Music works its magic in many guises. It can fill our hearts with joy, seduce us with libidinous allure, and even induce indignant anger. In the case of the gorgeous new song cycle by Scott Ordway, Girl in the Snow, the words and melodies serve as a contemplative and restorative balm, a quality particularly welcome in these discordant times.
Ordway and Saint Augustine
Ordway’s structure is especially elegant, with eight songs set to his own poetry, narrated by the titular protagonist. Interspersed within this grouping are three settings from the Confessions of Saint Augustine. The words of the first-century philosopher are metrically even compared with the flowing and at times elegiac language of Ordway’s writing, yet the intensely self-reflective nature of the lines, which are shot through with a first-person singular perspective, seem timeless.
The poetry of both writers is connected by explorations of memory, dreams, and love. There are no conclusions, only questions. There are certainly religious overtones in Ordway’s words, but the model is pantheistic, including conversations between the narrator and a fox, an owl, and a rabbit. Augustine draws the outer world within himself, as he speaks of “the fields and spacious palaces of my memory.”
Ordway’s musical language is decidedly neo-Romantic here (I have heard other works by him that are more abstract). Perhaps it is something in the air, but it seems that many composers who have spent time at Curtis (Ordway was on their faculty at one time—he is currently an assistant professor of music at Rutgers University) end up channeling the folksy, mildly swinging rhythms of Samuel Barber, who was one of the earliest students there and later taught there. There is also something of the Gallic sensuality of Debussy in this work.
There is certainly an advantage, in any genre of sung music, for the composer to also serve as the lyricist. In Ordway’s case, this allows him to wrap his melodies around the words with exquisite precision, with moments of wistfulness, ecstasy, and graciousness sharing a single musical phrase. In the course of 11 songs, at just under 40 minutes total, a grand and beautiful story is told. The singing of mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson is, in a word, luminous.
An architectural triumph
Ordway has amassed an impressive body of music for voice, in addition to Girl in the Snow. Not surprisingly, a vocal quality also infuses much of his instrumental music, including his recent violin sonata, and a major new piece for the instrument that is closest to the range of the human voice, cello. His Nineteen Movements for Unaccompanied Cello was written for, and in collaboration with, the wonderful young cellist Arlen Hlusko, who was still a student at Curtis at the time. It is a large work of many moods and dynamic levels, with more than a few respectful nods to the greatest master of music for solo cello, Bach. As is the case for Girl in the Snow, this work, in addition to the delights of the smaller parts, is impressive for the architectural cohesion of the whole.
Image description: a black-and-white photo of Scott Ordway, a 37-year-old white man. His arms are folded, and he wears glasses and a black turtleneck.
What, When, Where
Girl in the Snow. Music and lyrics by Scott Ordway; with additional settings from Confession of Saint Augustine. Julia Dawson, mezzo-soprano; Anna Naretto, piano. December 7, 2020. Acis Productions. Find it at acisproductions.com.
Nineteen Movements for Unaccompanied Cello. Music by Scott Ordway. Arlen Hlusko, cello. May 27, 2021. Acis Productions. Find it at acisproductions.com.