Chicago's Ace up the Sleeve

Elliot Mandel Photography

Elliot Mandel Photography

As a person of color, I have been navigating traditionally white spaces ever since I chose to become a musician — as far back as the 90’s when I was pursuing my undergraduate degree. It was very easy to feel “othered” and my ambition to succeed caused me to adapt to my environment: to learn as much as I could about my craft, to be an expert in its history, and to adopt language, manners, and habits which my former self would find foreign. I am not good at codeswitching, so my family and remaining high school friends have to suffer an erudite opera queen who collects pocket squares and scoffs at Styrofoam. I did not, however, change my skin color in the process, and all it takes is for one well-meaning audience member to compliment me on my English to remind me that to many, I am still the Other.

This is a problem in classical music in Chicago. That a room is full of white people is one of the first things I notice, and it happens most when I am being paid to make music or in a theater seat where people have paid to experience a performance. Another thing I notice immediately is how many people of color are on stage. Another thing I notice is how many people of color appear in marketing materials for this concert series, or that new chamber group, or this new a cappella ensemble. I don’t want to sound as if I am easily triggered. I find pleasure in all the music making happening around town. But please, you artistic directors, casting directors, and conductors, actively do something about this problem.

Fourth Coast Ensemble is now 25% brown, which makes it, proportionately, one the most diverse professional singing ensembles in Chicago. This post is actually about Ace Gangoso, the wonderful new replacement for founding tenor Zachary Vanderburg. I heard Ace for the first time singing the Monteverdi Vespers at Northwestern University. I remember it well, because HE WAS BROWN and he had a rich tone, if unusual in its darkness, for a student. I filed his name somewhere in the back of my brain until recently, when I began to notice him adding melanin to the choir lofts of the Chicago Symphony Chorus and Grant Park Music Festival, as well as to the elite roster of Chicago a cappella, and finally, to Fourth Coast. His prominence in Chicago, covering just about every corner of the repertoire, gives me heart. If I were a student again, I would look up to him. Instead, I simply admire him and want to know how he feels about it all. Ace Gangoso’s responses have been paraphrased and edited for length.

Can you trace your trajectory from student to being one of the most favored musicians in Chicago?

I took my first formal voice lessons in college and developed a love for opera and art song.  I studied Music Education and Vocal Performance as a baritone at the University of Central Arkansas. I then spent the duration of my Master’s program at Northwestern relearning how to sing as my instrument was revealing itself as a tenor voice. Honestly, it was a painful two years.  I watched my classmates take on lead roles in operas as I sang in the chorus. Some of my colleagues were landing apprenticeships with major companies, and I was back at square one.

For years after graduating from Northwestern, I felt like an underdog and wondered if I would ever amount to anything as a singer—if I would ever gain the technical facility to match what my brain and heart wanted to express. I was a bit encouraged as I consistently landed gigs with some of Chicago’s most prestigious choruses and ensembles.  Yet, it was intimidating to hear some of the voices around me that could easily do what mine could not.  Somehow I managed to be patient and disciplined enough to continue working on my technique.  It was only perhaps two years ago that I started to feel a sense of security, consistency, and reliability in my singing.

Joining Fourth Coast Ensemble has been a thrill because, while it still demands my skills as an ensemble singer, it also requires everything I have as a soloist.  I have no place to hide, and fortunately I no longer want to.  I have this wonderful opportunity to revisit art song, learn new music, and actually sing them for a live audience again.  I haven’t performed in this type of setting since my graduate recital in 2012.  I consider this my rebirth as a singer, and I’m so honored to experience this alongside my new Fourth Coast family!

Since you are a style chameleon, it is difficult to pin you down as a specific type of artist. Which ensemble is the best fit for your own musical personality?

The beautiful thing about being in a city like Chicago is that I don’t have to choose a singular path.  Within a week of singing art songs with Fourth Coast, I’ll be singing at a synagogue for Yom Kippur, playing Catholic masses at St. Nick’s in Evanston, gospel music on the south side, and begin learning music for Chicago a cappella’s holiday concerts, which ranges from Gregorian chant to Pentatonix.  One of my favorite things about being a musician is that I gain insight into different cultures and traditions.  So, to answer your question: all of them! I want to keep learning and exploring as much as I can.

