The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18, at age 87, prompted tributes from around the world.
But none more touching than the one that will be featured during “Live with Carnegie Hall: Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” a prerecorded program to be posted online Nov. 19.
Chicago vocalist Patrice Michaels — Ginsburg’s daughter-in-law — will sing “My Dearest Ruth,” by Chicago composer Stacy Garrop. Its lyrics are drawn from a letter that Martin D. Ginsburg, the justice’s husband, wrote to his wife on June 17, 2010, 10 days before his death at age 78.
“My dearest Ruth,” it begins.
“You are the only person I have loved in my life, setting aside, a bit, parents and kids and their kids, and I have admired and loved you almost since the day we first met at Cornell some (59) years ago. What a treat it has been to watch you progress to the very top of the legal world!!
“I will be in JH Medical Center until Friday, June 25, I believe, and between then and now I shall think hard on my remaining health and life, and whether on balance the time has come for me to tough it out or to take leave of life because the loss of quality now simply overwhelms. I hope you will support where I come out, but I understand you may not. I will not love you a jot less. Marty.”
To hear a slightly adapted version of those words sung to composer Garrop’s intensely lyrical music is to feel the profundity of one couple’s long life together, the pain of separation, the stature of Justice Ginsburg’s work and the depth of her husband’s admiration of it.
When Michaels performed the song at the Spertus Institute in May 2019, with the handwritten letter projected onto a screen onstage, “more than a few listeners were seen dabbing their eyes,” I wrote in my Tribune review.
The composition is drawn from “Notorious RBG in Song,” a 2018 Cedille Records album conceived by Michaels and featuring her suite “The Long View: A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs,” plus music by other composers. All of which sheds light on singer Michaels’ relationship with Justice Ginsburg, the mother of Michaels’ husband, James Ginsburg.
“It’s been quite a journey learning to perform that piece,” says Michaels of “My Dearest Ruth.”
“As you can imagine, it’s very emotional to read his letter. The first year I was performing that piece, I had to work very hard to learn not to well up. And Kuang-Hao (Huang, piano accompanist) can attest to the many times we would have to stop in the middle of rehearsal, because I would simply be unable to continue.
“As I have matured with the song, I have been able to employ my more professional approach and allow the audience to have the experience of emotion that they should have.”
But there are layers to this story that listeners could not know and that Michaels experiences whenever she sings this music.
“It’s all very bittersweet,” says Michaels.
Martin Ginsburg “passed away maybe eight weeks before we got married. So he knew of our plans, and he was hoping to be able to participate. But as it turns out, we did his memorial service the night before we got married. All of these familial experiences are woven together in these deep emotions.”
So as the world grieves the loss of Justice Ginsburg as a public figure and champion of equal rights, the family feels a deeper kind of hurt.
“It’s been difficult because her death has been so public,” says son James Ginsburg, founder of Chicago’s Cedille Records label. “I didn’t go through this when my father passed away 10 years ago. A lot of people reached out to me, but these were people who actually knew my father well.
“Here I’m hearing from all kinds of people. I understand that. They have to kind of share her passing. So that’s been different.”
To Michaels, “It was impossible to experience my personal grief for the first several weeks, because there were many responsibilities,” she says. “And the public grief was an extremely dominant force in my world. I am very grateful for my personal friends who have reached out to me and allowed me to begin my own grieving process just as a daughter-in-law, as someone who physically cared for her a lot in these last few years.”
Which is why the “Live with Carnegie Hall” program should be a balm not only to those who watch but those who created it. Hosted by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, the program will reflect Justice Ginsburg’s love of opera, featuring performances by vocalists Joyce DiDonato, Renee Fleming, Denyce Graves and Michaels, as well as interviews with James Ginsburg and his sister, Jane Ginsburg.
“I think it’s lovely that they want to do this with such great singers,” says James Ginsburg. “And the opportunity to be interviewed by someone like Isabel Leonard, whom I’ve greatly admired on the stage, and (get to) tell mom stories – what’s not to like?”
He appreciates that this will be “a tribute specifically about her connection to the music and opera and how much she inspired people in that realm. You could certainly see it when she visited backstage after a performance. I’m starry-eyed looking at these performers, and they’re starry-eyed looking at my mother!”
As for Justice Ginsburg’s legacy, James Ginsburg politely declines to comment.
“I’ve been trying to be very careful not to get political on this – I’ve turned down all interview requests of that nature,” he says. “When it comes to music, I love to tell that story. (But) I will not do a political interview about mom. On that front, her legacy should stand on its own. It was very important to her not to be looked on as a political figure – she was a judge. … She really wanted the court to be seen as not a partisan institution.”
Singer Michaels speaks more specifically of Justice Ginsburg’s work.
“I am remembering how wonderfully she expressed her opinions,” says Michaels, director of vocal studies at the University of Chicago and a lecturer in voice and opera at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music.
“Especially the dissenting ones were written so that in the future people could look at that as potential roadmaps. … The work that she was doing was always with an eye to the long view. Which is why I’ve named my song cycle ‘The Long View.’”
The opus originated in 2013, when siblings James and Jane Ginsburg were planning an 80th birthday celebration for their mother. They commissioned three composers — including Michaels — to set a text from Justice Ginsburg’s life, and “my mother-in-law really enjoyed the project,” Michaels told me last year.
Afterward, Justice Ginsburg sent her son and daughter-in-law photographs of the birthday party and included a note that read: “For James and Patrice, with appreciation for making 80 feel like 50, and love only music can convey.”
Then “it occurred to me that there could be an actual song cycle providing a more complete portrait of her, especially from the point of view of how others have been affected by her, and how their experiences are part of our American experience of developing social equality,” Michaels told me last year. “I asked her permission to create something larger.”
Justice Ginsburg agreed and the result was “The Long View,” which Michaels has been performing regularly since the album’s release in 2018. Her last concert before the pandemic was of “The Long View” at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, in Skokie (where a “Notorious RBG” exhibit is on view through Jan. 3). The event reminded Michaels again of Justice Ginsburg’s wide reach in American life.
“I’ve enjoyed it immensely, seeing little girls and their families come to these performances, seeing elderly people who have some connection to where she grew up,” says Michaels. “All kinds of people enjoying this has been phenomenally satisfying.”
For listeners as well.
“Live with Carnegie Hall: Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” a free event, will go online at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Nov. 19 at https://www.carnegiehall.org/events.
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