CAIC wraps festival with far-roving survey of folk songs

Sun Oct 10, 2021 at 12:09 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Nicholas Phan performed English folk song arrangements by Rebecca Clarke with violinist Adriane Post in the closing program of the Collaborative Works Festival Saturday night at Ganz Hall. Photo: Atlas Arts Media.

The Collaborative Works Festival, presented annually by the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago (CAIC), is a gem of the city’s fall concert calendar. Since being founded in 2010 by now-artistic director Nicholas Phan, each autumn CAIC reliably presents compelling art song programing in intelligently curated programs performed by world-class singers and pianists.

In its 10th iteration, this year’s festival proved no exception. With the overall theme “Strangers in a Strange Land,” the three recitals examined various aspects of the immigrant experience in music inspired by national trans- and dislocations. Saturday’s concluding concert, “The Songs We Carried,” did so through the lens of various folk song traditions.

The performance at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall began with Bartók’s “Elindultam szép hazámbul,” a bardic, hymnlike folk tune associated with the composer throughout his life, particularly after fleeing Hungary in 1940. Mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms lent her beautiful warm timbre to the brief song, setting a perfect tone for the duration of the evening.

Bottoms contributed two other sets to the program. Death and funerals have rarely sounded as enchanting as in her rendition Percy Grainger’s arrangement of “Hard Hearted Barb’ra (H)Ellen,” where she was keenly attuned to the macabre lyrics’ narrative arc. Bottoms also closed the performance with a set of three spirituals. Margaret’s Bonds’ warm and varied harmonies in her arrangement of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” highlighted the triptych, with Bottoms also bringing a full-voiced sense of defiance to Florence Price’s treatment of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.”

Mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms performed in Saturday night’s festival program at Ganz Hall. Photo: Atlas Arts Media

Throughout the evening Phan provided brief, illuminating commentary, and himself offered two sets of folk songs from the United Kingdom. The first comprised British tunes arranged by Grainger, Britten, and Rebecca Clarke. Clarke’s arrangements were for tenor with solo violin accompaniment, sensitively rendered Saturday by Adriane Post; while they captured the folk aesthetic, the coloring sounded too monochrome between the high male voice and treble instrument. Phan’s flexible tenor brought an unaffected earnestness to Britten’s version of “The Ash Grove” and Grainger’s “The Sprig of Time,” with the traditional piano support.

Phan’s second set was devoted to Irish melodies. Pianist Shannon McGinnis launched these with a solo piano version of “Irish Tune from County Derry,” subtly shaded and very moving. Throughout the evening McGinnis was a standout, providing sensitive support to the vocal recitalists and adroitly shifting among styles and aesthetics. Phan closed the Irish set with Britten’s arrangement of “The Last Rose of Summer,” bringing ardor to the lines by Thomas Moore.

Soprano Helen Zhibing Huang rounded out the roster, and contributed two brief cycles, Cuatro Canciones Andinas by Gabriela Lena Frank, and Cinco canciones populares argentinas by Ginastera. In the Frank, Huang brought a melancholy touch to the opening “Despedida,” and was suitably unhinged in the manic “Yo crío una mosca,” the singer at home in this Spanish sprechstimme. 

The first and last songs of the Ginastera cycle—“Chacarera” and “Gato”—fizzled with energy, with McGinnis dispatching the knotty accompaniment with flair and aplomb. The central songs had a more wistful quality, affectingly captured by Huang’s delicate soprano, again with sensitive support from McGinnis.

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