From Mahler to Mazzoli, Collaborative Works Festival casts a wide net in opener

Thu Sep 06, 2018 at 11:59 am

By John von Rhein

Tenor Nicholas Phan performed in the opening program of the Collaborative Works Festival Wednesday night at the Poetry Foundation. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Along with its praiseworthy efforts to keep the flame of art song performance burning brightly in the Midwest, the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago has enlarged its purview to include the creation of new American vocal music.

The opening concert of the organization’s seventh annual Collaborative Works Festival Wednesday evening at the Poetry Foundation brought its first co-commission: a new song cycle by Missy Mazzoli, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s latest Mead composer-in-residence, who began her two-year tenure in July. Commissioned at the behest of tenor Nicholas Phan, CAIC’s artistic director, in partnership with the Laguna Beach Music Festival, Songs from the Operas was receiving its Midwestern premiere.

Because two of the arias that make up Mazzoli’s Songs from the Operas concern a boy’s journey, Phan surrounded the local premiere with song cycles by Gustav Mahler and Ralph Vaughan Williams linked by the idea of voyages (both physical and psychological) and the archetypal Romantic figure of the wanderer. Thus did the program continue the idea of dramatic storytelling put forth by last year’s festival.

Mazzoli’s is a strong, clear voice in American music, widely performed and critically respected, but not a composer Chicago audiences have had much live exposure to. Only one of her operas, her first stage work Song From the Uproar (2012), has been staged so far in the city, in an absorbing production by Chicago Fringe Opera in 2016.

The three arias Mazzoli adapted for the cycle come from her most recent operas, the acclaimed Breaking the Waves and Proving Up, both with librettos by Royce Vavrek. Without having heard either work, I cannot say for sure how much is lost by loosening this music from its dramatic moorings. But the cycle, sensitively and insightfully sung by Phan, and ably supported by CAIC education director Shannon McGinnis at the piano, violinist Yvonne Lam and violist Rose Armbrust Griffin, revealed a distinctive lyrical gift and natural feel for the voice and how it can conjure mood and place, sometimes through the most subtle and delicate means. The vocal lines tend toward text-driven declamation, with expressive melismatic tracery over open tonal harmonies – rising at times to powerful climaxes the tenor and his colleagues drove home with impassioned force. (Phan’s superb technique allows him to shift registers with seamless finesse and no loss of smooth tonal finish.)

The most affecting song was the third and last – the Nebraska farm boy Miles’ ghostly aria “Who owns the land?,” its soft, high phrases gathering emotional intensity at the words “This is a tomb” before dying away in haunted whispers of voice, strings and keyboard. I eagerly look forward to the fruits of Mazzoli’s CSO residency and her curatorial work on behalf of the orchestra’s MusicNOW series.

The Schubert song “Der Wanderer,” potently delivered by Phan, provided the perhaps inevitable lead-in to the Mahler and Vaughan Williams cycles. The superb American mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, who movingly limned the sorrows of the abandoned lover in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), has appeared before on the Collaborative Works Festival roster.

Not so the lyric baritone Tyler Duncan, whose burnished voice and unobtrusive way of pointing up word meanings through the music proved just about ideal for the early Vaughan Williams cycle Songs of Travel. “A masterpiece that gets lost in the shuffle” (as Phan aptly described the English composer’s seldom-heard settings of nine poems by Robert Louis Stevenson) brought the program to a satisfying close as presented by Duncan and pianist Erika Switzer.

Unlike so many baritones, Duncan never gets growly at full volume, while his sound remains warm, pliant and even in quality throughout a wide range. He identified completely with the restless vagabond of the Stevenson texts — indeed, through his charismatic storytelling we followed his journey with rapt absorption. “Bright is the ring of words / When the right man rings them,” reads the opening line of the cycle’s penultimate song, and Duncan was that right man. The Canadian singer is right up there with other greatly promising young artists CAIC has introduced to Chicago, including Kiera Duffy, Sarah Shafer, Nicole Heaston, Douglas Williams and Jesse Blumberg.

Jennifer Johnson Cano at the Collaborative Works Festival Wednesday night. Photo: Elliot Mandel

The Mahler Wayfarer songs exist in chamber arrangements by Schoenberg and others but rarely turn up in the version for voice and piano that Johnson Cano and McGinnis presented on this occasion. While one missed the rich, boldly atmospheric orchestrations, hearing them in this form can heighten the emotional impact by shifting one’s attention to Mahler’s vocal lines and how they interpenetrate his Knaben Wunderhorn-like texts. The mezzo shaped the songs in a compelling musico-dramatic arc, as alive to the knife-edge anger and sadness of the penultimate song as she was to the emotional ambiguity of the last: Her softly intimate, conversational phrases left us wondering if the protagonist did indeed find calming sleep under a linden tree, or, instead, greater heartache.

The 2018 Collaborative Works Festival continues with Brahms’ song cycle Die schoene Magelone (The Fair Magelone) performed by Tyler Duncan and pianist Erika Switzer 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Ganz Hall.

John von Rhein retired on July 1 after 40 years as classical music critic of the Chicago Tribune.

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “From Mahler to Mazzoli, Collaborative Works Festival casts a wide net in opener”

  1. Posted Sep 06, 2018 at 2:59 pm by Paul French

    How wonderful to see this review by Mr. von Rhein, and to hope that his critical voice will continue to be heard in the Chicago arts scene.

  2. Posted Sep 07, 2018 at 8:37 am by Bobbie R.

    Agreed, great to hear from John in semi-retirement. Excellent review of the fine CAIC performances on Wednesday. Hope to hear his voice on this site often.

  3. Posted Sep 07, 2018 at 11:17 am by Bob Callahan


  4. Posted Sep 08, 2018 at 1:40 am by Jizungu

    Yes, yes! Also agree with the review itself. The Mazzoli songs were especially exciting: hers is an original, absorbing, and moving voice that I look forward to hearing more from during her residency here. But what are the chances that the morbidly sclerotic LOC ever mounts one of her full-scale operas?

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