Chicago Classical Review »» Collaborative Works Festival Returns With Captivating Songs Reflecting Immigrant Experience

Soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms performed Thursday night at the Collaborative Arts Festival at Ganz Hall. Photo: Atlas Media

With the plight of refugees and immigrants gaining attention in recent times, it was perhaps inevitable that the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago set out to explore the experience of migrants as reflected in music. classical vocal, present and past.

The region’s advocacy organization for the performance and education of artistic song is doing so with its 10e anniversary of the Collaborative Works Festival, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” which opened the 2021-22 CAIC season with a captivating, carefully planned and skillfully executed program spanning four centuries Thursday night at Ganz Hall in the Roosevelt University.

Two other thematic song concerts, also hosted by tenor and CAIC artistic director Nicholas Phan, draw on the talents of Phan, mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms, pianist Yasuko Oura and the Avalon String Quartet, before that the festival does not end on Saturday evening, also in Salle Ganz.

By framing immigrant journeys in song, composers and poets both deepen and universalize their experiences, connecting them to the aspirations of a larger humanity. Who among us, after all, is not from an immigrant background?

“Songs of the New World” – CAIC’s first in-person concert in over 18 months – focused on the journey of migrants itself, in songs dating from the English Renaissance to Schubert to the present day. Some journeys, as these songs testify, were undertaken by choice, others by cruel necessity. Immigration has often ended unhappily for those forced to abandon their homes and homelands; once resettled, some immigrants and refugees have faced much worse challenges 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 continued their struggle to build a relationship. new life in new places.

Basic questions – What drives the trip? Is the end of the trip as utopian as we imagine? – informed the first two song groups, which contained works by Missy Mazzoli and Ruth Crawford Seeger.

The piece by former Chicago Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence Mazzoli – whose music simultaneously made its late debut at CSO on the streets – was “The World Within Me Is Too Small.” This excerpt is from Song of tumult, his opera with librettist Royce Vavrek on Isabelle Eberhardt, the non-conformist Swiss writer and explorer of the late 19th and early 20th centuriese centuries who immigrated to Algeria at the age of 20.

Mazzoli’s sensitive and textual vocal writing, perched atop an emotionally charged piano accompaniment, introduced the city to the richly vibrant and deeply expressive voice of Bottoms, his opulent sound blossoming into the acoustics of Ganz Hall.

No less touching was his performance of Crawford Seeger’s “Chinaman, Laundryman,” which features a poem about the miserable plight of a Chinese immigrant laundry worker in the United States. With its scabrous text and declamatory blend of song and high pitched speech, it is a powerful protest and affirmation of personal dignity amid racist animosity under subordinate circumstances.

Taking its text from a poem by WH Auden inspired by the plight of Jewish refugees seeking unsuccessful refuge in Hitler’s Germany in 1939, American composer Mohammed Fairouz’s “Refugee Blues” found chilling parallels with the grave humanitarian crisis to which confronted by today’s Syrian refugees. The song mixes the litany of traditional blues with a fist-beating anger to convey a sense of people deprived of any sense of belonging, conveyed vividly by Bottoms.

Nicholas Phan performed the Chicago premiere of Nico Muhly’s song cycle Foreigner Thursday evening. Photo: Atlas Media

Vernacular musical influences – in this case, black spirituals – also creep into “My Feet May Take a Little While” by Belizean composer Errolyn Wallen, whose folkloric simplicity contrasted starkly with the sometimes biting social protest of the captivating mini-miniature. by Ian Cusson. song cycle Where there is a wall on poems by Japanese-Canadian poet Joy Kogawa.

The five poems that make up Cusson’s cycle are inspired by the internment of Japanese citizens in Canada during World War II, which the very young Kogawa experienced with her family; the verses run through the emotional arc of Brechtian irony and devastating grief through sadness and veiled hope, all accompanied by music whose subtlety belies the pain that lingers just below the surface. Again, Bottoms’ ability to draw words and music deep within herself and deliver them to the listener with stunning vocal beauty and absolute sincerity of expression also made it a journey. auditory worth doing.

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

Putting prose instead of poetry, the American composer intertwines musical sets from immigrant accounts of Ellis Island’s experiences with writings protesting the Chinese exclusion policies of the late 19th century.e century. Muhly and Phan share multiracial and multicultural origins, and the cycle’s turbulent emotional currents were captured with amazing impact by the singer and string quartet. Britten-esque vocal writing is made to order for Phan’s softly penetrating voice and his deeply expressive respect for the words and the shifting emotions they convey through music. The talented Muhly has given us nothing more beautiful than the breathtaking beauty of the final song.

It suffices to add that the three lieder of Schubert, exceptionally well interpreted by Phan and Oura, magnificently highlight the more contemporary songs.

All in all, a tantalizing start to another festival of collaborative works that anyone who cares about contemporary art song cannot afford to miss.

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

Festival events and the rest of the 2021-22 season are presented in a hybrid format. Thursday’s paid in-person concert was filmed for delayed air October 15-21 on the band’s website,, as well as on the Facebook Live and You Tube channels.

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