Classical and popular songs gracefully rendered by Fourth Coast Ensemble

Tue Mar 03, 2020 at 1:35 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

Fourth Coast Ensemble performed Monday night at Fourth Presbyterian Church. Photo: Elliot Mandel

As the title of their program suggested, Fourth Coast Ensemble colored “between the lines” Monday night at Fourth Presbyterian Church. 

The “lines” in question are the boundaries between classical and non-classical genres, which soprano Sarah van der Ploeg, mezzo-soprano Bridget Skaggs, tenor Ace Gangoso, bass-baritone David Govertsen and pianist Kuang-Hao Huang sought to explore.

The worry with such concerts is that it will consist of pop tunes sung unidiomatically by voices too indelibly classically trained. Fortunately, all four singers have non-classical experience under their belts.

The stylistic contrast was clearest in two of Gangoso’s solos, which were performed back-to-back. He sang Agustin Lara’s “Granada” in operatic tenor mode: displaying his large dynamic range, and full-bodied high notes. Then he suavely crooned Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” with falsetto (rather than head voice) top notes.  

In this 70-minute program with no intermission, Fourth Coast Ensemble repeated some songs from its October program. Van der Ploeg’s performance of Sara Bareilles’s “Between the Lines” and Skaggs’s performance of Edith Piaf’s “La vie en rose” were much more successful than last fall. Skaggs perfectly channeled the chanteuse style: judging well which words to speak and which to sing, which notes to hit squarely and which to slide in or out of.

Van der Ploeg’s vibrato-laden “Grief” by William Grant Still was worlds apart from her pure pop sound in “Between the Lines.” What the performances had in common was her lucid communication of her characters’ emotional arcs. 

This was even more evident still in her rendition of “When Did I Fall in Love?” (from Fiorello), in which she sang the first chorus with a sense of wonder and discovery and then the same lyrics the second time with unrestrained jubilation.

Also aiding the improved interpretations was the sensitive pianism of Huang. He shadowed Skaggs seamlessly in the Piaf and provided firm rhythmic support for Van der Ploeg in the Bareilles. 

The pianist’s finest work of the evening was in his accompaniments for the last three of Dvořák’s Love Songs, Op. 83, which he rendered with tender phrasing and sumptuous tone.

Govertsen maintained his pleasingly plush operatic timbre throughout. If there was little variety of expression, his bluff approach suited his chosen, less adventurous selections. For the program’s “jazz” set, he sang the not-very-jazzy “Song of Black Max” from William Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs, which provided an  opportunity to show his talent for characterization.

There were a few missteps. “Lily’s Eyes” from Marsha Norman and Lily Simon’s The Secret Garden was well-sung by Gangoso and Govertson, as it had been in October. But Huang’s unvaried dynamics failed to mark the song’s dramatic key changes.

Van der Ploeg, Gangoso, and Govertseon also performed a trio from the opera Mila, Great Sorcerer by Andrea Clearfield, the ensemble’s “spotlight composer” for the season. Unfortunately, the excerpt felt shoehorned in– dramatic import inscrutable out of context and too short to give a real taste of Clearfield’s style. 

Two ensemble numbers stood out. One was an a cappella arrangement of Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes,” in which all four singers tuned their chords carefully to produce rich overtones. The other was a poignant “No One Is Alone” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods, sung as an encore.

Fourth Coast’s program notes could use some tightening up. For the musical theater selections, the program notes generally credited only the composer not the lyricist (e.g. Rodgers but no Hammerstein) In one case, the wrong composer was listed: “When Did I Fall in Love?” is by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, not Victor Young (the composer of “When I Fall in Love”). The version of “And So It Goes” sung was obviously not the original one, but no arranger was credited.

Still, this was an enjoyable evening of classical and popular fare, and hopefully a future Fourth Coast season will feature a “Between the Lines II.”

Fourth Coast Ensemble’s season continues with a concert 7 p.m. April 5 at The Promontory.

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