The Collaborative Works Festival, now in its tenth season, is presented by the Chicago Arts Institute of Chicago, a unique organization dedicated to the interpretation and study of artistic song and vocal chamber music.
This year’s festival, titled “Foreigners in a Strange Land”, focuses on the theme of immigration and migration, featuring a masterclass and three concerts over the weekend. Performed at the lavish Driehaus Museum, Friday’s concert, titled “Strangers”, focused specifically on presenting works by composers who were or are themselves immigrants or migrants.
Many of the composers featured in this program have fled their home countries due to religious persecution and political upheaval. This included Russian composers Irving Berlin, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky, as well as German and Austrian composers Kurt Weill and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The program also included songs by African-American composers such as Florence Price, who was part of the Great Migration to the United States, and Robert Owens, who settled permanently in Europe after serving in World War II.
CAIC Artistic Director and Tenor Nicholas Phan hosted this concert, providing excellent program notes that contextualize and connect the selections. There were no printed programs in this Covid-sensitive era, only an electronic version accessible via a QR code. While that’s understandable in this Covid-aware era, it’s also unfortunate that most onlookers probably didn’t read the notes.
Yet Phan presented each series of songs during the concert in an engaging, informative, and conversational way that suited the context of this intimate recital perfectly.
Phan started the concert with a heartfelt rendition of “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin. One of the many Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms and religious persecution in Eastern Europe, Berlin wrote this song, his most famous, during World War I. Phan said afterwards that he didn’t think he would open a gig with this song due to what he called his “complicated” performance story, but it provided a great entry into the complex nature of the immigrant experience in America, itself a nation of immigrants.
Next comes a song by Rachmaninoff, another Russian immigrant to the United States, with its exquisite “Vocalise”. The lack of text to hide behind and the long sentences make the debut difficult, but soprano Helen Zhibing Huang displayed brilliant tone and technical confidence, though she and pianist Ronny Michael Greenberg could have milked a few moments for effect. by stringer. .
Mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms gave a moving rendition of another Berlin song, “Supper time”, in which a woman reacts to the news that her husband has been lynched. This was associated with two songs, “Sympathy” and “Out of the South Blew a Wind”, by Florence Price, the first African-American female songwriter to have a symphony performed by a major ensemble when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed. performed his Symphony No. 1 in 1933. Bottoms is a big instrument, especially when it goes upmarket, but its more flexible register of speech was particularly effective.
Phan returned with the world premiere of a rediscovered song by British composer Rebecca Clarke called “Up-Hill”. The harmonies meandered like the winding road of the hills in the text, without ever really settling. Huang sang “Bright Moonlight” by Chinese-born composer Chen Yi. This ethereal piece used sparkling figures in the upper scale of the piano to represent moonlight and had an appealing modal flavor reminiscent of Ravel’s Greek songs.
Some of the most impressive vocals of the evening were provided by bass Anthony Reed in a selection of three Korngold songs (“Glückwunsch”, “Der Kranke” and “My Mistress’ Eyes”). Reed sang these songs of late romanticism with a wide range of vocal colors, excellent diction and uncompromising legato.
Mezzo-soprano Anna Laurenzo performed a haunting song by contemporary Polish-born composer and longtime UC professor Marta Ptaszyńska titled “Autumn Rain”. It’s unfortunate that we only heard Laurenzo in one song, although that particular setting dragged on a bit. However, this provided a showcase for a virtuoso playing by Greenberg, and Laurenzo demonstrated a solid mastery of his entire instrument. A well-crafted song by contemporary Mexican-born composer Jorge Sosa called “A Letter Home” followed, which matched Huang’s voice like a glove.
Reed returned to sing two songs by Igor Stravinsky based on poems by Paul Verlaine (“A Big Black Sleep” and “The White Moon”). In Stravinsky’s first attempt to put in a non-Russian text, one couldn’t help but think of Debussy. Once again, Reed showed impressive intimacy in having such a rich bass voice.
The penultimate ensemble included two sets to music of Robert Owens’ Langston Hughes poetry and another song by Rebecca Clarke. Phan sang the first song, “Heart”, and Huang returned for “The Cloths of Heaven” by Clarke and “Havana Dreams” by Owens. Owens’ songs featured lively accompaniments and devilish melisms and high notes, which both Phan and Huang performed well. More focused than “Up-Hill”, Clarke’s “The Cloths of Heaven” started out firmly in the English song idiom like Vaughan Williams and Quilter before becoming more harmonically adventurous.
The concert ended with Bottoms returning to give a sultry take on a Kurt Weill favorite, “Youkali”. The unsung hero of the night, however, was pianist Greenberg, who performed the varied program with sensitivity and virtuosity in equal measure.
The final concert of the Collaborative Works Festival will take place on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the Ganz Hall of Roosevelt University. caic.org
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