Songfire Festival of Song brings poetry to life
For concertgoers, art song—in essence a poem set to an original composition—can be a challenging genre. It requires keen concentration to follow the subtle fusion of lyric and music through the frequent shifts of tone, tempo, and inflection. But the rewards amply repay the effort, according to renowned pianist Rena Sharon.
“Art song is such a fantastically beautiful realm,” says the artistic director of the Songfire Festival of Song, which runs to June 25 at various Vancouver locations. “It gives poetry a kind of multidimensionality of texture, and music a specific meaning. With art song you get the opportunity to learn a composer’s language, because you know exactly what they mean. It’s a way to get closer to classical composers who often chose a poem because it expressed exactly what was happening in their life at the time.”
A prime instance is prolific Romantic artist Franz Schubert. In his music for some 600 lieder (songs) he gave expression to the events of a tragically brief existence, and the full spectrum of his emotions. “Schubert was the ultimate bohemian counterculture figure—”˜I’m going to live for my art, at the margin and at the edge if necessary,’” says Sharon. “He wrote as an act of courage and passion. I think of him as a hero of young composers and poets today.”
A highlight of Songfire is the Vancouver Schubertiade, inspired by the gatherings of friends at which Schubert unveiled many of his greatest works. Presented in a cabaretlike setting, the evening features Schubert lieder, Johannes Brahms vocal quartets, and songs by local composers Lloyd Burritt, Alan Matheson, and Jocelyn Morlock.
Another presentation, Nuits d’Etoiles, offers a tasty selection of art songs from France by Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Gabriel Fauré, and Francis Poulenc, performed by leading interpreters, including soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen, pianist Francis Perron, and baritone Michael Robert-Broder. Also on the program is Vancouver composer David Gordon Duke’s Tour de France, a song cycle comprising lists of cheeses, wines, and Paris Metro stations.
The festival nurtures new creations through its innovative Art Song Lab, involving 24 artists from across North America, working in pairs. “In January we put out a call through the Canadian Music Centre to poets and composers, and over the last few months they’ve collaborated, mostly through emails,” says Sharon. “They’re converging here to workshop with B.C. pianists, singers, and experts in new music, and to hear the songs in their raw form.
“Most of the time with art song we’re interpreting the music of artists who are no longer alive, and confusions can arise. The score doesn’t fully explain a lot of things and the interpreter has to puzzle them out. When the composer is there you have the incredible luxury of being able to say, ”˜Tell me what you really want.’ Or the poet may say, ”˜I want to bring out that particular word, because it’s the one that matters to me in this sentence.’ It’s a hugely satisfying process for everyone involved.”
The works officially premiere at the Playing With Fire concert on Sunday (June 19), featuring artists like soprano Phoebe MacRae and pianist Erika Switzer. But before that, the festival presents them at free interactive workshops open to public participation. “The audience can give their views and opinions, and ask questions like ”˜Why exactly are you putting that note to that word?’?” says Sharon. “It’s a really exciting way to understand how a song gets written, what’s complicated about it, and what it’s like to collaborate in these things. We want to engage people—and have them fall in love with art song.”
SongSparks: Interactive Song Workshops are at UBC’s Roy Barnett Recital Hall tonight (June 16), and at the VSO School of Music on Friday (June 17). Playing With Fire is at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre on Sunday (June 19). A Vancouver Schubertiade is at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (June 18). Nuits d’Etoiles is at the Orpheum Annex Theatre on Tuesday (June 21).