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Collaborative Works

By John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
September 12, 2015
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Collaborative Works Festival

The worthy efforts of the Collaborative Arts Institute to create a serious performance and listening environment for art song and vocal chamber music in the city come together in the annual Collaborative Works festivals cofounders and directors Nicholas Phan, tenor, and Shannon McGinnis, pianist, present with colleagues each year at this time.

Last week's fourth annual festival focused on settings of American poetry by American composers, each song an expression of what is loosely termed the "American spirit." The disparate ways in which the crusty New England experimentalist, Charles Ives, and the next generation of American song composers, reflected that spirit were shown in the first of two salon concerts on Thursday, a recital given at the Poetry Foundation.

The sinewy songs Ives wrote in thrall to the Transcendentalist philosophers Thoreau and Emerson still sound new to today's ears, their atonal vocal lines ringed by hazy piano dissonances like mists rising off the composer's beloved Housatonic River. Phan presented seven of them, in smart, caring performances over Michael Brown's superbly giving piano accompaniments.

McGinnis joined Phan for four Ned Rorem songs to Walt Whitman texts. The composer's acute response to the poems' homoerotic sensuality came across in his unobtrusive, elegantly wrought settings, stylishly rendered here.

Thursday's recital also brought two contrasting cycles of Emily Dickinson-inspired songs: Lee Hoiby's "The Shining Place" and Aaron Copland's "Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson."

Hoiby's Dickinson settings pale alongside Copland's wonderfully evocative distillations of poetic mood and atmosphere, which drew an altogether superb performance from singer Nicole Heaston, with Brown again working wonders at the keyboard. The dozen songs are not easy to sustain as a musico-poetic unity, but the Chicago-born soprano did so beautifully and insightfully: singer and song became one.

In the Hoiby songs, soprano Laquita Mitchell's sincerity and warmth, with McGinnis supplying the splashy piano parts, weren't quite enough to offset moments of unsteady tonal emission and uncertain pitch.

One thing the festival folks did not provide, nor were any needed, was projected translations. The Pritzker Pavilion's surtitle board was bright enough, the captions big enough, to distract low-flying aircraft.

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