Collaborative Arts Festival leads off with intimate Schumann evening

Fri Sep 12, 2014 at 12:24 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Susanna Phillips performed Schubert lieder Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.
Susanna Phillips performed in the opening concert of the Collaborative Arts Festival Thursday night at the Poetry Foundation.

The high-profile events that usually mark the start of a new classical music season arrive later this month—the Chicago Symphony’s inaugural subscription concert Sept. 18, and Lyric Opera’s 60th anniversary season opener Sept. 27.

But the season is already happily underway for anyone lucky enough to be in the audience Thursday night for the first of three recitals in the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago’s annual fall festival. Now in its third year, the Collaborative Works Festival, which runs through Sunday, offers a rare chance for vocal-music lovers to immerse themselves in the art of the song. Held in an elegantly minimalist, glass-walled space in the Foundation’s building at 61 W. Superior, Thursday’s recital of songs by Robert Schumann was a typically sophisticated yet high-spirited CAIC affair.

This year the festival’s theme is Schumann and Brahms, and Thursday’s recital explored the very happy early years of Robert Schumann’s marriage to the piano superstar Clara Wieck Schumann. Tenor Nicholas Phan, a co-founder of the institute, provided lively commentary that made us feel that we knew the young lovers personally.

Rather than settling for a survey of Schumann’s greatest hits, the 90-minute program explored less familiar territory in selections from three of Schumann’s song collections: Tragodie, Gedichte aus ‘Liebesfruhling’ (Poems from ‘Love’s Spring’) and Minnespiel (Love Play) as well as songs from Myrthen (Myrtle), a cycle written by both Clara and Robert.

Phan and his stellar colleagues–soprano Susanna Phillips, mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor, baritone Joshua Hopkins and pianist Myra Huang—brought a combination of impressive technique and emotional passion to every song, many set to poems by Friedrich Ruckert. As Phan pointed out, most composers and poets focus on love’s sorrow.

But Thursday’s recital brimmed with the words and music of radiant, hopeful love. In Lied der Braut II (Song of the Bride), O’Connor’s darting, impulsive phrases expertly captured the mood of a happy young bride teasing a worried mother. Hopkins also found a playful undercurrent in Schumann’s setting of the familiar poem Liebst du um Schoenheit (If you love for beauty’s sake). The song’s piano introduction has a jazzy tinge, and Hopkins used his robust, virile baritone like a savvy man about town advising an inexperience girl in the ways of love. But revealing his deepest feelings in the final stanza, the suave Romeo disappeared, replaced by a truly open and vulnerable young lover.

Phillips ripped through the turbulent Er ist gekommen (He came), her clear, agile soprano easily riding the roiling thunder of Huang’s piano. As Schumann’s storms melted into spring, her soaring song became tender and luminous. Phan brought a warm tone and almost conversational phrasing to the first selection from Minnespiel.

Huang opened the concert with an incisive, virtuosic performance of Bach’s G Major Prelude and Fugue, BWV 884, a nod to the Schumanns’ devotion to Bach’s music. She was an equal partner with the singers in creating an evocative atmosphere, especially in the recital’s more somber songs. Her austere, spare accompaniment filled the room with haunting melancholy.

The festival continues tonight with a recital by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung at the Harold Washington Library and a DeYoung master class Saturday afternoon at the PianoForte Foundation in downtown Chicago. The festival ends Sunday afternoon with a recital in the University of Chicago’s Logan Center.

Posted in Performances

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