BAM. Also…A Chorus Line when it first opened at The Public Theater, and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies on Broadway the first time around.

8. A few relatively recent films you love:
The Lives Of Others; Brokeback Mountain; The Edge of Heaven; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

9. A few films you consider classics:
Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour; Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria; Rohmer’s Summer; Truffaut’s The Woman Next Door and The 400 Blows; Olmi’s Il Posto; Ozu’s Late Autumn and Tokyo Story; Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu; Fassbinder’s The Marriage Of Maria Braun; Bergman’s Cries and Whispers; Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde; Robert Altman’s 3 Women.

10. A few books that are important to you (and why):
Albert Camus’ The Plague because I somehow found my love for reading when I read that book in high school…it solidified the whole notion of metaphor for me; Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, because it changed how I see and feel about the world, and was so awe inspiringly mysterious and both penetrable and impenetrable all at once.

Recently…I loved a memoir entitled, The End Of The World As We Know It by Robert Goolrick because I couldn’t put it down and found it hilarious and heartbreaking and utterly brilliant, and Marie Howe’s poetry collection What The Living Do, because it came at the right time and helped me put my life back together at an extremely difficult time. Jame’s Kirkwood’s Good Times Bad Times and William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf somehow made me feel OK about being gay.

Oh, and Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies because her voice is so WHOLLY unique and I laugh harder at parts of that book than I have ever laughed before. The Chekhov plays are a bible for me…my current favorite translation is Paul Schmidt.

11. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re most proud of:
My aesthetic. What I do. My jaw line? The incredible people in my life that I have somehow luckily attracted.

12. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re embarrassed by:
My baldness. I hate admitting it…but sometimes I really want my hair back…I even dream about it. Hair, come back, OK? BUT not on the tip of my nose! Why does it grow everywhere but where you want it? And… No matter WHAT I do, and I am talking about even bulimia and anorexia, I can’t get rid of my love handles.

13. Three things you can’t live without:
It’s like I wanna say my Prada handbag or something, because at this point I feel silly answering these questions…like I should be wearing sunglasses while I answer them. But that said, besides air, water, and food… moisturizer, my computer (I hate admitting that…I suppose if I had to…), those I love…but I am pretty good at letting go of stuff.

14. "When I want to get away from it all I…"
Go away and write. My favorite place to go away and write is an arts colony in Wyoming (my favorite state even though it is horrible that Bush has instituted drilling there and Matthew Shepard was murdered there) called Ucross, which is unbearably beautiful. My partner Kevin and I have a house now on a lake in upstate New York…it is becoming my new heaven.

15. "People are surprised to find out that I…"
…have a sadder interior, what with my gregarious nature…and am very drawn to dark subjects. My favorite director is Bergman…say no more. Maybe they are surprised then, having come to terms with those things about me, that I would not want to live on a planet without "Project Runway" and if I weren’t a composer I would be a nose making up fragrances day and night. As it is, I spend half my life sniffing them.

16. "My favorite cities are…"
I really love Istanbul…and Paris, and Siena…but probably New York is my favorite city because I still don’t want to leave.

17. "I have a secret crush on…"
Simon Mulligan
Kelli O’Hara (not so secret)
Sanjay Gupta.

18. "My most obvious guilty pleasure is…"
Fragrance…I am mad about cologne! And Hats! I love hats…and clothes…I could spend everything on clothes and fragrance and Diptyque Candles, and I long to make enough money to have a cleaning lady once a week and a life time supply of Clarins skin care products.

19. "I’d really love to meet…"
Francois Truffaut…I wish I could have met him, and Ingmar Bergman; composers I admire- like Britten, but I’m afraid he would be mean to me… as no one can be meaner to a composer than another composer; Joni Mitchell! Buddha. Jesus Christ. Moses. Marcel Proust. Barbra Streisand.

20. "I never understood why…"
There is so much cruelty and hatred in the world. Why Alison was booted off "Project Runway" so soon last year…I mean her garbage dress was no masterpiece…but she was really good! I have a secret crush on her too! That really set me back.


21. Question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer to that question):

I would like Peter Gelb to ask me "Ricky, would you like The Met to do your opera The Grapes Of Wrath, even though we are commissioning a new piece, and at its original length?"

And I would like Robert Hurwitz at Nonesuch to ask me, "Ricky, would you like to make a few more CD’s with us, your choice? We’ll get whomever you want to perform. Let’s start with Green Sneakers. OK?"

And I would like Barbara Cook to sing my music and ask me to recite more poems at another dinner party… and Audra McDonald to record more of my songs, maybe a whole CD… and Kristin Chenoweth to not only do the same, but to return my calls and emails, and thank me for paying for an entire arrangement of a song for her Met concert after which I never heard from her.

[Gordon’s respective answers would be]

To Gelb: "Yes. Let’s talk."
To Hurwitz: "Great!"
To Cook and McDonald: "Great!"
To Chenoweth: "That’s okay, Kristin. I know you’re busy…"

– Albert Imperato, Playbill Arts, August 24, 2008