The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS), a resident company of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, is curating a series of events that illustrate how the art song form remains a powerful vehicle for social exchange.
“Great poems set to music by great composers—and sung by a smaller, smarter operatic voice—form a cherished niche, the art song,” observes The Philadelphia Inquirer, noting that PCMS “is expanding how that niche sounds, what it says, and how it looks.”
From January 13 to 24, Emerging Voices: Art Song & Social Connection explores how the form, with its unique intersection of poetry and music, has endured for so long, as well as its capacity as a vessel for identity and connection.
“Art song has always been associated with expressions of individual and group identity,” says Ceri Owen, lecturer and director of performance at the University of Birmingham. Owen is also a pianist and spoke on the first Emerging Voices panel on January 13. “Since the genre’s inception as a response to Romantic poetry, it has placed emphasis on personal, intimate emotions. Given that composers have tended to set poems in the native language—especially those exploring details of local landscape—art song has also been entangled with articulations of collective identity, binding people together into a sense of national community.”
Tenor vocalist Nicholas Phan co-curated the series. PCMS approached him to collaborate on a project exploring the art song form, and inspiration struck when he observed that last year was the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I.
“The political and cultural parallels between 1919 and the present day made an examination of that time period seem especially pertinent,” Phan says.
As he began studying what composers of the time period were doing—Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré seeking to define a French musical aesthetic, other composers collecting folk music, and composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger encouraging her students to develop their own distinct American voices—Phan’s personal connection to the material deepened.
“All of this highlighted for me just how volatile the nature of identity was during those years, how the trauma of World War I changed the concept of what it meant to call oneself European, and how Americans were beginning to define an identity of their own,” Phan says. “These constantly shifting sands of identity—as well as a strong desire to express them—resonate deeply with me. I am Greek. I am Chinese. I am biracial. I am gay. I am a musician. I am an American. I am the child of immigrants. I am a performer. I am a presenter. I am a teacher.”
The Emerging Voices series comprises six performances at two venues—four shows at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater and two salon concerts at Stotesbury Mansion—as well as two panel discussions and a master class on the form. Among the performances are four world premieres commissioned for the project from composers Nicolas Bacri, Iva Bittová, Nico Muhly, and Errollyn Wallen, as well as a special projection by set and projection designer Hana Sooyeon Kim.
On January 20, a panel with Phan, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, a poet and Pew Fellow Susan Stewart, and Santa Fe Opera dramaturg Cori Ellison considers how the art song form “transcends time and space, reducing the threshold between individual and social existence,” according to program notes.
“For me, singing songs has highlighted the empathic experience music and poetry can provide,” Phan says. “In song, there is room for those of us who check the ‘other’ box on demographic surveys. Song gives us the opportunity to find common ground in each other’s self-expression, creating a path for peace and harmony as opposed to division and strife.”
Visit the Emerging Voices project website for event dates and more information.