Can you give advice on how you navigate the implicit bias of the classical music business?

Who better than the late Jessye Norman to speak on this matter?  In one of her last recorded interviews, she gave this advice to a young singer who felt lost and wasn’t getting performance opportunities: “What you should do next is to learn another good piece of music and have it as part of your life and part of your repertoire... Go into the studio and learn the repertoire and be prepared for whatever happens, and if you're prepared, I promise you it will happen." I remember feeling frustrated when, year after year, I would audition for a certain group and not get the desired result. Did it have anything to do with my skin color? Who knows? Regardless, I decided one year that I would prepare like I never had before and leave absolutely no reason to not get the promotion—and that if I didn’t get it, I would leave the group altogether. Luckily, it all worked out. In a nutshell: know your worth, do the work, and give people no choice but to notice you.  Speak up if/when you need to, but let your good work speak for itself.

How would you like to see the scene in Chicago change to include more diverse voices? Are there audiences that we are not reaching, and how can we make what we do more accessible to them?

At this point in my career, I can speak to representation. One of the things that drew me to audition for Fourth Coast is its dedication to performing works by women and people of color, and programming repertoire that puts the spotlight on those who are underrepresented and/or misrepresented in the classical music scene and society at large.  Other Chicago ensembles are making similar efforts, which is very heartening.  On a fun note, I recently bought a couple collections of Filipino folk songs, specifically from the region of the Visayas, where much of my extended family still resides.  I hope to get the chance to learn and perform them soon!

On Saturday, Fourth Coast Ensemble debuts their new configuration: soprano Sarah van der Ploeg, mezzo-soprano Bridget Skaggs, tenor Ace Gangoso, and bass-baritone David Govertsen with pianist Dana Brown in “Songs of Fourth Coast” at the superior venue, the Logan Center Penthouse in Hyde Park.

Chicago Choral Artists photo by Paul Crisanti.

Chicago Choral Artists photo by Paul Crisanti.

So many other important performances take place this weekend. Chicago Choral Artists is making a big investment on their season opener: Craig Hella Johnson’s Considering Matthew Shepard. I experienced this modern masterpiece last month at Ravinia performed by Conspirare. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional ride this piece takes the audience on. It’s like being punched in the gut, then hugged, then punched again, etc. I imagine a similar experience was had by the first audiences to hear Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. CCA is offering three performances, Friday through Sunday, at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest. Coincidentally, CCA Artistic Director will also be tackling St. Matthew Passion at Grace Lutheran as part of the Bach Cantata Vespers series in the spring.

Chicago Chamber Choir begins its third season with Christopher Windle as its Artistic Director. They partner with CHAI Collaborative Ensemble for "Where Flames a Word," a program anchored by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s Statements with other works by Kile Smith, John Rutter, Johannes Brahms, and Eric Whitacre. Two performances: Edgewater and Rogers Park.

Third Eye Theatre Ensemble opens their sixth season with the midwestern premiere of Darkling by Stefan Weisman (composer of The Scarlet Ibis, last spring at COT) and Anna Rabinowitz. Darkling explores the story of Anna, a present-day Jewish American woman piecing together her heritage as a descendant of the Holocaust. Performances begin Friday and run through Sunday, October 27 at Theater Wit in Lakeview.

Barber of Seville continues at Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Luisa Miller opens on Saturday. Luisa Miller was one of the top picks for the fall by that outstanding podcast Opera Box Score.

Finally, the Chicago Arts Orchestra presents colonial music from Mexico City Cathedral with works by Mexican Baroque composer Ignacio Jerusalem. New Moon Opera Company’s Mallory Harding and Bach and Beethoven Ensemble’s Thomas Aláan are featured soloists. Friday in at St. Francis Xavier Church in Wilmette.