From Berlin to Weill, Collaborative Works Festival presents music by immigrant composers

Sat Oct 09, 2021 at 12:20 pm

By Katherine Buzard

Soprano Helen Zhibing Huang performed at the Collaborative Works Festival Friday night at the Driehaus Museum. Photo: Atlas Arts Media

The Collaborative Works Festival, now in its tenth season, is presented by Chicago Arts Institute of Chicago, a unique organization dedicated to the performance and study of art song and vocal chamber music. 

This year’s festival, titled “Strangers in a Strange Land,” centers on the theme of immigration and migration, presenting one masterclass and three concerts over the course of this weekend. Performed at the opulent Driehaus Museum, Friday’s concert, titled “Strangers,” focused specifically on presenting works by composers who were—or ar—themselves immigrants or migrants. 

Many of the composers featured in this program fled their home countries due to religious persecution and political upheaval. This included the likes of Russian composers Irving Berlin, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky, as well as the German and Austrian composers Kurt Weill and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The program also featured songs by African-American composers such as Florence Price, who was part of the Great Migration within the United States, and Robert Owens, who permanently relocated to Europe after serving in World War II.

CAIC artistic director and tenor Nicholas Phan curated this concert, providing excellent program notes that contextualized and linked the selections. There were no printed programs in this Covid-conscious era, only an electronic version accessible via QR code. While that’s understandable in this Covid-conscious era, it’s also unfortunate that most of the audience probably did not read the notes. 

Still, Phan introduced each set of songs during the concert in an engaging, informative, and conversational way that perfectly suited the context of this intimate recital.

Phan began the concert with a heartfelt rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” One of the many Jewish immigrants who fled the pogroms and religious persecution in Eastern Europe, Berlin wrote this, his most famous song, during World War I. Phan stated afterward that he didn’t think he would ever open a concert with this song due to what he called its “complicated” performance history, but it provided an excellent entrée into the complex nature of the immigrant experience in America, itself a nation of immigrants.

Next was a song by Rachmaninoff, another Russian immigrant to the U.S.,with his exquisite “Vocalise.” The lack of text to hide behind and long phrases makes this a difficult one to start with, but soprano Helen Zhibing Huang displayed a gleaming tone and technical assurance, even if she and pianist Ronny Michael Greenberg could have milked a few moments for a stringer effect.

Mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms gave an emotionally stirring performance of another Berlin song, “Supper time,” in which a woman reacts to the news that her husband has been lynched. This was paired with two songs, “Sympathy” and “Out of the South Blew a Wind,” by Florence Price, the first African-American woman composer to have a symphony performed by a major ensemble when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra  performed her Symphony No. 1 in 1933. Bottoms has a sizable instrument, particularly as she climbs in range, but her more flexible speech register was especially effective. 

Phan returned with the world premiere of a rediscovered song by British-born composer Rebecca Clarke titled “Up-Hill.” The harmonies meandered like the winding hill road in the text, never quite settling. Huang sang “Bright Moonlight” by Chinese-born composer, Chen Yi. This ethereal piece used twinkly figures in the piano’s upper range to depict moonlight and had an appealing modal flavor reminiscent of Ravel’s Greek songs.

Bass Anthony Reed performed songs by Erich Wolfgang Korngold Friday night. Photo: Atlas Arts Media

Some of the most impressive singing of the evening was provided by bass Anthony Reed in a selection of three Korngold songs (“Glückwunsch,” “Der Kranke,” and “My Mistress’ Eyes”). Reed sang these Late Romantic songs with a wide range of vocal colors, excellent diction, and an uncompromising legato.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Laurenzo performed  a haunting song by Polish-born contemporary composer and longtime UC professor Marta Ptaszyńska called “Autumn Rain.” It is unfortunate that we only got to hear Laurenzo in one song, though this particular  setting dragged on a bit. However, it did provide a showcase for some virtuosic playing from Greenberg, and Laurenzo demonstrated a firm command of her whole instrument. A well-crafted song by Mexican-born contemporary composer Jorge Sosa called “A Letter Home” followed, which fit Huang’s voice like a glove. 

Reed returned to sing two songs by Igor Stravinsky on poetry by Paul Verlaine (“Un grand sommeil noir” and “La lune blanche”). In Stravinsky’s first attempt at setting non-Russian text, one couldn’t help but think of Debussy. Again, Reed demonstrated impressive intimacy for having such a rich bass voice.

The penultimate set featured two settings of Langston Hughes poetry by Robert Owens and another song by Rebecca Clarke. Phan sang the first song, “Heart,” and Huang returned for Clarke’s “The Cloths of Heaven” and Owens’s “Havana Dreams.” Owens’s songs featured lively accompaniments and some fiendish melismas and high notes, which Phan and Huang both executed well. More focused than “Up-Hill,” Clarke’s “The Cloths of Heaven” began firmly in the English song idiom of the likes of Vaughan Williams and Quilter before becoming more harmonically adventurous.

The concert finished with Bottoms returning to give a sultry rendition of a Kurt Weill favorite, “Youkali.” The unsung hero of the night, however, was pianist Greenberg, who played the varied program with sensitivity and virtuosity in equal measure.

The final concert of the Collaborative Works Festival will take place 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Ganz Hall at Roosevelt University.

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