For most singers, the art that we create is a communal experience. The synergy of a choir of voices generates the magic of the music that we love. While the music itself has been conspicuously absent this year, singers have also missed out on countless hours of making music with colleagues who are also dear friends. The pandemic has reminded us not to take friendship for granted, and I have acquired very specific memories of seeing friends for the first time after quarantine. This week on The Art Song Fix we are showcasing "The Pleasures of Friendship" from Wayland Rogers’ I-Thou, a light-hearted celebration of spending time with companions. It has indeed been a pleasure to continue to make music with my Fourth Coast friends!
This song is one of my favorite movements from I-Thou, a song cycle for vocal quartet commissioned by Fourth Coast and premiered in May 2018. It’s a lively a cappella fugue for the four voices, truly capturing the joy and “Pleasures of Friendship” in the playful way the theme bounces between the voices. After one full statement of the jaunty theme by the soprano, the tenor next presents the melody with interjections bouncing off by soprano and mezzo in duet, followed by a more complete trio version by the three voices. Finally, the bass enters in a new key, infusing new energy into the quartet of friends as they react to one another’s statements. The four voices expand into a flurry of activity before all coming together to end in unified rhythm and a unison note - a beautiful encapsulation of friends joining!
English poet Stevie Smith's work commonly portrays scenes of innocence and nostalgia, often nursery-rhyme-like on the surface. "The Pleasures of Friendship" is the perfect example of just such a work. However, critics agree that despite the whimsical appearance of her work, Smith was a significant talent whose distinct style grew more consistent and refined throughout her life. The deceptive simplicity of her poetry was described by the Times Literary Supplement as her "most distinctive achievement." Smith's scenes of simple joy remind us that life is short, and every walk through the grass with friends should be savored.
We have done a few of these virtual video performances now, and at this point, the whole process of recording and editing feels quite normal to us. We have learned more about audio and video than most classical singers probably dreamed would be so necessary and useful. Still, while standing in a closet alone, singing to a track and click of a metronome and taking video selfies while performing to an imaginary audience no longer feels as awkward and stilted as it did at first, truly nothing can replace the real deal.
The quartet is in “hybrid mode” now with a few livestream concerts under our belt, music videos like this, and a return to in-person rehearsals just this past week. It was refreshing to be able to, collectively in real-time, discuss interpretation, how to color and shape phrases, balance our voices, place our cutoffs, etc.—you know, normal music things! The intimacy of making eye contact and breathing together is pulling us out from within the literal and figurative walls that have contained us for the past year. We sense the returning thrill and pressure of having to create something beautiful together in the moment for a live audience, and we cannot wait to share more about the exciting plans we have for the summer and for next season. Stick with us, and stay tuned!
Fourth Coast Ensemble is a classical vocal quartet specializing in the unique style and repertoire of vocal chamber music. Celebrated for its "horizon-expanding programming, (Chicago Classical Review), Fourth Coast Ensemble embraces a repertoire that spans the history of the genre, from Schubert and Brahms to composers of the present day. The ensemble has earned a reputation of excellence "built on the quality of its small roster of artists" (Vocal Arts Chicago) - soprano Sarah van der Ploeg, mezzo-soprano Bridget Skaggs, tenor Ace Gangoso, and bass-baritone David Govertsen.
By Ace Gangoso
Almost exactly one year ago, we were singing in what would—unexpectedly—be our last concert of 2020. What a way to end my debut season with Fourth Coast Ensemble! Here we are a year later bouncing back, having recently kicked off of our Origin Stories concerts, live in HD. While we are all beyond excited to bring you these new performances, I still look forward to these blogs for The Art Song Fix because it gives us the opportunity to look back and reflect on how far we have come, in more ways than one.
My song of choice today is “In a Sentimental Mood” by Duke Ellington. I must confess, I never really expected to be singing a jazz standard in a concert with “Chicago’s classical vocal quartet.” Shame on me! Of course, this was the point of the concert (entitled Between the Lines) which explored the boundaries surrounding what is typically considered classical vs. non-classical—in this case, jazz.
Duke Ellington was a very gifted musician and songwriter, and a pioneer with his own attempts to blur the lines between classical and jazz. Teaming up with Billy Strayhorn, he sought out to write a multi-movement orchestral work telling the story of Black Americans, particularly through the lens of religion and slavery. Black, Brown and Beige premiered on January 23, 1943 and was met with mixed reviews, and, like his other large-scale works, never garnered widespread acclaim.
We must consider, however, that classical music circles were even more Eurocentric at that time than they are today, and society at large more rampant with unchecked white supremacy. The insulting saying “good enough for jazz” was borne out of ignorance and hatred not just of the music, but its creators. Who knows what would have happened in a more equitable time and space, with ears more ready and willing to hear new sounds from a person of color on the concert hall stage.
Here and now, at the end of Black History Month in the year 2021, it is evident that some progress has been made. I was tickled to get to use my falsetto croon and improvise riffs on this song immediately after singing full-throttle on Agustin Lara’s “Granada.” In classical concerts, you would often hear jazz pieces (if included at all) tucked in towards the end or used as an encore, presented as lighter fare in comparison to the more “serious” works that preceded it. But good music is good music, a good song is a good song, and every style and genre deserves to be respected and represented. Depth and virtuosity can be shown in a myriad of ways. May we continue to challenge our minds and senses, draw the circle wider, and grow the Fourth Coast family beyond what anyone would have ever dreamed!
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!