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.
Ah, the holiday season. A time for nostalgia, music, sending cards, decorating homes with lights, and - above all - enjoying special holiday foods! Favorite recipes and treats have the power to transport us in time to our childhoods, or make us feel suddenly closer to family, friends, and loved ones we may not otherwise get to see. Just a few nights ago, my mother and I were surprised to discover we were simultaneously making my great-grandmother’s Dutch Sinterklaas cookie recipe while halfway across the country from one another! Whether it’s grandma’s babke, an uncle’s spiced cider, or your cousin’s famous cheesy bread, everyone has one or two special dishes that signal holiday cheer.
So, without further ado, let Fourth Coast Ensemble offer you a new recipe to add to your tradition this year: “Tuna Supreme!”
Performed by the quartet and pianist Kuang-Hao Huang in the spring of 2019, composer Richard Pearson Thomas’ humorous Fish ‘n Chicks song cycle culminates in this zany finale. As text, Thomas sets a real recipe taken out of “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook, 1950.” After a dramatic piano glissando, the close vocal harmonies mimic a Hollywood trio from that era, proclaiming excitedly: “TUNA SUPREME. A treat from the deep. A perfectly grand dish for women’s luncheons!” Yes, we have officially landed in 1950.
The music then flies off into the joyous “Fast swing tempo” of the recipe itself: a casserole with very specific ingredients, some of which may seem rather odd to our 21st Century gastronomic sensibilities. But the enthusiasm is infectious: from the walking bass line in the piano, to the rhythmic tenor and bass spoken section (you’ll know it when you hear it!) under a semi-improvisatory soprano vocalism, to huge crescendos and vocal glissandos, it’s a cooking experiment in Technicolor! And then, just when you think it’s over, Thomas reels you back in for one last dive through the animals celebrated earlier in the cycle, bringing it all to a true Hollywood finish.
What a treat!
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!