Composer Gordon Getty is finally getting his moment in the sun

Tue Nov 11, 2014 at 4:48 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Music of Gordon Getty will be performed Friday night by the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra.
Music of Gordon Getty will be performed Friday night by the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra.

Suppose that you are a dedicated composer who has attended a conservatory, studied music and spent decades of your life carefully working and honing your craft.

Suppose that you also possess one of the most famous names in America, one long associated with business success, family wealth and philanthropy but perhaps less so with individual artistic achievement.

Such is the situation of Gordon Getty. The retired businessman and philanthropist has devoted much of the last 35 years of his life to his music, building up a fairly ample oeuvre of works.

Yet when your name is Getty and you are the son of famous industrialist J. Paul Getty, is it a help or a hindrance in being accepted as a composer?

“I think that it attracts attention, which is a good thing,” said Getty, 79, from his home in San Francisco. “It may be baleful attention, which is a bad thing,” he added with a laugh. “All in all, on the whole it’s been a help.”

Local audiences will have a rare opportunity to hear Gordon Getty’s music Friday night when David Danzmayr leads the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra in the overture to Getty’s first opera, Plump Jack. The program will also include Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 and songs by Schubert and Strauss, performed by Kathrin Danzmayr and David Govertsen.

While Gordon Getty still makes the Forbes Top 400 (No. 302 in 2014 with $2.1 billion), he has long been superseded among the annual list of the wealthiest Americans by the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and a plethora of Silicon Valley’s mega-billionaires.

Following military service and while working in the family business, Getty enrolled at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in the early 1960s where he studied music theory with Sol Joseph.

While following a business career and running the Getty Foundation, time for composition was scarce and progress slow at first. It wasn’t until the 1980s when Getty published his first work, The White Election, a song cycle on Emily Dickinson poems.

Completed in 1987, Plump Jack was Getty’s first opera, drawn freely from Shakespeare’s lusty Falstaff character. At over two hours, it is also his longest work (an abridged concert version runs about 90 minutes).

“You might say I never finished it,” the composer says wryly. “So much of it represents my early work and I’m a better orchestrator now.

“And even my composing is somewhat different now. In opera I trusted recitative more than I do now. I’m the same composer I always was but now I tend to have music going more of the time—much more accompagnato nowadays.”

Danzmayr discovered Getty’s music when he caught a German television documentary by Peter Rosen about the recording of Plump Jack by Ulf Schirmer and the Munich Radio Orchestra. (The opera and most Getty works are available on the Pentatone label.) “The tunes sounded very good and the whole cast seemed to be excited about the project,” said the Illinois Philharmonic’s young music director. “I then decided to use the overture as a starting piece for a singer-focused concert.

“It is a charming piece that introduces the elements of Shakespearean characters very well to an audience and is a very versatile piece of music.” Plus it fits the bill for Danzmayr’s goal of including a work by an American composer on every IPO program.

The music of Plump Jack and most of Getty’s works is honest, unpretentious and approachable, much like the composer himself. The overture to the opera paints the bluff libertine deftly with some artful flavor of Elizabethan music. Charm is not a quality one often applies to contemporary works yet Getty’s Ancestor Suite is piquant and delightful, its light dances shaded with nostalgia and a gentle melancholy. (One can sample several of his works at

“It is predominantly tonal,” Getty says of his music. “I’m not sure how to describe it. I know who my favorite composers of all time are and they must have influenced me. But I still have to do my own thing and not theirs.”

Among Getty’s favorite composers are Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner and Mahler. “A surprising omission is Mr. Mozart, who is considered a very great composer, but not quite in my pantheon,” he says.

Getty is a more intuitive composer than many of his colleagues who come at music from a more abstract, perhaps more academic background.

Likewise, Getty’s user-friendly lyrical style is worlds removed stylistically from Pierre Boulez’s coolly intellectual music. One trait he does shares with the French composer-conductor is his habit of revisiting his music, even after publication.

“I continue to revise,” he said somewhat guiltily. “I really do. Even though I’m now a fairly comfortable orchestrator and I know what I want. But like [other composers] I have second thoughts; I think, ‘Wait, that’s not my best. I can do better than that’.”

“I’ve recorded the Plump Jack Overture twice already and might record it a third time,” he said laughing. “The last few measures are now a bit different.”

Getty’s second opera, the Poe-inspired Usher House has been produced and staged. While Plump Jack has been heard in concert versions—including one by his local band, the San Francisco Symphony—the opera is still awaiting its first fully staged performance, for which Getty takes some responsibility.

“I view Plump Jack as something that, before I die, I should get back to and straighten it up,” he said. “There are some passages that need retouching. And there are some whole scenes that need to be rethought, and sooner or later I need to get back to that.”

Stylistically he says he not changed at all as a composer, but has become more competent and confident.

He is especially proud of his orchestration of the Homework Suite, originally written for piano. “That’s another funny thing about me. Like Mr. Bach, almost everything I’ve written does double or triple duty. There are piano versions, string quartet versions, and maybe a chamber orchestra version. Most of my music is available in two or three ways and have been recorded in each.”

It’s almost as if he’s thinking as a business person and economically getting as much mileage out of his works as possible. “Yes. Economics is my other passion.”

Living composers he feels close to are Jake Heggie, a fellow San Franciscan, John Adams and John Corigliano, all “close friends.”

“I think there are dozens and probably hundreds of ‘classical composers’–whatever that means—who are so special and powerful that they can never be replaced. They will have successors, but they’ll never be quite the same.”

Getty is refreshingly non-stuffy about his contemporaries, and said he is also struck by the craft and ability of many of today’s film composers. “Usually when I go to the movies and see a modern, big-budget movie, almost every time I hear brilliant scores.

“Hans Zimmer is terrific. His stuff is fairly atonal yet he uses it much as tonal music. Hollywood composers have a heck of a lot of colors on their palette. I have a big admiration for the standards of movie music today.”

Unlike many composers and artists who feature only the highest press accolades in their promotional material, Getty is openly democratic about his reviews and includes negative reviews on his website as well as positive notices.

“I want all of the reviews of my music published on my website, from the worst to the best. Bring ‘em on!” he laughs.

Getty’s third opera, The Canterville Ghost, based on Oscar Wilde’s short story, will be premiered in Leipzig next May. It was meant to be double-billed with Getty’s Usher House, which is also a one-act work. Yet the Leipzig opera company is pairing it with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci instead.

“It’s a brilliant box office idea,” said the adaptable composer. “Because the crowds will come to Pagliacci and then they’ll have to hear my opera whether they like it or not!”

Getty will fly out to Germany for the premiere and fully expects to work on the way and at the rehearsals.

“I take my scores with me and my electronic keyboard, so in the hotel I can pound away and get stuff done,” Getty said.

“Since it’s a world premiere, I have to hear all the orchestral rehearsals,” he added. “Because there will be wrong notes by them and wrong notes by me!”

David Danzmayr will conduct the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra in the Overture to Gordon Getty’s opera Plump Jack 8 p.m. Friday at the Lincoln-Way Performing Arts Center in Frankfort. The program will also include Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 and songs of Schubert and Strauss featuring soprano Kathrin Danzmayr and baritone David Govertsen.

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