THE ART SONG FIX
Fourth Coast Ensemble's Blog
Many singers don’t regularly get to make chamber music in its purest form. More often, vocalists are either soloists - one individual soaring over other instruments and voices - or choristers - tasked with blending into a large cohesive sonic whole. While both of these singing arenas demand expert applications of vocal artistry (and which all four of us also love to do!), there is something uniquely special about vocal chamber music.
In my former musical life as a violist, chamber music was by far my favorite means of music making. Playing in an orchestra was exhilarating, but you could barely hear the viola part in the hall much of the time (cue the viola jokes now). Conversely, I missed the collaborative process of musical interplay when working on solo works, and there aren’t many really excellent viola pieces in the standard student repertoire (cue more viola jokes). But playing in a string quartet? Every note I played really mattered. The works were breathtaking. Constant eye contact and breathing together with the violins and cello kept us in active communication through each moment. We got to make real artistic decisions - not just following a conductor’s lead - and we got to make them collectively. Each person had to be both soloist and collaborator to the fullest extent of their abilities. It was bliss.
After realizing during college that my musical life was shifting from being "a violist who sang" to "a soprano who played the viola," I didn’t initially realize what I was losing in this area. As a career in singing began to take form, I loved the opportunities to solo and was thrilled by singing in some phenomenal choruses, but I missed the interplay of chamber music. A couple of chamber choir experiences came close, but nothing was really like my viola experiences. Nothing, that is, until I joined Fourth Coast Ensemble.
This group is special, and a rare experience to have as a singer. I get to make gorgeous music with colleagues who I genuinely admire, whose artistry continues to blow me away, and with whom I get to regularly collaborate in ways that make us each better. Each singer is unique, and we get to showcase that in our solo repertoire, but the total experience is greater than the sum of its parts. The challenge and pleasure of working on blend, matching one another’s phrases, vowels and cutoffs with exactitude, while also knowing that every note of every singer is vitally important? It takes everything I have and have trained for, and is the most joyous music-making I get to do.
All of this leads us to Schumann’s “So war die Sonne scheinet,” the final movement of his grand Minnespiel song cycle for four voices. Schumann is a master composer of both lieder and instrumental chamber music (check out his String Quartet No. 1 in A minor - it’s a favorite of mine!), and it shows here. He asks the four singers to match one another in richly blended chords, and also gives each one the opportunity to stand out from the group. Plus it involves the additional bonus of a beautifully rich piano part, here expertly played by Fourth Coast board chair and regular collaborator Dr. Dana Brown.
Think of it like a string quartet for voices. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Friends, it is now September. Somehow, despite the bizarre timewarp of our current coronavirus existence, we have traveled through the heart of the summer months and landed in the start of autumn. And back to school.
As a child, I loved this time of year. The excitement of new school supplies, curiosity about what I’d learn, and return to the classroom was thrilling for me. (Knowing my nerdiness as an adult, it should come as no surprise that I was just as nerdy - if not more so - as a kid.) I was deeply serious about digging into questions, imaginative play with classmates, and anything having to do with animals.
So many of these childhood memories and emotions come vividly to life in Lita Grier’s Five Songs for Children, which Bridget and I performed with pianist/curator Dana Brown in our Wine, Women & Song parlor concert series two seasons ago. We are especially fortunate to call Grier a friend of the quartet, and had the privilege of coaching the songs with her in advance of the performance recorded here. Her insight was invaluable!
Each short song in the cycle is a distilled encapsulation of the poem it features, uniquely matching the words and content of each distinct poet; yet the set feels a complete, cohesive whole. There is a clarity and directness to their presentation of a child’s perspective, while avoiding oversimplification or childishness. The voices of these children (through the poets and music) are taken very seriously, as indeed they’d take themselves.
Speaking of voices, Bridget and I worked closely with Lita to find tone colors for the performance of these songs that would best suit this intention. While still singing with our whole voices, Lita pushed us to seek a leaner side of our sounds, capturing a child’s perspective without caricature. It was also a fun challenge for us to find new ways to match one another’s tones - sharing a song cycle originally intended for a single singer - while honoring our individual voices, and making specific choices for the sound world of each song. From pure enthusiasm in Afternoon on a Hill, to imagination in The Seashell, the mystery and surprise of Someone, serious wonderment of Who Has Seen the Wind? and finally joyful celebration of song in The Bluebird, each song brings a different mood of childhood to light.
Do any of these speak to you? Which song captures a bit of your childhood memory best? We’d love to hear!
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!