New composers, young singers take the spotlight in Fourth Coast Ensemble’s songSlam finale

Mon Apr 12, 2021 at 4:00 pm

By David Wright

Ryan Donlin’s “Let It Be Forgotten,” took first prize at Fourth Coast Ensemble’s songSLAM Sunday night. Soprano Celia Williams performed the song with the composer at the piano. Photo: SnoStudios

Some music competitions are tough to get into. Auditions, references, reviews, and prior honors have to pile high before you even get an invitation.

Then there’s songSLAM, a contest for art-song composers and performers co-presented online Sunday night by the Chicago vocal group Fourth Coast Ensemble and the song-promoting organization Sparks & Wiry Cries. All you needed to land a slot was a $20 entrance fee and a typing speed fast enough to put you among the first ten applicants.

In Sunday’s event, against all odds, the unvetted field of ten composer-performer teams put on an impressive evening of new music for one singer and piano. Each presented a single song in its world premiere, and among offerings ranging from wistful to fierce and from inspiring to ridiculous, there was not a clinker in the bunch.

Composer Jake Heggie and Chicago improv actress Gretchen Eng co-hosted the event with unflagging enthusiasm, despite persistent glitches in the video-conferencing setup as Heggie commented on the songs and interviewed the young composers.

At evening’s end, an online viewer poll awarded top honors to “Let It Be Forgotten,” Ryan Donlin’s frosty setting of an enigmatic poem by Sara Teasdale. Soprano Celia Williams’s creamy tone and soaring lines contrasted, and yet also connected, with the Debussy-like pointillism of the composer at the piano. Crystalline high figurations and ghostly inside-the-piano glissandos mirrored the poet’s ephemeral imagery.

Tenor Michael Day performed Matthew Recio’s second-place winner “How We Hush,” with Recio playing piano. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Like several of the other entries, Donlin’s song imagined a different relationship of singer and piano than the usual tune-and-accompaniment model. A more familiar style, declamation of the text with minimal piano commentary, characterized the second-place finisher, Matthew Recio’s “How We Hush,” a meditation on grief to a text by Jenna Lanzaro. Tenor Michael Day sustained a soft but taut line, twice rising in powerful crescendos, with the composer at the piano sketching in delicate phrases.

Michelle’s Issac’s “Our Idea of Nothing at All,” took third place and was performed by soprano Angela Born and pianist Jordan Crice. Photo: SnoStudios

Happily, the program offered plenty of humor to leaven these somber items, notably the third-place winner, “Our Idea of Nothing at All,” Michelle Isaac’s delicious setting of suffragette Alice Duer Miller’s sarcastic ode to a certain “Mr. Webb of South Carolina,” who said he didn’t oppose women, just women voting. “O Mr. Webb, how kind you are / To let us live at all,” wrote the poet, and the all-female team of composer Isaac, soprano Angela Born and pianist Jordan Crice left no doubt what they would say to a contemporary Mr. Webb, and how they’d say it. Besides impeccable musicianship, Born offered facial expressions as changeable as South Carolina weather, while Crice commented bitingly in snatches of boogie-woogie and stride piano.

Runners-up in the humor category were hardly less worthy. Jasmine Thomasian’s “In the Greenroom” (text and performance by soprano Claire DiVizio, with pianist Cody Michael Bradley) depicted a weary diva exasperated by children’s antics. Meg Huskins’s “We Went to Paris in Our Apartment” (text by the composer, performed by soprano Allanah Spencer and pianist Jennifer Allor) painted a scene of pandemic fantasy travel, with virtual strolls along the Seine and a very real can-can (“the downstairs neighbors hate us”).

The subtle humor of Eric Malmquist’s “Michelangelo’s Grocery List,” as rendered by soprano Ashlee Hardgrave and pianist Josh Quinn, came from setting the great artist’s mundane shopping memo in alternating Italian and English, the former falling into operatic cadences and the latter more Bernsteinian.

Love songs were not neglected Sunday night. In Leo Radosavljevic’s “Näed körged pilved” (See the soaring clouds), the stormy imagery of Estonian poet Lydia Koidula was reflected in soprano Angela De Venuto’s impassioned, wide-ranging line and the turbulent interjections of the composer at the piano. In a far gentler mood, composer Nico Gutierrez accompanied mezzo-soprano Kelsey Goodwin in his tender “Canción de Cuna para mi Corazón Solitario” (Cradle song for my solitary heart; text by Ofelia Sussel-Marie).

Sunday’s program also delivered drama, both the stark and inspirational variety. Partnered by pianist James Janssen, composer and baritone Jeremiah Strickler took a murderous oath in his “The Vow” (text from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), to a monstrous, lumbering accompaniment. A fan letter from an obscure poet to a celebrated social reformer provided the text for Brandon Harrington’s “Tribute to Jane Addams” (text by Eleanor Daugherty), which closed the contest on a note of uplift in a fervent performance by soprano Elizabeth Shuman and pianist Young Jee Cho-Park.

While votes were being tabulated, the four singers of Fourth Coast Ensemble—soprano Sarah van der Ploeg, mezzo-soprano Bridget Skaggs, tenor Ace Gangoso and bass-baritone David Govertsen, with pianist Kuang-Hao Huang—took turns performing three songs by Heggie and an aria from his opera Moby-Dick, giving in the process a master class in text-setting and subtle, artful song performance.

songSLAM may be viewed for $15 on the presenter’s website until 7 p.m. Tuesday.

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