With a new tenor, Fourth Coast Ensemble offers an offbeat mix

Mon Oct 14, 2019 at 11:00 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Fourth Coast Ensemble performed Saturday night at the Logan Center Penthouse. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Saturday evening at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center, while Third Coast Percussion performed in the main venue below, the Fourth Coast Ensemble performed in the Performance Penthouse above. 

The vocal quartet—soprano Sarah van der Ploeg, mezzo-soprano Bridget Skaggs, tenor Ace Gangoso, and bass-baritone David Govertsen—and their accompanist Dana Brown opened their Seventh season with a concert titled “Songs of the Fourth Coast.” This was a celebration of several things, including a new member and highlights from the year to come.

The new member is Gangoso, who replaced previous tenor Zachary Vanderburg. He is a welcome addition, as he delivered the finest performances of the evening.

Gangoso was introduced to the audience via a set of three Schubert lieder, which displayed one of his chief virtues: the dynamic and coloristic flexibility of his top range. It was forceful (but not forced) when the protagonist of “An die Leier” sang with anguish about his attempts to celebrate heroism rather than love. And rather than doing a large crescendo at the end of the first strophe of “An die Musik”—as is traditional—he floated lovingly delicate high notes.

Brown’s accompaniments to “An mein Klavier” were particularly charming, as he playfully altered the articulation in the codetta after each strophe.

The reference to a past season came by way of selections from I-Thou, a song cycle that Fourth Coast commissioned from composer Wayland Rogers and premiered in the spring of 2018.

The cycle is structured around short poems by Kazuaki Tanahashi describing the beauty of human-to-human encounters. These frame longer songs depicting people in different key stages of life—such as childhood, fatherhood, and old age.

Rogers’ style might be described as musical theater inflected with elements of 19th-century art song and contemporary classical. This diversity provides the singers with opportunities for humor and characterization, qualities also brought out by director George Cederquist’s rather campy staging.

Bridget Skaggs was perfectly bratty as a spoiled child in “My Brother.” Gangoso captured the naïve joy of his character in “The Old Young Man and the Young Old Man.”

The two upcoming programs that Fourth Coast previewed  are titled “American Woman” and “Between the Lines,” respectively.

The first, as its name might suggest, celebrates American female composers—especially those who helped to shape the American sound at the beginning of the 20th century.  

Skaggs had a somewhat rough time with this set. Her pitch faltered during Marion Bauer’s contrapuntal “Song of the Wanderer” and she landed awkwardly on two high notes at the end of Crawford-Seeger’s “White Moon.”

These selections went very well for Govertsen and van der Ploeg, however. The former delivered the word “scented” with a velvety tone in Florence Price’s “Travels’ End.”

Throughout the concert, van der Ploeg showed herself to be a powerful actress, conveying a large range of emotions equally well with her variations in timbre and facial expression. She displayed intensity in Amy Beach’s “Song of the Night” as effectively as she projected outpourings of affection in “To My Dear and Loving Husband” in I-Thou.

“Between the Lines” deals with music that is not quite (or not at all) classical. The three songs that they performed suggest that this is a promising program, but it seems that they have some work to do to adjust to the idiom.Skaggs’ performance of “La vie en rose” was rhythmically stiff, and when she and Brown engaged in much needed bits of rubato, they were not always well-coordinated.

Van der Ploeg’s performance of “Between the Lines” by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles bloomed only when the song soared high. During the song’s low beginning, she sounded constricted (vocally and emotionally) and Brown failed to establish the firm pulse one expects in a pop song.

Much better was “Lily’s Eyes” from The Secret Garden in which Gangoso and Govertsen hit the sweet spot between operatic and musical theater styles.

The concert closed with a piece by Andrea Clearfield, whom Fourth Coast has named their “Spotlight Composer” for the 2019-20 season. Her song, “Tse go la,” sets a Tibetan text and has exactly the East-meets-West flavor you might expect. A piano drone supports chanting from the tenor. The accompaniment grows as other singers are added bit by bit, and then subtracted bit by bit, until we end with just the tenor again.

Most impressive in this song was Govertsen. His low notes had been slightly shaky at the beginning of the concert, but by the concert’s end they were the solid foundation upon which this song was built.  

Fourth Coast Ensemble presents “American Woman,” 7:30 p.m. November 7 at the Woman’s Club of Evanston. fourthcoastensemble.com

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