Vocal Miniatures: Art Song Thrives In Chicago Festival

Tenor Nicholas Phan was the soloist in Missy Mazzoli’s ‘Songs from the Operas,’ with Shannon McGinnis (piano),
Yvonne Lam (violin), and Rose Armbrust Griffin (viola). (Concert photos: Elliot Mandel)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO – Art song can be among the most rewarding facets of classical music. Unlike opera, which is about sweeping scale and the grand gesture, these vocal miniatures derive their power from intimate storytelling and subtle inflections. But because these qualities can all too easily get lost amid the flash and freneticism of today’s tech-obsessed world, art song has become something of an endangered species.

That’s where the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago comes in. Pianists Nicholas Hutchinson and Shannon McGinnis and tenor Nicholas Phan formed the organization in 2010 to counteract this negative trend and champion this venerable and still viable musical form. To that end, it presents the annual Collaborative Works Festival, which is devoted to nothing but art song – old and new, familiar and unfamiliar.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano sang Mahler’s ‘Songs of a Wayfarer.’

The festival’s seventh installment, titled The Song as Drama and devoted to song cycles with a narrative arc, kicked off Sept. 5 on a high note with a well-balanced program of selections from three different centuries. The event took place in a 125-seat hall – a perfect size for this compact musical form – at the Poetry Foundation. Two subsequent programs in the festival’s line-up – Sept. 6 and 8 – were held in other small venues elsewhere in the city.

The Sept. 5 highlight was also the best-known piece on the program, Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), excerpts of which figure in the composer’s First Symphony. The four songs about lost love are some of Mahler’s most famed creations because of the extraordinary depth and breadth of emotions they traverse.

When it comes to performing art songs, name recognition and operatic success really don’t mean much. What matters is finding a singer who understands the particular demands of art song, is committed to the art form, and does not treat it as a mere dalliance. The Collaborative Arts Institute found just such performers for this concert, including Phan, who is precisely such an involving artist in this repertoire.

Tyler Duncan sang Vaughan Williams’ ‘Songs of Travel,’ with pianist Erika Switzer.

The evening’s stand-out was mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, a veteran of more than 100 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, who powerfully realized these Mahler songs. She possesses a voice with depth, weight, and complex character, and she knows how to use it to maximum emotional effect, from the bright ebullience of “Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld” (I Walked across the Fields this Morning) to “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (The Two Blue Eyes of My Darling), which switches from dark to light. She brought an understated yet palpable intensity to these songs, fully embracing the distinctive qualities of each with a range of vocal timbres, nuanced phrasing, and even subtle yet telling changes in body language. Put simply, this was a bravura performance in every way.

The program, which revolved around the theme of literal and metaphorical travel, ended with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ underperformed Songs of Travel, nine settings of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson. The cycle might not have quite the profound impact of Mahler, yet it still possesses plenty of aural pleasures and emotional impact of its own. To perform these songs, the festival turned to Tyler Duncan, a flexible, fresh-voiced baritone who perhaps does not have the timbral range of Cano but who nonetheless delivered these songs with appealing directness and clarity.

Composer Missy Mazzoli was represented by ‘Songs from the Operas.’ (Marylene Mey)

More than holding its own with these two classic song cycles was Missy Mazzoli’s Songs from the Operas, which are exactly what the title suggests. In July, Mazzoli, 37, was named as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new Mead Composer-in-Residence, a position that continues through 2020. She has gained a fast-rising reputation as one of the field’s most original young voices. This piece, the Collaborative Arts Institute’s first co-commission, consists of three tenor arias from two of her three operas – Proving Up and Breaking the Waves (winner of the 2017 MCANA  Award for Best New Opera in North America). Proving Up has its New York premiere Sept. 26 and 28 at the Miller Theatre.

By pulling these from one context into another, Mazzoli blurs the lines between opera and art song – giving the arias an intimacy that simply would not be possible on the opera stage. As this Midwest premiere of the work made clear, she has an obvious knack for writing for voice, using the tenor’s full range and frequently pushing it into falsetto. At times, she adorned the vocal lines with fascinating, bel canto-like ornamentations, emphasizing certain words, as she does in the stanza “Miles and Nore, Proving Up!” Phan dove into these arias with gusto and drew the maximum effect from each.

Every bit as interesting is Mazzoli’s intoxicating writing for the three accompanying instruments – piano (McGinnis), violin (Yvonne Lam) and viola (Rose Armbrust Griffin). They have highly distinct parts that at times overlapped and intersected in mildly dissonant and jarring ways and at other times blended in sumptuous fashion. These instrumental lines, always undergirded with a strong rhythmic pulse, are sometimes complicated and tightly interwoven but, at other times, are quite simple and open, like the sustained viola note (perhaps a double stop) and a repeated, clipped staccato piano motif during the opening stanza of “Who Owns the Land?” These songs have a definite contemporary feel, but it’s also clear that Mazzoli is keenly aware of vocal and operatic writing from the past couple of centuries, and she has no hesitancy in drawing from it. Indeed, it is this creative melding of old and new, the traditional and non-traditional, that give them such dynamism. There is much to recommend in Songs from the Operas, and it would be surprising if other performers don’t take it on.

As a kind of scene-setter, Phan began the evening with Franz Schubert’s “Der Wanderer” (The Wanderer), D. 649.

In art song, the instrumental line is more than mere accompaniment to the singer. It is every bit as important, supporting and amplifying the vocal line but also filling in gaps of meaning and emotion and adding a dimension of its own. The two pianists – McGinnis and Erika Switzer – as well as the two string players in Mazzoli’s work, fully grasped their roles, playing breath by breath in sync with the singers while also projecting important and memorable components of their own.

Art song is one of the great treasures of classical music, and the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago deserves kudos for keeping it wonderfully alive and vibrant.

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.