THE ART SONG FIX
Fourth Coast Ensemble's Blog
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!
With the many thunderstorms we’ve been experiencing in Chicago this summer, one song has been on regular rotation in my mental playlist: Margaret Bonds’ Summer Storm, from her Songs of the Season cycle with texts by Langston Hughes.
A Chicago native, Margaret Bonds was born in 1913 into a musical family. Her mother, organist Estelle C. Bonds, was her first music teacher, and a close family friendship with Florence Price led to piano and composition lessons with the brilliant composer while Bonds was still in high school. In fact, Bonds went on to perform Price’s piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. She later moved to New York, where she studied at Juilliard Graduate School and dedicated much of her career to supporting and advancing Black musicians and composers.
Simply put, we should know Margaret Bonds and her astonishing work much more than most of us do.
It was both exciting and challenging to dig into this particular song: Bonds embraces a broad palette of musical styles and colors in her work, and this song showcases that. From a blues-like anticipation of “July thunder” at the start, the music whirls into quick and angular “lightning in the sky, and a sudden gale that shakes the blossoms down.” The piano part then illustrates petals falling down like “confetti in your hair, confetti on the ground” as the vocal line gets swept into the love story unfolding in the “soft, sweet rain.”
The real thunder turns out to be a pounding heartbeat of being “hand in hand”, happy through the storm, with one’s love. Bonds creates a soaring ending that hearkens back to the start, exulting through Hughes’ words: “July thunder, in my heart, the wonder of love [...] The wonder of being in love with you.”
A fitting sentiment for today, in particular, as we celebrate Bridget’s July wedding this morning. Congratulations, Bridget - love to you and Elliot, and wishing you fairer weather than the thunderstorm in this song!
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!