This week's #artsongfix features The Senator’s Stump Speech by Steven Mark Kohn, which we presented at our Americana concerts during my first season with Fourth Coast.
The song debates the pros and cons of whiskey in a mock serious atmosphere that quickly turns comic. It’s a piece that includes lots of fun acting moments and exists somewhere at the intersection of art song, cabaret, opera and musical theater—‘Between the Lines’ you might say!
Kohn is working with a fabulous text attributed to Noah ‘Soggy’ Sweat, a Mississippi legislator and lawyer. Sweat makes decisive arguments on both sides of the whiskey issue, which the composer depicts in delightful musical contrasts.
The opening is set freely as a recitative while the senator’s feelings on the matter are still ambiguous. As soon as he launches into whiskey as ‘the devil’s brew’ the music becomes a menacing march, with muddy low notes in the piano and lots of crunchy chromatic clusters. It builds like a fiery preacher’s sermon to a climactic proclamation of ‘I am against it’, only to give way to a light-hearted waltz in praise of whiskey’s virtues. You can practically hear the sleigh bells ringing as the senator suggests that whiskey means ‘Christmassy cheer’.
One of my favorite lines in the song concerns whiskey’s ability to help forget ‘life’s great tragedies’; here the composer briefly throws us back into the ominous musical mood of the first part of the speech, a clever bit of self-reference which suggests that the joys of whiskey can help us to forget the very ills that it creates.
The song culminates in a triumphant fanfare of ambivalence, a template for politicians of any era who wish to equivocate unequivocally.
This performance was recorded at Newberry Library in January of 2018 and features pianist Mark Bilyeu as well as the rest of my Fourth Coast colleagues portraying the concerned citizens of Mississippi. It was a true delight to perform this piece, and I hope it finds its way onto future Fourth Coast concerts. This is my stand, I will not be swayed from it!
This week's #artsongfix is a two-for-one! Lori Laitman's setting of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, followed immediately by the quartet's a cappella encore of America the Beautiful. The 19th Amendment is the last movement of Lori Laitman's song cycle Are Women People?, jointly commissioned by Eastman School of Music and the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Leadership.
Speaking live at this concert, ensemble tenor Ace Gangoso said:
While we’ve had this legislation for a hundred years now, the work towards women's equality and women’s rights still marches onward. And on a broader scale, there are people in our nation who feel persecuted and who feel that for simply being who they are, their livelihood and even their lives are at stake. It’s a message of the work that is yet to be done.
Since this November 9, 2019 performance, Fourth Coast Ensemble has recorded the cycle in studio with pianists Maria Sumareva and Andrew Rosenblum for inclusion on Laitman's next CD release.
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!