As we pause today to reflect on the legacy and ever-timely challenge presented by the life and words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am reminded of his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and his holy impatience with the slowness of progress towards racial equity in the United States. I wonder what letters he would be writing to us today. And I am struck by how relevant Florence Price’s undated song, “Sympathy,” feels in that context, and still to us today perhaps a century after she wrote it.
Price’s setting of this poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) is a masterful one, showcasing her technical abilities as a composer and her unique musical voice while expressing the emotional weight of his words in an honest, unforced, and powerful way.
The three sections of the song echo the three stanzas of the poem, beginning with lyrical lines that reflect the “sun … bright on the upland slopes” and the “wind stir[ring] soft through the springing grass” before chromatic descending lines that underscore the bittersweet images of the world beyond the cage. More intense dynamics, rhythms, and pianism mark the second stanza, as Price knows “why the caged bird beats its wing / Till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” The music crescendos before a resigned return to the first theme at the start of the third stanza, again acknowledging “why the caged bird sings, ah me, / When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore.” Finally, at the end, the piece reaches its climax as it lays out the meaning behind the bird’s - and Price’s - song:
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
It was an honor and privilege to lend my voice to Price’s music and Dunbar’s words in this 2018 concert with pianist Mark Bilyeu. May we hear their plea ring in our ears, and may we work towards a world where this plea is less timely.
By David Govertsen
The overture from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is an oddly appropriate musical number for these many months we have spent in quarantine. Much like 2020, you never know quite what is coming next.
Sondheim scraps the traditional instrumental overture one expects at the top of a musical drama and instead lets the singers kick things off, and a cappella at that. The ensuing three minutes are a wild ride of key changes, shifts in tempo and texture, leaps of vocal register and dynamics, and musical moods that turn on a dime. Listen as each singer switches roles between featured soloist, background accompaniment, and balanced four-part ensemble member (Sondheim actually composed this for five singers, bonus points if you can figure out how we covered all the parts with a quartet). As a performer I love the variety that this kind of music provides, but it is certainly a major vocal workout.
The overture contains three main themes that appear later in the show: "Remember’" "Soon", and "The Glamorous Life". Since live performances have come to a standstill there has been much time to reflect on music we made in the past. Ah, how we laughed, ah, how we cried…remember? Though in the context of the show it has a very different meaning, the lyrics seem to answer the question we are all asking: Will life in the performing arts as we once knew it return? Soon, I promise. From the standpoint of a performer it is incredibly strange not to have worn a tuxedo for a concert in so long. Pack up the luggage–Hi-ho, for the glamorous life!
Fortunately, Fourth Coast Ensemble has exciting plans to bring up the curtain once again with our seventh season. The complete announcement of our inaugural HD season, including ticket info for three live broadcast concerts, will happen on January 5, 2021. Until then, please enjoy this la la la from the archives!
This performance was recorded live on March 3, 2020 in Buchanan Chapel with pianist Kuang-Hao Huang. Audio by Joshua Sauvageau. Video by Nadia Oussenko.
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!