After the grandeur of Aida and the cataclysms of Gotterdammerung, opera fans can find themselves longing for concerts with just a voice and a piano, and in a venue that doesn’t require binoculars.
Great poems set to music by great composers — and sung by a smaller, smarter operatic voice — form a cherished niche, the art song. And in Emerging Voices: Art Song & Social Connection, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) is expanding how that niche sounds, what it says, and how it looks.
The festival runs Jan. 13-24, with six concerts plus ancillary events (panel discussions, master classes) that explore the ends of some eras, such as World War I, and the beginnings of others, with the emergence of American composers and other national identities.
“It’s not just that you like the song or that it feels good,” said project director Nicholas Phan. “It has to mean something. Song asks for a personal investment from the performer. So does opera, but in a different way.”
And that difference, said British baritone Roderick Williams (one of the project’s best-known singers), is “personal expression without filters.” It’s a face-to-face emotional dialogue between singers and audience, who inevitably get to know each other much better than usual through the psychologically detailed worlds created by each individual song.
The project started some three years ago in conversations with Phan, a tenor who frequently sings in the area and has curated similar concerts for the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago. Further encouragement arrived with a $300,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage that allowed, among other things, the hiring of eight much-lauded singers.
Standouts include Sarah Shafer, Amanda Lynn Bottoms, and Corinne Winters, as well as Williams, who is a major presence in England but has never sung here — despite spending numerous holidays with relatives in Yardley and having children who are rabid Eagles fans.
All the while, the project became a long-delayed point of personal introspection for 41-year-old Phan — a gay American man of Greek and Chinese heritage who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., and speaks both Greek and French. He has enjoyed a career that has taken him from the title role in Bernstein’s Candide to some fairly esoteric Benjamin Britten songs.
For the Emerging Voices concerts, the tenor has assigned himself a steep challenge on Jan. 19 with The Diary of One Who Disappeared, a song cycle about a white man leaving home for a Romany girl amid an intense sexual awakening. On the basis of language, Phan would seem to be an unlikely candidate for a piece written in Czech at the end of World War I by composer Leos Janacek. But what is likely casting for him?
“My whole life I’ve felt uncomfortable with the ‘othering’ that goes on when groups of people cling to their differences,” he said. “Many people in classical music … see issues of identity as binaries: black and white, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. That’s not how my experience of the world looks.
“Immersing myself in the artistic happenings in Paris a century ago has really illustrated that many of us, maybe most of us, live in the borderlands where things are gray and complex,” Phan said. "Humanity has long been using song to grapple with the things that bring us together — and the things that keep us apart.”
Meanwhile, Pew encouraged the project to cast an ever-wider net, including new music commissions from French composer Nicolas Bacri, Belize-born Errollyn Wallen, Moravian violinist/singer/composer Iva Bittová, and American Nico Muhly, whose works are often performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera. “They want us to stretch ourselves and to make a statement, to create something unique,” said Miles Cohen, PCMS artistic director.
Connections between the programs became a priority. Though the concerts have individual titles — such as Lost Voices: The War to End All Wars on Jan. 17, and Found Voices: The New European Map on Jan. 19 — the programs are often embedded with the seeds of other programs. A number of works are substantial but infrequently heard.
The Jan. 14 New Voices: Paris of the Belle Époque features Fauré’s rhapsodically beautiful La bonne chanson but in the version for voice, piano, and string quintet. Programs also include Manuel de Falla’s arrangements of popular Spanish songs, American songs of war by Charles Ives, plus British music from that general time period such as A Shropshire Lad by George Butterworth and Ivor Gurney’s In Flanders.
A little-known cycle, Clearings in the Sky (Clairieres dans le ciel) by Lili Boulanger, recalls one wartime tragedy that didn’t occur in battle: This promising composer died in 1918 from tuberculosis at age 24.
Emerging Voices embraces its niche appeal with salon recitals Jan. 15 and 22 at the 19th-century Stotesbury Mansion on Rittenhouse Square (1923 Walnut St.), the setting of like-minded concerts produced by TV host Jim Cotter of WHYY’s Articulate!
The acoustics, he said, tend to inspire singers to start vocalizing whether asked to or not. And though this is the natural habitat of art song — audience capacity is 100 at most — few European salons could boast of the mansion’s Louis XV-period chandeliers and a 14th-century Italian marble fireplace.
The other four concerts are at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, some looking to the future with video projected onto a 30-foot screen and an auditorium configuration using the Perelman’s revolving stage, usually reserved for opera presentation. The idea, said Cohen, “is that the hall will feel like it’s enveloped by visuals.”
Though The Diary of One Who Disappeared has been fully staged by important directors such as Ivo van Hove, the PCMS visuals by the award-winning Los Angeles-based Hana Kim are planned to be more abstract and atmospheric than illustrative.
Besides the Janacek cycle, projections will be used for Fauré, Boulanger, and Muhly — but without staging or costumes. This could be a trend: When Williams sings Brahms’ Die schone Magelone at New York’s 92nd Street Y on Jan. 22, video will also be part of the presentation, though the singer still doesn’t know what it will look like.
Only a decade ago, music pundits were lamenting the death of the song recital, which has struggled in the past to find an audience here. More recently, PCMS concerts by major singers such as Susan Graham brought significant luster to the art form.
The locally based Lyric Fest regularly departs from typical concert formats by contextualizing songs with history and literature readings, with themes that give the songs a collective statement.
Singers disillusioned with the dated stereotypes in the opera characters that are available to them often turn to recitals — and modern composers who are keen to take on edgy subject matter without the high-stakes risk of opera. (Phil Kline’s Zippo Songs, not part of the PCMS program, sets to music aphorisms that Vietnam War fighters carved onto their cigarette lighters.)
“Sure, we’d love to see the audience expanded but things aren’t that bad at the moment and it’s worth celebrating that,” Williams said in an email from England. 'I’ll do everything in my humble power to encourage art song wherever and whenever I can. But I’m also delighted that the people who know where to find us do so in good numbers."
“When it comes down to it," he said, people who enjoy this genre do so however we present it, as long as it is to a high standard and with integrity.”
Emerging Voices: Art Song & Social Connection
PCMS concerts and related events run Jan. 13-24.
Perelman Theater concert dates at the Kimmel Center are Jan. 14, 17, 19, and 24. Tickets: $30. Information: 215-569-8080 or pcsconcerts.org.
Salon concerts at Stotesbury Mansion, 1923 Walnut St., are Jan. 15 and 22, and are sold out. To be put on wait lists, call 215-569-8080.
Panel discussions Jan. 13 and 20 at College of Physicians, 19 S. 22nd St., are free with registration on the PCMS website, pcmsconcerts.org.