Many singers don’t regularly get to make chamber music in its purest form. More often, vocalists are either soloists - one individual soaring over other instruments and voices - or choristers - tasked with blending into a large cohesive sonic whole. While both of these singing arenas demand expert applications of vocal artistry (and which all four of us also love to do!), there is something uniquely special about vocal chamber music.
In my former musical life as a violist, chamber music was by far my favorite means of music making. Playing in an orchestra was exhilarating, but you could barely hear the viola part in the hall much of the time (cue the viola jokes now). Conversely, I missed the collaborative process of musical interplay when working on solo works, and there aren’t many really excellent viola pieces in the standard student repertoire (cue more viola jokes). But playing in a string quartet? Every note I played really mattered. The works were breathtaking. Constant eye contact and breathing together with the violins and cello kept us in active communication through each moment. We got to make real artistic decisions - not just following a conductor’s lead - and we got to make them collectively. Each person had to be both soloist and collaborator to the fullest extent of their abilities. It was bliss.
After realizing during college that my musical life was shifting from being "a violist who sang" to "a soprano who played the viola," I didn’t initially realize what I was losing in this area. As a career in singing began to take form, I loved the opportunities to solo and was thrilled by singing in some phenomenal choruses, but I missed the interplay of chamber music. A couple of chamber choir experiences came close, but nothing was really like my viola experiences. Nothing, that is, until I joined Fourth Coast Ensemble.
This group is special, and a rare experience to have as a singer. I get to make gorgeous music with colleagues who I genuinely admire, whose artistry continues to blow me away, and with whom I get to regularly collaborate in ways that make us each better. Each singer is unique, and we get to showcase that in our solo repertoire, but the total experience is greater than the sum of its parts. The challenge and pleasure of working on blend, matching one another’s phrases, vowels and cutoffs with exactitude, while also knowing that every note of every singer is vitally important? It takes everything I have and have trained for, and is the most joyous music-making I get to do.
All of this leads us to Schumann’s “So war die Sonne scheinet,” the final movement of his grand Minnespiel song cycle for four voices. Schumann is a master composer of both lieder and instrumental chamber music (check out his String Quartet No. 1 in A minor - it’s a favorite of mine!), and it shows here. He asks the four singers to match one another in richly blended chords, and also gives each one the opportunity to stand out from the group. Plus it involves the additional bonus of a beautifully rich piano part, here expertly played by Fourth Coast board chair and regular collaborator Dr. Dana Brown.
Think of it like a string quartet for voices. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
By Ace Gangoso
Atreus, Cadmus, and Alcides aren’t household names these days, but one need not be well-versed in Greek mythology to understand the singing poet’s struggle in An die Leier. The song has a startling beginning with chords that crash and clash, painting a sonic picture of disaster and destruction. It is essentially the soundtrack to the year 2020.
The vocal line begins with a pompous war-cry, declaring honor and loyalty to these mighty heroes as if marching into an epic battle. However, the piano (representing the lyre) takes on a life of its own, modulating toward a more peaceful soundscape. And despite another effort to revert to the original bombastic tones, the sounds of love ultimately win. The transitions are almost comical, but reveal a certain truth: artists can falter, but art is pure.
As a musician, I have found it difficult at times to keep a hopeful and optimistic focus. What helps to pick me up and keep me going is witnessing the craftiness and ingenuity that continues to emerge despite our current circumstances. From online virtual performances to mini-concerts on balconies to murals and street paintings—creative life lives on and thrives. This week, in celebration of the women’s suffrage centennial, sculptor Meredith Bergmann unveiled statues of pioneers Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth in New York City’s Central Park.
These are all wonderful reminders that, even in the darkest of times, beauty and inspiration are all around. As makers and lovers of music, we have to keep the faith and support one another. Although our world is volatile and full of discord, art can lead us and change the tune.
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!