by Ace Gangoso
Here we are at the end of 2020. Good riddance, as many say, alongside high hopes for the year ahead. Today’s musical offering is perhaps not the first Christmas tune that comes to mind. You probably won’t hear it playing over the loudspeakers inside department stores. There are no bells, no fa la las, Glorias or Hallelujahs, nor are there any descants and melismatic vocal fireworks—appropriately so, given the year we have had, full of the unusual and unexpected, to put it mildly. And if “In the Bleak Midwinter” does happen to be one of your go-to carols, I would be willing to bet that you are most familiar with the choral setting by Gustav Holst.
Our setting of choice is by another English composer, Harold Darke. There are striking similarities between the two settings, both rhythmically and melodically, particularly in the opening phrases. Both are simple, strophic, and beautifully capture the somber and pensive mood of the poem by Christina Rossetti. Using words like bleak, cold, and hard to describe the nativity scene, she highlights the ironic nature of the savior of the world being born into such humble conditions.
This is not “Joy to the World,” but to be clear, this is not a sad song, either. For me, the key word is “enough.” If I have learned anything this year, it is that I can afford to restructure my own concept of “enough” and how it relates to basic necessities, finances, health, relationships, and more. I love songs that challenge, and the challenge presented here is for us to redirect our foci: away from that which we currently lack to that which we have and take for granted, away from where we aren’t in order to be fully present where we are—and in spite of hardship, to find ways to give and show love.
So please accept this gift from Sarah, Bridget, Dave, and me in the form of a brand new virtual performance from the comfort and safety of our own homes. Thank you for your continued support and loyalty to us, and for helping us to get through this year. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year to you and yours!
By David Govertsen
The overture from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is an oddly appropriate musical number for these many months we have spent in quarantine. Much like 2020, you never know quite what is coming next.
Sondheim scraps the traditional instrumental overture one expects at the top of a musical drama and instead lets the singers kick things off, and a cappella at that. The ensuing three minutes are a wild ride of key changes, shifts in tempo and texture, leaps of vocal register and dynamics, and musical moods that turn on a dime. Listen as each singer switches roles between featured soloist, background accompaniment, and balanced four-part ensemble member (Sondheim actually composed this for five singers, bonus points if you can figure out how we covered all the parts with a quartet). As a performer I love the variety that this kind of music provides, but it is certainly a major vocal workout.
The overture contains three main themes that appear later in the show: "Remember’" "Soon", and "The Glamorous Life". Since live performances have come to a standstill there has been much time to reflect on music we made in the past. Ah, how we laughed, ah, how we cried…remember? Though in the context of the show it has a very different meaning, the lyrics seem to answer the question we are all asking: Will life in the performing arts as we once knew it return? Soon, I promise. From the standpoint of a performer it is incredibly strange not to have worn a tuxedo for a concert in so long. Pack up the luggage–Hi-ho, for the glamorous life!
Fortunately, Fourth Coast Ensemble has exciting plans to bring up the curtain once again with our seventh season. The complete announcement of our inaugural HD season, including ticket info for three live broadcast concerts, will happen on January 5, 2021. Until then, please enjoy this la la la from the archives!
This performance was recorded live on March 3, 2020 in Buchanan Chapel with pianist Kuang-Hao Huang. Audio by Joshua Sauvageau. Video by Nadia Oussenko.
Hello, and welcome to the blog! We are Fourth Coast Ensemble, Chicago's classical vocal quartet. Join a different member of our ensemble each week for insights into our favorite art songs, links to archival and new recordings, and reflections on why we value and continue to come back to this musical medium. We proudly present, your weekly #artsongfix!