Fourth Coast singers explore musical heritages in winning duo-recital

Sun Mar 21, 2021 at 3:05 pm

By John von Rhein

Ace Gangoso and David Govertsen performed songs in Fourth Coast Ensemble’s streamed concert Saturday night. Photo: Elliot Mandel

While the long suspension of concert activity amid the scourge of Covid-19 has proved a major hindrance for local orchestral, operatic and choral organizations—as it has everywhere—the pandemic has created any number of new opportunities for smaller, more adaptable classical groups to fill the performance void, albeit from a safe cyber-distance.

One such area organization is Fourth Coast Ensemble. The Chicago-based vocal quartet continued its 2021 virtual season Saturday night with the second of three song programs this winter and spring billed as “Origin Stories”— potpourris of art songs and folk song arrangements chosen by the singers to reflect their respective ethnic and cultural heritages.

Thoughtfully planned and presented with conspicuous skill and dedication, the concert added luster to the reputation of an enterprising group, founded in 2013, that shares the mission of the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago to keep the flame of professional art song performance alive in Chicago.

The live-streamed performance, including brief prerecorded introductions by singers Ace Gangoso, tenor, David Govertsen, bass-baritone, and composers Jake Heggie and Stacy Garrop, was transmitted with high-definition videography and state-of-the-art sonics. The concert will stream through Monday night at

Indeed, Fourth Coast Ensemble may well wish to continue the streaming format into the months and even years following the eventual resumption of live concerts, given the technical and musical excellence on view Saturday—as well as the crucial directness in which the electronic medium can reinforce an intimate emotional nexus, extending from music to performer to listener, that is central to art-song performance.

Of course, one wouldn’t want to permanently forgo the experience of being part of an audience gathered in a real concert hall to savor the small miracles a master singer can work on behalf of, say, a Schubert lied or a Faure melodie; but, at least until there is some return to normalcy, the virtual article, as transmitted to our laptops and PCs by the committed artists of Fourth Coast, will do very nicely indeed.

Once past the program opener, a selection of Schumann lieder for tenor-baritone duet that nodded to the group’s core repertoire, the versatile Gangoso and Govertsen settled into an enjoyable hourlong exploration of art songs and folksong arrangements touching on musical traditions associated with the singers’ family trees—Filipino songs in the case of Gangoso, Norwegian vocal music in the case of Govertsen. (Both vocalists sang from scores on iPads.)

Composers Heggie and Garrop appeared in pretaped segments to speak briefly about their song cycles—heard in excerpts—whose texts deal variously with the coming of age and the natural world. Ensemble pianist Yasuko Oura, sitting masked at the keyboard, furnished the capable and sensitive accompaniments.

Arrangements of a medieval German minnelied, a Dutch folksong and a Greek folksong, all by the 19th century Norwegian composer and pianist Agathe Backer Grondahl, proved to be pleasant if rather innocuous in manner. These bear little trace of the folk-influenced Norwegian tradition, certainly not when heard alongside the far more original Grieg of the song “Til Norge.” All four pieces were appreciatively sung by Govertsen, whose hefty sound retains fullness and quality through his considerable range.

If Govertsen’s art was more than sufficient to elevate mediocre material, so did Gangoso succeed in elevating a group of folksong arrangements by Filipino composers Francisco Santiago, Mike Velarde and Constancio de Guzman, along with the traditional Philippine folksong Ili, Ili, Tulog Anay. All were pleasant, lightweight discoveries, rendered with abundant tonal sweetness and expressive sincerity by Gangoso, who addressed the camera in telling closeups, as if he were sharing deeply personal feelings with the at-home audience.

Then it was back home to these United States for a varied assortment of songs by Heggie, Garrop, Paul Bowles, Gwyneth Walker, Florence Price and the Chicago-born composer Ernst Bacon.

Five songs for tenor and baritone from Heggie’s cycle Here and Gone (commissioned by the Ravinia Festival in 2005 and set to poems by A. E. Houseman and the Illinois-born Vachel Lindsay) bespoke the composer’s warmly lyrical fluency in writing for voices. Bittersweet and sometimes humorous in mood, the songs touch on such themes as suppressed homosexual desire and the impossibility of one’s every truly going home again—much is achieved through relatively spare harmonic means. The songs were beautifully rendered by Govertsen and Gangoso as a vocal duo and individually, while Oura clearly enjoyed cutting loose in the furious wrong-note accompaniment of “Factory Windows.”

There also was much to admire in the exultant “Smile, O Voluptuous Cool-Breathed Earth,” from Garrop’s cycle Terra Nostra (based on a Walt Whitman poem eco-friendly before the fact), as well as Bacon’s hymnlike “One Thought Ever at the Fore.” Both songs were delivered by Govertsen with fervent authority.

Gangoso savored the ethereal spiritual calm of Price’s “Night,” a miniature gem in the catalogue of Price, the Chicago-based African-American composer whose music is enjoying an overdue renaissance after long neglect. The tenor easily commanded the two-octave range of Walker’s declamatory “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” one of the most powerful modern settings of the iconic Dylan Thomas poem.

An English-language curiosity, for male duo, of the patriotic Finnish song that forms the basis of Sibelius’ greatest hit—the orchestral tone poem Finlandia—served as an encore for a concert whose only weak link was the absence of song texts.

The program will stream through Monday night at Fourth Coast Ensemble’s virtual season will continue with streamed concerts on April 6 (“Origin Stories – Quartet Remix”) and April 11 (“SongSLAM,” with Jake Heggie). 

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