Vocal festival closes with moving meditations on the spiritual

Sun Sep 13, 2015 at 11:23 am

By Tim Sawyier

Soprano Nicole Heaston performed songs of Aaron Copland and John Harbison Saturday at the Logan Center.
Soprano Nicole Heaston performed songs of Aaron Copland and John Harbison Saturday at the Logan Center.

The fifth annual Collaborative Works Festival, a presentation of the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, came to an edifying close Saturday evening at the Performance Penthouse of the Logan Center for the Arts. The program, entitled “The Spiritual,” comprised American works that were influenced with various aspects of spirituality, and showcased art song performances of the highest order.

Tenor Nicholas Phan, the festival’s artistic director, opened the concert with the “Simple Song” from Bernstein’s Mass. The acoustic in the Performance Penthouse is extremely dry, jarringly so initially. But Phan capitalized on the room by probing soft dynamics in his upper register that would have been impossible in a space that required greater projection. His voice has a smooth, pure-sounding sheen that was evident at all dynamics throughout the concert.

Phan offered erudite commentary to the audience between works, pointing out that the American composers represented all addressed the spiritual in a fundamentally secular context. This was immediately evident in Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs, which draws its texts from aphoristic snippets written by Irish monks between the eighth and thirteenth centuries.

Laquita Mitchell was thoroughly in tune with Barber’s consciously modal writing, her captivating soprano inhabiting the character of each vignette. She brought out the desiccated pinging of “Church Bell at Night” and was soaring—almost ecstatic—in “St. Ita’s Vision.” Her generously warm sonority in the amusing “The Monk and his Cat” was mellifluous, and the closing “The Desire for Hermitage” had a palpable sense of loneliness.

In three selections from Copland’s Old American Songs, native Chicagoan Nicole Heaston was, in a word, stunning. The familiar “Simple Gifts” was a revelation delivered with her shimmering voice. The spinning lines of “Zion’s Walls” seemed endless on her limpid soprano, and the central rendition of “At the River” reduced a fair complement of the audience in tears.

Heaston followed her Copland performance with John Harbison’s Miribai Songs. The work sets six poems by the sixteenth-century Indian princess and mystic Mirabai Rathor, whose sense of her relationship with the god Krishna was distinctly more intimate than the traditional mortal-deity dyad.

What was most striking about Heaston’s performance was the outsized personality she conveyed in Harbison’s songs. She showed coy defiance in the rolling “It’s true I went to the market,” and cultivated a deviously maniacal air in “All I was doing was breathing.” “Why Mira can’t go back to her old house” was fittingly licentious, and the soprano provided a brooding interpretation of “The clouds.”  Heaston’s singing was technically immaculate throughout.

Mitchell returned to close the evening with a compelling performance of John Carter’s Cantata, which sets familiar spirituals.  Her voice seemed to chime in the Rondo (“Peter go ring dem bells”), the central Recitative (“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”) was bitter cold, and she ended the cantering Toccata (“Ride on King Jesus”) with a soaring crescendo.

Pianists Michael Brown and Shannon McGinnis split the accompanying duties, with Brown playing the Bernstein, Harbison, and Carter, and McGinnis taking the Barber and Copland. Both were singular collaborators throughout, always present, never overbearing, and making interesting contributions in their periodic solo turns.

Visit the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago’s website for information on the organization and future events. caichicago.org/

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