Collaborative Works Festival returns with compelling songs reflecting the immigrant experience

Fri Oct 08, 2021 at 2:18 pm

By John von Rhein

Mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms performed at the Collaborative Arts Festival Thursday night in Ganz Hall. Photo: Atlas Arts Media

With the plight of refugees and immigrants drawing widespread attention of late, it was perhaps inevitable that the cutting-edge Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago would get around to exploring the migrant experience as reflected in classical vocal music, present and past.

The area’s go-to advocacy organization for art-song performance and education is doing so with its 10th anniversary Collaborative Works Festival, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” which opened CAIC’s 2021-22 season with an absorbing, thoughtfully planned, deftly executed program spanning four centuries Thursday night in Ganz Hall, Roosevelt University.

Two more thematic song concerts, also curated by tenor and CAIC artistic director Nicholas Phan, are enlisting the talents of Phan, mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms, pianist Yasuko Oura and the Avalon String Quartet, before the festival wraps up Saturday evening, also in Ganz Hall. 

By framing the immigrants’ journeys in song, composers and poets both deepen and universalize their experiences, relating them to the aspirations of a broader humanity. Who among us, after all, is not the offspring of immigrants?   

“Songs of the New World” – CAIC’s first in-person concert in more than 18 months – focused on the migrant journey itself, in songs dating from the English Renaissance through Schubert to the present day. Some journeys, as reflected in these songs, were undertaken by choice, others by cruel necessity. Immigration often ended unhappily for those driven to abandon their homes and homelands; once resettled, some immigrants and refugees faced hardships far worse than those they left behind. For many, however, the potential rewards far outweighed the risks, even where racial discrimination, oppression, fear of “the other” and other harsh realities dogged their struggle to construct new lives for themselves in new places.

Basic questions – What prompts the journey? Is the end of the journey as utopian as imagined? – informed the first two song groups, which held works by Missy Mazzoli and Ruth Crawford Seeger.

The piece by former Chicago Symphony Orchestra composer in residence Mazzoli—whose music was simultaneously making its belated CSO debut down the street—was “The World Within Me Is Too Small.” This excerpt is from Song from the Uproar, her opera with librettist Royce Vavrek about Isabelle Eberhardt, the maverick Swiss writer and explorer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who immigrated to Algeria at age 20.

Mazzoli’s sensitive, text-driven vocal writing, perched atop an emotionally fraught piano accompaniment, introduced to the city the richly vibrant, deeply expressive voice of Bottoms, her opulent sound blooming in the voice-loving acoustic of Ganz Hall.

No less affecting was her performance of Crawford Seeger’s “Chinaman, Laundryman,” which sets a poem about the miserable plight of a Chinese immigrant laundry worker in the U.S. With its scabrous text and declamatory mixture of song and pitched speech, this is a powerful protest and assertion of personal dignity amid racist animus in menial circumstances.

Taking its text from a W.H. Auden poem inspired by the plight of Jewish refugees vainly seeking refuge from Hitler’s Germany in 1939, “Refugee Blues” by American composer Mohammed Fairouz found chilling parallels with the grave humanitarian crisis faced by Syrian refugees of the present day. The song melds the litany of traditional blues with fist-pounding anger to convey a sense of people deprived of any sense of belonging, vividly conveyed by Bottoms.

Nicholas Phan performed the Chicago premiere of Nico Muhly’s song cycle Stranger Thursday night. Photo: Atlas Arts Media

Vernacular musical influences – in this case, black spirituals – also creep into the Belize-born composer Errolyn Wallen’s “My Feet May Take a Little While,” whose folklike simplicity stood in sharp contrast with the sometimes mordant social protest of Ian Cusson’s absorbing mini-song cycle Where There’s a Wall, set to poems by Japanese Canadian poet Joy Kogawa.

The five poems that make up Cusson’s cycle take their cue from Canada’s internment of Japanese citizens during the Second World War, which the very young Kogawa experienced first-hand with her family; the verses run the emotional arc from Brechtian irony to devastating grief to sadness to veiled hope, couched in music whose subtlety belies the hurt lingering just below the surface. Again, Bottoms’ ability to draw words and music deep within herself and give them back to the listener with stunning vocal beauty and absolute sincerity of expression made this, too, an aural journey well worth taking.

Phan brought on the Avalon Quartet to accompany him in the final group, a song by English composer Thomas Campion about tired pilgrims finding everlasting comfort in the arms of God, juxtaposed with Nico Muhly’s cycle Stranger, in its Midwest premiere.

Setting prose in lieu of poetry, the American composer intertwines musical settings of immigrant accounts of Ellis Island experiences alongside writings protesting the U.S.’ Chinese Exclusion policies of the late 19th century. Muhly and Phan share multiracial, multicultural backgrounds, and the cycle’s turbulent emotional undercurrents were captured with stunning impact by the singer and string quartet. The Britten-esque vocal writing is made to order for Phan’s sweetly penetrating voice and deeply expressive regard for words and the shifting emotions they convey through music. The gifted Muhly has given us nothing finer than the heart-stopping beauty of the final song.

It need only be added that the three Schubert lieder, exceptionally well done by Phan and Oura, set off the more contemporary songs beautifully.

In all, a tantalizing start to another Collaborative Works Festival that no one who cares about contemporary art song can afford to miss.  

 The Collaborative Works Festival, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” continues with concerts of contemporary art song and vocal chamber works at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum; and 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Ganz Hall, Roosevelt University.  

Festival events and the remainder of the 2021-22 season are being presented in a hybrid format. Thursday’s ticketed, in-person concert was filmed for delayed broadcast Oct. 15-21 at the group’s website,, as well as on Facebook Live and You Tube channels.   

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