The composer's name is Gordon Getty--one of those Gettys; in fact, a son of J. Paul Getty. Not your average struggling young artist. Strike one.
He is chairman of the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation and a board member of Getty Oil Co. and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Strike two.
After these two strikes, however, "The White Election," a cycle of 32 songs on texts by Emily Dickinson, turned out to be a base hit, if not a home run. At first this outcome appeared unlikely. For one thing, the cycle is somewhat longer than either "Dichterliebe" or "Die Schoene Muellerin," in fact, so long that it constitutes a total program.
There seemed to be problems very early in the music's world premiere last night at the National Gallery. You couldn't call the first few songs amateurish exactly, but they seemed rather simple-minded for a classical program. The vocal lines often veered toward a sort of old-fashioned pop style. The music could have been composed at the same time as the poems--from 1858 to 1884--though some of it would have sounded a bit quirky then, like the poems, which themselves still sound a bit quirky.
The piano accompaniment was particularly strange. It showed a reluctance to use the full resources of the keyboard and little knowledge of harmony (or perhaps little interest in it). Most of the time, melodic fragments in the middle of the keyboard accompanied the soprano voice. Sometimes they did not seem very well coordinated with it. Occasionally, there were some ecclesiastical-sounding chords if they suited the mood of the words, or a melody that sounded like an echo of an old dance tune or a fragment of a children's song. But mostly, the piano seemed to be making a free-form comment on what the voice was doing. Until "I Should Not Dare to Leave My Friend" (1860), the last song in the first group and quite a good one, there was a certain sameness about the music.
All the poems in the second group were written in 1862; the Civil War is not exactly the subject, but it seems to loom in the background, and the rather sunny mood of the first group has become somber, preoccupied with death, loss and isolation. The music, too, changes; it becomes less disciplined, more expressive and, on the whole, considerably more interesting, certainly more varied. The interest continues and the variety grows throughout the rest of the cycle, though after one hearing the second section seems the best. One sees changes taking place, new possibilities opening up, a complex character portrait being formed by the words and music.
One does not usually go to the National Gallery early to read the program notes. Most of the time, there are none, except for the title and date of the composition. This time, however, there was a booklet--and when I finally had a chance to look through it, the composer's comments clarified what had been slowly dawning through the sequence of songs. Getty has tried to set the poems to music that Dickinson herself might have written. If he has not produced a masterpiece, he has developed a rather interesting idea.
Soprano Martha Steiger sang the cycle in a voice that was clear, accurate and usually sweet if not very rich in tone. Pianist Wendy Glaubitz tackled her rather unusual part intelligently.