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.
This Sunday we celebrate the birthday of Viennese composer and songsmith extraordinaire Franz Schubert. As a pioneer of the song cycle genre with over six hundred songs written for solo voice and piano to his credit, he has clearly earned a place in the art song pantheon.
The music of Schubert has naturally found a home on many Fourth Coast concerts. ‘Die Forelle’, heard here in an arrangement for vocal quartet and piano, kicked off our ‘What a Zoo!’ program, which I had the pleasure of curating two seasons ago.
Composed in 1817 when Schubert was barely twenty years old, the song tells the tale of the titular trout and a meddlesome fisherman. The cheerful melody in the piano depicts the lively fish swimming about in the clear water as the fisherman attempts to catch it. The fisherman grows impatient and muddies the waters in order to trick the trout; the fish is caught! Here Schubert likewise muddies the musical waters with thick, crunchy chords in the left hand of the piano, returning to the original theme as the trout emerges from the water hooked on the fishing line.
I am always struck by the imagery that jumps off the page in a Schubert song. Using only the keys of a piano and the voice of a singer he is able to conjure vivid depictions of nearly any subject; from the pounding of horses’ feet in ‘Erlkönig’, to the incessant turning of the spinning wheel in ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, to the lively antics of the trout in ‘Die Forelle’. To think that he achieved this in only thirty-one short years of life makes one wonder what could have been.
Alles Gute zum Geburtstag, Herr Schubert!
This performance was recorded live on June 2, 2019 at the Logan Center for the Arts in Hyde Park with pianist Kuang-Hao Huang. Audio by Joshua Sauvageau.
Hello, and welcome to the blog! We are Fourth Coast Ensemble, Chicago's classical vocal quartet. Join a different member of our ensemble 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 #artsongfix!