PHOTOGRAPH: COURTESY OF RICKY IAN GORDON
Silver Rain, the album of art songs to be performed at Ravinia July 30, began in the waiting room of an eye-ear-nose-throat doctor. That's where the composer Ricky Ian Gordon and the soprano Nicole Cabell, previously colleagues through the Lyric Opera, serendipitously bumped into each other. “He’s a composer, so he needs his ears, and I’m a singer, so I need my throat,” Cabell says.
She had sung some of Gordon’s work—settings of Langston Hughes poems—to win the Singer of the World competition, in Cardiff, Wales, in 2005. He knew that she’d chosen his songs, but he hadn’t heard her sing them. They planned for her to stop by his place to sing through a few.
When Gordon heard her, he was floored. “My God, this is major. I really want you to record these,” he remembers saying. They chose a 10-song cycle, called Genius Child, and 11 selections from a collection called Only Heaven. Those songs appeared on an album, released last year, and the two will perform those 21 songs at Ravinia with Gordon on piano.
Both the breadth of Hughes’s poetry and its narrative voice resonate with Gordon, who crosses between the classical and musical-theater worlds. He chose an idiom for the Hughes poems where an art-song sound is tinged with musical theater and jazz. The economy and lyricism of the poems leaves room for Gordon to render a unique texture for each, with clarion melodies and pure, tonal harmonies.
“I grew up somewhat persecuted for being Jewish and gay,” Gordon says. “It’s not the same as growing up black, but I could sort of match the inner life of those poems with my music.” The singularity of each poem within Hughes’s broader, consistent lyric undercurrent lends itself to the form of the song cycle. “[Hughes] can be angry. He can be funny. He’s also transcendent,” Gordon says. “He understands the search for God, the need for something beyond this. I identify with that. I am a seeker, spiritually.”
Gordon quotes Hughes’s “Prayer” from memory:
I ask you this:
Which way to go?
I ask you this:
Which sin to bear?
Which crown to put
Upon my hair?
I do not know,
I do not know.
Cabell’s voice, with its wide range and quick pivot, suited the deceptively hard Hughes songs perfectly. And it’s not only their technical demands that make them difficult for the soprano, but also the emotional and psychological interpretive requirements. “Nicole has a beautiful, deep [meaning profound, not low], rich voice and a fine intellect. She’s a really wonderful singer and interpreter,” Gordon says.
Cabell says Gordon and Hughes both connect with her personally. “The way [Gordon] sets that poetry to music for me is just perfect,” she says. “You really can understand what is being said. [For Gordon,] it’s what do I want to say musically that will bring out the meaning of the poetry, not how do I get the poetry to serve my music.”
The fidelity and purity of the settings, Gordon says, came from writing them individually between other, larger projects, like a palate cleanser. “Each song is one big brushstroke,” he says, “explosions of one gesture.” And gratifying, and generous-spirited. “I’d want to play them for someone right away and share them,” he says. “To this day, I play and sing them myself all the time.”
Ricky Ian Gordon and Nicole Cabell perform Silver Rain on July 30 at 8:00. $10–$60. Martin Theatre at Ravinia, Lake Cook and Green Bay, Highland Park. ravinia.org