By Donna Robertson

From the Spring 2015 Issue of Clef Notes Journal

Chicagoans are indeed fortunate to have a cornucopia of opportunities to experience the arts at their fingertips. In spite of such artistic wealth, however, there are still some niches waiting to be discovered on a larger scale.  One young arts organization is striving to bring one of those niches to our attention and making great strides to that end.

Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago (CAIC)—founded in 2010 by pianists Nicholas Hutchinson and Shannon McGinnis and tenor Nicholas Phan—is working hard to bring the beauty of art song and vocal chamber music to the Chicago public. Performed by professional or professionally trained classical singers and accompanists, art song seamlessly marries music and poetry.  A composer strives to interpret and create an auditory vision of the written words. That interpretation is then conveyed to an audience through the collaborative duet between singer and accompanist.

CAIC was founded because, as artistic director Nicholas Phan explains, “We saw there was a need for education on all fronts—artists, singers, pianists, musicians—in this repertoire of classical art song and vocal chamber music.” Thus, education remains the core of CAIC’s mission. 

Shannon McGinnis, director of education, and her colleague, executive director Nicholas Hutchinson, oversee the numerous educational activities CAIC has taking place throughout the year.  As it has been from the beginning, the day-to-day activities center on vocal coaching. Together, McGinnis and Hutchinson work with college-aged singers and emerging young artists, preparing them for auditions, recital programs, operatic roles and the like. They also work from time to time with solo pianists who want to enhance their skills as collaborative pianists.

Beyond their daily activities, CAIC presents its multi-day Collaborative Works Festival each September, in which they conduct a master class for singers, featuring one of the festival artists as the pedagogue.  At their first festival in 2013, operatic countertenor David Daniels led the master class, and this past September, the class was taught by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung.

A second annual master class is offered in the spring (this year on February 27), usually featuring veteran pianist and accompanist Martin Katz and singer-pianist duos. This year’s class focused on French mélodie and featured duos from around the Chicago area.

All master classes are free and open to the public.  There is no cost to participate or attend.  Past participants have included both amateurs and emerging professionals, ranging from college-aged or master degree students to young performing artists to everyday attendees of an operatic performance.

The third special educational program offering CAIC presents is the Winter Workshop.  This past December, the workshop comprised a three-day event, focused exclusively on Czech art song and local chamber music repertoire, featuring nine singers and one pianist and led by University of Michigan professor Timothy Cheek. Cheek wrote the definitive guide to Czech lyric diction and local repertoire.

New this year is the addition of the Vocal Chamber Music Fellowship,  a dynamic 30 week residency (with the option to renew for a second season) for young singers and pianists. Currently, CAIC is working with four singers and one pianist in helping them prepare for recitals and other performances in and around Chicago. The CAIC artistic staff offers fellows coaching on a weekly basis, help with program building, and entrepreneurship training such as marketing, grant research, and incorporation.  In return, the fellows act as ambassadors for CAIC and the art song repertoire through their start-up ensemble, Fourth Coast Ensemble.

Although CAIC sprang from the desire to educate singers, the organization quickly recognized the need to educate audiences as well.  According to Phan, “We couldn’t take for granted that people knew what this repertoire was, so that’s become a real part of our mission as well, (to) build audiences for the art form.”  As Phan explains, with music education being increasingly cut from school budgets, fewer young people are being exposed to this type of music at a very pivotal time in their lives, and they are growing up with little or no knowledge of classical forms of music.  In addition, today’s technology presents a double-edged sword; while music is readily available to be downloaded instantly, for art song in particular, this has presented a difficulty because “the words are so important, and without liner notes, people digest music in a different way; they don’t have that added resource of text and translation in front of them, so, as a result, people listen to music in a different way. We browse things rather quickly as opposed to taking the time to absorb it and listen.”

To counteract the lack of early education and programming notes, CAIC strives to provide educational experiences that are relaxed and enjoyable for audiences.  Most of CAIC’s concerts are presented salon style, including their house concert series and intimate lieder lounge recital series. The programs are on the shorter side. Wine and refreshments are usually provided, and the concerts are held in intimate spaces where audiences can meet the artists afterward and discuss the works with them. This casual context provides people with the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of this art form through conversation and experience, and, according to Phan, “It’s the most personal connection you’ll probably get with a singer as an audience member.”

Another successful avenue for bringing in new audience members is CAIC’s collaboration with other organizations in Chicago. Capitalizing on the obvious, natural connection between art song and poetry, CAIC and the Poetry Foundation have developed an on-going relationship.  For the past two years, the opening concerts of the Collaborative Works Festival have been held at the Poetry Foundation in their salon space.  The two organizations worked together to develop programs built around poetry or poets and exploring various composers in relation to the poets. The collaboration has been quite successful, with the 2014 concert selling out within minutes.

CAIC also collaborates with University of Chicago Presents, which is one of the largest Chicago presenters of internationally renowned classical and jazz concert artists. During the weekend of April 10-12, University of Chicago Presents is showcasing a World War I festival, "Centenary Weekend: The Crossroads of WWI and Music," which will explore chamber music connected with the war and that time period, and CAIC is creating the vocal component for this festival.

As Phan explains, art song is a way to pull at the heart strings “through immediate and direct connection, and through subtlety and shared experience, in a much more personal way.  That’s what I find so powerful about it, and, as a performer, what I love about it, (is) that you get a chance to really connect directly with the audience; you’re relating this poetry through yourself, sharing your experience with the people in the room who are moved because they share something of that experience too.”
Artists perform in a variety of vocal chamber recitals as part of CAIC's varied platform for performances of art song repertoire. These opportunities are educational for audiences unfamiliar with the genre and build a niche within the field of classical music.

The Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago Building a Strong Niche for Art Song and Vocal Chamber Music in the Windy City