The University of Arizona campus was buzzing on Thursday, Feb. 9.
At Hillenbrand Stadium, the Wildcats softball team opened its season with a big win.
On the other end of campus at McKale Center, the women’s basketball team was having a hard time with the Stanford Cardinal.
In the middle of campus, at the Fred Fox School of Music, rising baritone Justin Austin kept a crowd loosely filling the tiny Holsclaw Hall mesmerized as he performed a Tucson Desert Song Festival recital centered on being Black in America.
There may not have been the hoots and hollers that filled Hillenbrand and McKale, but the excitement at Holsclaw was just as electric when Austin performed the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Marvin Gaye Songs.”
It was breathtaking watching Austin take his rich baritone to shimmering highs and soulful lows with Gordon’s lush setting of Vievee Francis’s poems “Marvin Gaye: Mercy” and “Marvin Gaye: Sugar.” There was a softness to Austin’s lyric voice that conveyed the pain, confusion and sorrow of Francis’s poems about the R&B singer’s tragic death at the hands of his father. Austin didn’t just sing the words; he told the story that Gordon, accompanying him on piano, set in motion with subtle nods to some of Gaye’s most iconic songs.
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“Marvin Gaye Songs” was the fourth work commissioned by Tucson Desert Song Festival‘s Wesley Green Composer Project and it was the first work Gordon composed coming out of the pandemic.
At the beginning of Thursday’s performance, he recalled how he first heard Francis recite those poems early in the pandemic and was so moved he phoned a friend at Spin magazine and encouraged him to publish them. The poems also are included in Francis’s forthcoming book “The Shared World,” due out in April.
The world premiere was the cornerstone of Thursday’s recital, which opened with Gordon’s song cycle based on 14 Langston Hughes poems. Pianist Howard Watkins, an assistant conductor and principal vocal coach of the Metropolitan Opera, accompanied Austin as he sang Hughes poignant poems that laid out what it’s like to be Black in a white America.
Gordon wove a narrative with the Hughes poems that Austin conveyed with emotional conviction, from the optimism of “Heaven” and the sly smirk of the subtle sexiness of “When Sue Wears Red” to the anger and wrenching bitterness of “Song For a Dark Girl,” dealing with a lynching of “my black young lover.” When he sang “I asked the white Lord Jesus/What was the use of prayer,” Austin seemed close to tears.
Thursday’s recital also included a pivotal aria from Gordon’s opera “Intimate Apparel,” which starred Austin when it premiered at Lincoln Center in early 2022. The opera changed the trajectory of Austin’s career and earned him a Drama Desk Award nomination. It also cemented his and Gordon’s longtime friendship and collaboration.
That friendship was on full display Thursday night when the two embraced on stage as the crowd gave them a standing ovation. Back stage, as the two men posed for pictures with audience members, a giddy Gordon said he couldn’t wait until he and Austin could perform “Marvin Gaye Songs” again.
Tucson Desert Song Festival continues this weekend with Arizona Early Music’s inaugural Baroque Music Festival Friday, Feb. 10, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 2331 E. Adams St. Performances are at 3 p.m. each day and tickets are $30.90 through azearlymusic.org.
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Starburch