Collaborative Works Festival opens with evening of inspired French song

Thu Sep 08, 2016 at 3:14 pm

By Tyler Krause

CAIC photo
Pianist Matthew Gemmill and soprano Sarah Shafer at the Collaborative Works Festival. Photo: Elliot Mandel

The Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago opened this fall’s festival of song on Wednesday evening in the intimate space of the Poetry Foundation. The theme for this year’s Collaborative Arts Festival, “La Bonne Chanson,” highlights the French poet Paul Verlaine and those he influenced. The focus for this concert was on songs of Claude Debussy.

Verlaine’s influence was so significant for Debussy that the composer set half of his songs to Verlaine’s poetry. As festival founder Nicholas Phan wrote in the program notes, Verlaine’s style tended toward vagueness of phrase and subtle metaphors full of nuance. Phan and his colleagues delivered these atmospheric songs with compelling advocacy.

Soprano Sarah Shafer opened the program with a warm account of Clair de Lune, followed by mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor’s secure yet poignant interpretation of the song cycle Trois Chansons de Paul Verlaine. Most extraordinary was the rhapsodic La mer est plus belle (The sea is more beautiful). O’Connor’s fervent tone brought the poetry to life, illuminating the impression that “the sea is more beautiful than anything, better than we!” In addition, she handled Le son du cor s’afflige vers les bois (The sound of the horn is wailing near the woods), characterized by jostling rhythms and changing harmonies, with tactful ease.

Tenor Nicholas Phan took center stage for Ariettes oubliées, in which he used the room’s acoustics to his benefit. Both Phan’s dynamics and manner were one with the music in every vignette, revealing many guises of affection and anguish.

In the sensual C’est l’extase langoureuse (It is the languorous ecstasy), Phan’s shimmering voice aptly portrayed two lovers entwined with both themselves and nature. With candid and frisky flair he ended the toccata-like Chevaux de bois (Wooden horses) on a strong note, notwithstanding its slightly uneven beginning. The flexible tenor brought color and shade together in Spleen, named for the human organ once thought to be the origin of ill temper, and navigated the shifts in tempo, painting the two-faced nature of a lover in ennui.

Both Shafer and O’Connor returned for selections from Debussy’s Fêtes galantes. These poems, inspired by paintings of Antoine Watteau and his followers, are evocative of the Rococo elegance of 18th-century France, and between the two soloists, the vocal realizations were as colorful as the paintings they describe. Highlights included the rambunctious high jinks of Pantomime (where Shafer’s sassy antics elicited chuckles), O’Connor’s blithe character in the carefree Le faune (The faun), and Shafer’s reverently rendered En sourdine (Muted).

Pianists Scott Allen Jarrett and Matthew Gemmill shared accompanying duties throughout the evening and were both persistently supportive in their roles. The evening ended with the same poetic inspiration that started it: Debussy’s wordless, familiar evocation of Verlaine’s Clair de Lune from the Suite Bermasque for piano, in a compassionate performance by Gemmill.

The Collaborative Works Festival continues at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday September 8 at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall with a recital by soprano Ailyn Pérez.

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