Photo: Chicago Tribune

Photo: Chicago Tribune

"The Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago is devoting its fifth annual Collaborative Works Festival to exploring Verlaine's influence on French music, with two salon concerts devoted to melodies set to his poetry and texts by other Symbolist poets. The first of these concerts, Wednesday night at the Poetry Foundation, was devoted to Debussy songs, beautifully presented by tenor Nicholas Phan, CAIC's artistic director; soprano Sarah Shafer; and mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, with pianists Matthew Gemmill and Scott Allen Jarrett.

As a means of furthering CAIC's mission to increase the performance and appreciation of the art song repertory locally, Wednesday's Debussy concert was a treasurable addition to the series, bringing to light exquisite vocal miniatures that seldom surface in recital, in an appropriately intimate, salon-style venue...

In his helpful spoken remarks, Phan pointed out Chicago's indirect connection with the "Ariettes oubliees": Debussy dedicated the revised version of the cycle (1903) to the great Scottish soprano Mary Garden, the original Melisande in his opera "Pelleas et Melisande," who later became director of the Chicago Civic Opera, an early-20th-century precursor of Lyric Opera.

Phan, sensitively accompanied by Jarrett, caught the shifting emotions of the six "Ariettes" with an abundance of feeling for words and music, precise French diction and a particularly expressive use of head voice...the tenor was at his best when floating soft, lyrical lines that confided in the listener; one will not soon forget the rapt inwardness of his "L'ombre des arbres." His storytelling skills came to the fore in the excited rush of "Chevaux de bois," a joyous depiction of a fairground carousel that turns into a lullaby. There wasn't a note or syllable out of place here, and Jarrett got the ethereal accompaniment just right."



"The Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago opened this fall’s festival of song on Wednesday evening in the intimate space of the Poetry Foundation. The theme for this year’s Collaborative Arts Festival, “La Bonne Chanson,” highlights the French poet Paul Verlaine and those he influenced. The focus for this concert was on songs of Claude Debussy...As festival founder Nicholas Phan wrote in the program notes, Verlaine’s style tended toward vagueness of phrase and subtle metaphors full of nuance. Phan and his colleagues delivered these atmospheric songs with compelling advocacy...Tenor Nicholas Phan took center stage for Ariettes oubliées, in which he used the room’s acoustics to his benefit. Both Phan’s dynamics and manner were one with the music in every vignette, revealing many guises of affection and anguish.

In the sensual C’est l’extase langoureuse (It is the languorous ecstasy), Phan’s shimmering voice aptly portrayed two lovers entwined with both themselves and nature. With candid and frisky flair he ended the toccata-like Chevaux de bois (Wooden horses) on a strong note, notwithstanding its slightly uneven beginning. The flexible tenor brought color and shade together in Spleen, named for the human organ once thought to be the origin of ill temper, and navigated the shifts in tempo, painting the two-faced nature of a lover in ennui..."