Though Ricky Ian Gordon's theatrical song cycle Only Heaven was last seen in New York City nearly two years ago at the Connelly Theater, it is just now being released on CD, thanks to PS Classics.
Based on the work of the Harlem Renaissance's greatest poet, Langston Hughes, Only Heaven features 29 poems set to Gordon's music. The piece has been through many revisions over the years and this disc represents a version that is even newer than the one seen in the last NYC run. It features the supreme talents of singers Adrienne Danrich, Jonita Lattimore, Jay Pierce, Sheila Ramsey, Shonna Hickman-Matlock, Michael-Lamont Lytle, and Darius de Haas, who communicate the squealing delight, haunting thoughtfulness, wailing sadness, and full-throated joy of Hughes poetry as musicalized by Gordon.
The album notes indicate that this version of Only Heaven went beyond song cycle to become a genuine theater piece, but that is difficult to discern from this recording -- at least until the end, when it takes on a startling dramatic intensity. For the listener, it's probably best to consider it a song cycle in which Gordon uses Hughes' poetry to take his characters on a thematic journey, beginning with an optimism ("Heaven," "My People") that gradually gives way to hardship, pain, and bitter disillusionment ("Bound No'th Blues," "Gal's Cry for a Dying Lover") and ends with an invocation to "gather up in the arms of your love those who expect no love from above" ("Litany"). The cycle is emblematic of Hughes' varied oeuvre, which displayed a similarly defiant hope and love in the face of injustice and oppression.
The music is not as heavily influenced by jazz as one would expect in song settings of words written during the Jazz Age. Rather, Gordon's style is more classical; he is faithful to the spirit of Hughes's writing on his own terms. His work -- precise and complex, often lacking a clear melody -- may be trying for listeners more inclined to show music than the modern classical sound, though there is the occasional jazzy rhythm in such tunes as "Love Song for Lucinda" and "Port Town."
Gordon's greatest strengths -- which are evenly matched by his wonderful cast -- are in giving musical voice to the deepest feelings of yearning and heartbreak. In "Stars," the singer -- Danrich -- urges "Reach up your hand, dark boy, and take a star," while, in "Song for a Dark Girl," a furious Lattimore cries for her lynched lover. But, skilled as he is at plumbing the depths of these emotions, Gordon also knows how to write pure joy in a way that few can; it's a struggle to keep your spirit from floating straight up to heaven when listening to his setting of Hughes's poetic celebration of that very emotion, "Joy." The musicality, of course, already exists in Hughes's work, but Gordon frees it from the confines of the written word and sends it into the stratosphere.
Produced by Tommy Krasker, Only Heaven was recorded live at the Muse Machine's production in Dayton, Ohio. Although this isn't exactly the kind of music that demands a live recording, the sound is rich and the performances are well preserved.