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.
In loving memory of Wayland Rogers, December 26, 1941-September 9, 2020
I was first introduced to the music of Wayland Rogers when pianist Dana Brown handed me a big stack of sheet music in his office in 2014. I had just joined and helped found Fourth Coast Ensemble, and we were looking for music to perform on an upcoming concert. Dana pointed out some songs that he thought might work well in my voice, and let me know that Wayland lives here in Chicago and is very responsive to singer's inquiries about his music.
Wayland was a warm and supportive colleague with a highly developed ear for ensemble singing, honed over his years as conductor of the The Camerata Singers of Lake Forest, music director of North Shore Unitarian Church, and as a professional ensemble singer himself in the Chicago Symphony Chorus. As I worked my way through the stack of sheet music Dana had given me, it was clear that these songs were written by a composer with a deep understanding of the human voice. They left space for the voice to bloom and soar, and had Wayland's quintessential balance of accessibility and complexity.
Since that day six years ago, not only have I had the pleasure of performing many of Wayland's solo art songs on concerts across Chicago, but Fourth Coast Ensemble went on to commission and premiere his 2018 song cycle for vocal quartet and piano, I-Thou.
Upon initially completing the composition of I-Thou in 2017, Wayland invited us to his Bucktown home for a ceremonial "handing over of the scores," so to speak, where he led us in a poetry reading and accompanied us on piano in the first sing-through. He radiated from his place at the keyboard, and we all left buoyed by the joy of having created something beautiful together. Our ensemble's relationship with Wayland flourished during this period.
He shared himself generously with Fourth Coast Ensemble, propelled by his lifelong love of the art song genre. In a card written to the ensemble this past May he wrote:
Art song has been my prime musical concern as a performer, teacher, and listener for a lifetime. I'm so grateful that you are so ably promoting the form and giving it new life and direction.
Today I'd like to share the ensemble's November 2019 performance of "Encounter I" and "Encounter IV" from I-Thou. Earlier in the summer of 2019, the "Encounter" movements from I-Thou had been adapted for choir and given a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Of that performance, the Washington Post wrote:
[Conductor Doreen Rao] led the combined choirs entering from the back of the hall in Wayland Rogers’s “Encounter" ... Rogers writes fluently and effectively, and segments of this straightforward work would be reprised at critical junctures during the program, lending unity to the whole.
Although I wasn't there, my heart smiles thinking of hundreds of singers filling the aisles of the Kennedy Center, ringing out the music of Wayland Rogers.
I will miss his loyal friendship, but his music continues on in our hearts, and in the hearts of every singer who knew him.
Read Wayland's obituary here.
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!