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.
In honor of the upcoming opening concert of Fourth Coast Ensemble’s HD season on February 20, we are excited to share our most recent virtual collaboration: Morten Lauridsen’s choral setting of “Sure on this Shining Night.”
This is a song that we’ve never sung before, and, in fact, we never could have performed before now because the vocal lines split into more than four parts! One of the benefits of collaborating remotely is that the quartet is able to record multiple vocal parts amongst ourselves, giving everyone the pleasure of hearing Lauridsen’s signature tone clusters and rich harmonies as-written.
James Agee’s enigmatic poem portrays the internal experience of an individual who finds healing in contemplating the night sky. Despite “wandering far alone,” the individual still looks at the “starmade shadows” and feels that “all is healed / all is health.” Lauridsen’s setting brings out the lyricism of the poetry with wonderful sweeping melismas for the voice, and simple flowing movement in the piano.
The first vocal divisi occurs mid-way through the song on the text “High summer holds the earth / Hearts all whole”. The shimmering tone clusters heard here continue to re-appear and radiate throughout the remainder of the piece. Although the vocal part settles into a satisfying and well-earned stillness at the end, the piano twinkles on, perhaps representing the onward movement of the stars overhead.
Like the wanderer in the poem, we each recorded apart from one another. However, the music has in fact given us the opportunity to find healing and health as we marvel at the sky we all share.
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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!