For most singers, the art that we create is a communal experience. The synergy of a choir of voices generates the magic of the music that we love. While the music itself has been conspicuously absent this year, singers have also missed out on countless hours of making music with colleagues who are also dear friends. The pandemic has reminded us not to take friendship for granted, and I have acquired very specific memories of seeing friends for the first time after quarantine. This week on The Art Song Fix we are showcasing "The Pleasures of Friendship" from Wayland Rogers’ I-Thou, a light-hearted celebration of spending time with companions. It has indeed been a pleasure to continue to make music with my Fourth Coast friends!
This song is one of my favorite movements from I-Thou, a song cycle for vocal quartet commissioned by Fourth Coast and premiered in May 2018. It’s a lively a cappella fugue for the four voices, truly capturing the joy and “Pleasures of Friendship” in the playful way the theme bounces between the voices. After one full statement of the jaunty theme by the soprano, the tenor next presents the melody with interjections bouncing off by soprano and mezzo in duet, followed by a more complete trio version by the three voices. Finally, the bass enters in a new key, infusing new energy into the quartet of friends as they react to one another’s statements. The four voices expand into a flurry of activity before all coming together to end in unified rhythm and a unison note - a beautiful encapsulation of friends joining!
English poet Stevie Smith's work commonly portrays scenes of innocence and nostalgia, often nursery-rhyme-like on the surface. "The Pleasures of Friendship" is the perfect example of just such a work. However, critics agree that despite the whimsical appearance of her work, Smith was a significant talent whose distinct style grew more consistent and refined throughout her life. The deceptive simplicity of her poetry was described by the Times Literary Supplement as her "most distinctive achievement." Smith's scenes of simple joy remind us that life is short, and every walk through the grass with friends should be savored.
We have done a few of these virtual video performances now, and at this point, the whole process of recording and editing feels quite normal to us. We have learned more about audio and video than most classical singers probably dreamed would be so necessary and useful. Still, while standing in a closet alone, singing to a track and click of a metronome and taking video selfies while performing to an imaginary audience no longer feels as awkward and stilted as it did at first, truly nothing can replace the real deal.
The quartet is in “hybrid mode” now with a few livestream concerts under our belt, music videos like this, and a return to in-person rehearsals just this past week. It was refreshing to be able to, collectively in real-time, discuss interpretation, how to color and shape phrases, balance our voices, place our cutoffs, etc.—you know, normal music things! The intimacy of making eye contact and breathing together is pulling us out from within the literal and figurative walls that have contained us for the past year. We sense the returning thrill and pressure of having to create something beautiful together in the moment for a live audience, and we cannot wait to share more about the exciting plans we have for the summer and for next season. Stick with us, and stay tuned!
Fourth Coast Ensemble is a classical vocal quartet specializing in the unique style and repertoire of vocal chamber music. Celebrated for its "horizon-expanding programming, (Chicago Classical Review), Fourth Coast Ensemble embraces a repertoire that spans the history of the genre, from Schubert and Brahms to composers of the present day. The ensemble has earned a reputation of excellence "built on the quality of its small roster of artists" (Vocal Arts Chicago) - soprano Sarah van der Ploeg, mezzo-soprano Bridget Skaggs, tenor Ace Gangoso, and bass-baritone David Govertsen.
English composer Benjamin Britten is primarily known amongst vocal music aficionados for his works for tenor, from Peter Grimes to the Canticles. Today, however, we spotlight a beautiful example of his work written for two female singers: “Mother Comfort,” from Two Ballads.
Written in 1936 for Swiss singers Sophie and Colette Wyss, “Mother Comfort” sets a poem by Montagu Slater, later to become Britten’s librettist for the aforementioned Grimes. The text sets the two women in an ambiguous conflict with one another, at first asking whether they should even be talking together at all. It seems their friendship is strained by common interest in the same man, wondering to each other “Will you be Mother Comfort or shall I?”
As the questions alternate between the two women, Britten echoes their back-and-forth with musical lines that intersect. Consonance and dissonance dip in and out, with the soprano and mezzo parts switching lines back and forth at different times. Each woman gets her own chance to express her feelings to the other, then returns to duo lines that weave betwixt and between. The writing requires strength and independence in each singer’s solo abilities, and simultaneously careful matching of timbre, phrasing, and text so that each voice blends and exchanges with the other to leave the listener guessing who is who.
It is fortunate for me, then, that my mezzo duet partner in this work is Bridget - captured here in a recording from our parlor concert with pianist Dana Brown in 2019. One of the greatest joys of my work with Fourth Coast Ensemble has been our work together finding our distinctive blend, and being able to play my soprano lines off Bridget’s rich tone and expressive music-making. And it's an amplified gift as we continue to grow in our independent artistries, simultaneously strengthening our combined musical and vocal powers in partnership.
That being the case, we are so excited to share our first duo concert, performed last Saturday, February 20th, through the power of livestreaming, with the phenomenal Kuang-Hao Huang on piano. We can't wait to share more musical melding - including more Britten! - with you all.
Origin Stories: Soprano | Mezzo Duo is available for streaming access here through midnight CST tonight (2/22/21). Single tickets are $20.
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!