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.
Maurice Ravel composed his Trois Chansons in late 1914 and early 1915 following the outbreak of World War I. Using his own texts he wrote music for mixed a cappella choir that hearkens back to the traditional French chansons of the late Medieval and early Renaissance eras. Ravel dedicated the songs to people he thought could help him enlist in the military, and he ultimately enlisted in March of 1915, helped by Paul Panlevé to whom the second movement is dedicated.
"Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis" depicts a girl (portrayed by soprano Sarah Van der Ploeg) whose beloved has gone off to war. Three birds representing the colors of the French flag each bring a remembrance of her love—a glance of blue eyes, a kiss of purest white, and a loving heart of crimson. "Ah, I feel my heart growing cold," says the girl as she begins to understand that she will never see her love again.
Ravel sets the solo voice against a wordless chorus that often serves as something of a drone, and offers a continual refrain of "my love has gone to the war" to create a haunting atmosphere. Trois Chansons is the only music that Ravel wrote for a cappella choir, and after hearing this song one wishes that he would have composed more.
Fourth Coast Ensemble performed these songs on our What a Zoo! concerts in June of 2019. We were joined by guest vocalist Ashley McKinstry.
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!