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.
La vie en rose is the song that launched cabaret singer Édith Piaf to international success. The original 1947 Colombia Records pressing of the single sold a million copies in the U.S. and was the number one best selling single in Italy that year. Piaf, who authored the lyrics, collaborated with a number of composers on the music, although the musical authorship was ultimately attributed to Luiguy. This became one of Piaf's signature songs and was included on most of the subsequent albums she recorded in her lifetime.
However, success was hardly prescribed in her life. She fought to overcome many difficult circumstances to achieve success as a chanteuse, starting right from the beginning when her mother abandoned her at birth. She was raised in a brothel until age 14, when her father took her on the road and trained her as a street performer and acrobat. She became a young mother herself at age 17, and overcame extreme stage fright to make her cabaret debut at age 20. Music changed the course of her life over the next 10 years, until 1947 when she would record La vie en rose.
Knowing the basic facts of Piaf's life, one can appreciate the sentiment of this song even more. The title translates as "Life through rose colored glasses," and the lyrics describe the protective emotional cloak that a love affair can provide at it's height. "When you press me to your heart / I'm in a world apart / A world where roses bloom." This bittersweet sentiment was at the core of Piaf's greatest hits and very identity: life may do its best to break you down, but as humans we can still find beauty when we choose look for it.
I hope you enjoy this performance from Fourth Coast Ensemble's March 3, 2020 Between the Lines concert, featuring my own rendition of this iconic song with pianist Kuang-Hao Huang.
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!