Collaborative Works Festival serves up a stellar evening of American song

Fri Sep 11, 2015 at 1:03 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Nicholas Phan performed songs by Charles Ives and Ned Rorem at the Collaborative Works Festival Thursday night. Photo: Elliot Mandel
Nicholas Phan performed songs of Charles Ives and Ned Rorem at the Collaborative Works Festival concert Thursday night at the Poetry Foundation. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Even with a rather cumbersome name, the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago continues to do a praiseworthy job in keeping the local flame alight for art song and lieder recitals.

The theme of this year’s Collaborative Works Festival is American song, a core area of the vocal canon that–like most homegrown classical music–remains far too neglected. Kudos to CAIC for exploring this repertory in depth and with such care and intelligence.

Thursday night’s program at the Poetry Foundation concentrated on influences of American Transcendentalism. As artistic director Nicholas Phan pointed out in his engaging and illuminating program notes and verbal introductions, the two writers who most embody the back-to-nature literary movement, Emerson and Thoreau, are infrequently set by composers. Yet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass shows direct Transcendentalist influences and there are trace elements manifest in Emily Dickinson’s individual and more experimental style.

Both writers have inspired some of our finest song composers as was shown in Thursday’s discerning and nicely varied program, with a trio of artists providing stellar advocacy.

Phan’s personable intros offered a lightly-worn scholarship that set just the right inviting atmosphere. The tenor brought immaculate diction, plangent tone and a firm yet lyrical line to two sets of Ives songs.

“Thoreau” was the apt opener, rendered with a gentle intimate reverie. In “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” Phan displayed fine control. building to an ardent climax. If at times, as in “The New River,” one wanted a shade more Ivesian idiosyncrasy, Phan plumbed the deeper emotions superbly, as with the nostalgic ache of “Remembrance” and “The Things our Father Loved.”

Phan’s Ned Rorem set (all to Whitman settings) was just as rewarding, the singer deftly noting that Whitman and Rorem were kindred artistic souls. The tenor conveyed the sensual long lines of “That shadow, my likeness” and brought poignance to “Youth, Day, Old Age and Night” and powerful declamation to “Are you the New Person?”

Nicole Heaston performed "Copland's "Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson" Thursday night. Photo: Elliot Mandel
Nicole Heaston performed “Copland’s “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson” Thursday night. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson is rarely heard due to its length and challenges. Thursday’s remarkable performance by Nicole Heaston proved the highlight of the evening with the Chicago-born soprano delivering a genuine tour de force. Why have we not heard this wonderful artist in her hometown before?

Poised and communicative, Heaston sang with a luminous, flexible tone and crystal-clear enunciation. She seemed to embody the essence of each setting in her expressive face and physical presence. Heaston put across the drama of “There came a wind like a bugle” and “Sleep is supposed to be” as surely as the skittery humor of “Going to Heaven!” She was sassy in “Why do they shut me out of Heaven?” and coyly charming in “Dear March, come in!”

Most strikingly, Heaston conveyed the sense of longing and sadness, as with “Heart, we will forget him” and the end-of life rumination of “The chariot.” We need to hear Nicole Heaston back in Chicago soon. 

Laquita Mitchell performed Lee Hoiby's "The Shining Place." Photo: Elliot Mandel
Laquita Mitchell performed Lee Hoiby’s “The Shining Place.” Photo: Elliot Mandel

Laquita Mitchell wrapped the evening with Lee Hoiby’s The Shining Place. Mitchell is a charismatic presence with her large expressive eyes, and this five-song cycle on Dickinson poems received inspired advocacy. The singer deployed her lyric yet powerful voice to fine effect, offering a lovely rendering of “A Letter” and touching valedictory expression in “How the Waters Closed.”

Pianists Michael Brown and Shannon McGinnis were full yet finely balanced partners throughout, their sensitive and atmospheric keyboard work on the same level as that of the singers.

The Collaborative Works Festival concludes 5 p.m. Saturday at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center with songs of Barber, Bernstein, Copland and Harbison.

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