Art songs — classical settings of famous and not-so-famous poems — conjure evocative worlds and can pack a surprising emotional punch. But these intimate, sometimes inward-looking vocal miniatures can be a tough sell in a 21st-century world of fast clicks and short attention spans, and they have disappeared from many classical presenters’ line-ups in recent decades.

To help preserve and promote this vulnerable musical form, pianists Nicholas Hutchinson and Shannon McGinnis joined forces with tenor Nicholas Phan in 2010 to form the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago — one of the few such organizations in the country. While not ignoring classic art songs by composers like Franz Schubert or Gabriel Fauré, it puts an emphasis on lesser-known and newer works.

Collaborative Works Festival
—7 p.m. Sept. 5, Poetry Foundation, 61 W. Superior (free);
—7:30 p.m. Sept. 6, Ganz Hall, Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan ($35)
—7:30 p.m. Sept. 8, Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn ($35)

The institute’s most prominent undertaking each year is its Collaborative Works Festival, which returns Sept. 5-8 for its seventh year to venues across the city. This year’s three programs focus on sets of arts songs that have an inter-connected narrative.

“Something that astounds me about songs,” Phan said, “is that they are these seemingly miniature, simple things — just a piano and a singer most often. It’s small forces, and it seems so innocuous. But songs have this really amazing potential to unlock giant emotional worlds and epic narratives at times.

“You don’t always need a 3,000-seat hall with sets, costumes and a full orchestra in order to get the point across and immerse an audience member in something that is transformative and really powerful.”

The centerpiece of the festival is the Sept. 5 Midwest premiere of “Songs from the Operas,” by Missy Mazzoli. The internationally recognized New York composer was named in June as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new Mead Composer-in-Residence.

During her two-year tenure, Mazzoli, 37, will curate the repertoire for MusicNOW, a four-concert new-music series under the symphony’s auspices, and provide artistic guidance for the orchestra’s contemporary commissions and programming. The appointment also includes commissions for a work to be premiered by the orchestra in 2019-20 and a second for MusicNOW.

In 2010, Nicholas Phan helped create the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago. | File Photo

In 2010, Nicholas Phan co-founded the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago. | Provided Photo

“Songs from the Operas,” which the Collaborative Arts Institute co-commissioned with the Laguna Beach Music Festival, consists of three arias excerpted from Mazzoli’s most recent operas — and “Breaking the Waves” and “Proving Up.”

The idea came from Phan, who served as Laguna Beach’s guest artistic director in February. He has long been a fan of Mazzoli’s music and was “so blown away” by “Breaking the Waves” (an adaptation of the Lars von Trier movie) which the Opera Company of Philadelphia premiered in 2016. The tenor thought it might make sense to shift some of her arias from the opera stage to the concert hall, and Mazzoli concurred.

“These arias are true arias in that they are little moments frozen in time,” Mazzoli said, “and I don’t think you need all the context of the opera. It’s very powerful if you have that, but I also think they work on their own.”

Because two of Mazzoli’s arias are about a boy going on a journey, Phan packaged them on a program with two other voyage-related works: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ settings of Robert Louis Stevenson poems, “Songs of Travel,” and Gustav Mahler’s iconic “Songs of a Wayfarer.”

The festival’s other programs will be:

— Sept. 6: Johannes Brahms’ “Die schöne Magelone.” This concert-length work is the famed 19th-century composer’s only narrative song cycle, and it is often overshadowed by similar works by Schubert and Robert Schumann. “It’s just beautiful music,” Phan said, “and it’s just not done enough. I’m really excited that we’re going to give it an outing in Chicago.”

— Sept. 8: This program pairs two 20th-century masterworks – Arnold Schoenberg’s rarely heard song cycle, “The Book of the Hanging Gardens,” and Leoš Janáček’s “The Diary of One Who Disappeared.” The latter, the story of a farmer boy who falls in love with a mysterious gypsy girl, will be accompanied by video projections created by Los Angeles designer Hana Kim.

In addition to the McGinnis and Phan, the festival will feature a range of guest artists, including mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, a Metropolitan Opera regular, and pianist Craig Terry, music director for the Ryan Opera Center, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s artist-development program.

The performers try to be direct and informal, and each concert is followed by a reception, where ticketholders can meet the artists and ask questions about anything they might not understand. To anyone who has never experienced art song or who might feel intimidated by it, Phan has one simple plea: give the Collaborative Works Festival a chance.

“Our mission,” Phan said, “is to make converts of those people and help people get over the many hurdles that can be barriers between them and the ability to enjoy the music.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.