New group devoted to performing the art song

The Cincinnati Song Initiative gives its first performance Sunday at the Weston Art Gallery.

click to enlarge Cincinnati Song Initiative’s Samuel Martin - Photo: Provided
Photo: Provided
Cincinnati Song Initiative’s Samuel Martin
While you might not know what an “art song” is, you’ve probably heard one. Cincinnati Song Initiative wants to make sure you hear many, many more.

The newly formed arts organization kicks off its inaugural performance season at 3 p.m. this Sunday at the Weston Art Gallery, inside the Aronoff Center for the Arts, with a program called “Americana: A Cultural Tapestry.”

With that opening concert and two others scheduled for the first half of 2017, Song Initiative is committed to providing an outlet for a genre of singing and performance that is unfamiliar to many.

“(Art song) is probably more known to people than they think,” says Samuel Martin, Song Initiative’s executive director. 

“Maybe they don’t know the term, but they’ve probably heard one before,” he adds, citing “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert as an example. 

An art song is poetry set to music by a composer. From Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to contemporary commissioned poetry, almost any type of verse or words can form the lyrical component of an art song. Where opera is theatrical and grandiose in the performance of its vocals, an art song is comparatively simple. The performance of art songs consists of a vocalist and one musical collaborator, usually a pianist, in recital. The two navigate the layers of poetry and music, giving their own interpretations to both to give audiences a rich experience that is intimate and accessible. 

“The beauty of art song is that you have this amalgamation of interpretations,” Martin says. “Art song has this added layer; the music is the vehicle through which the meaning of the poem is portrayed. There are unlimited numbers of interpretations for most poems, let alone for each song.”

Martin is hopeful that audiences will respond. 

“This interpretation of poetry is such an intimate art, and to put that to music is going to set people up to have powerful, moving experiences,” he says.

For the first concert in what will be an ongoing Americana series (another Americana concert is scheduled for April 8, 2017), the performers will explore such varying cultural influences on American art song as the writings of 16th-century English queens, our country’s rich African-American heritage and even Craigslist ads. 

The artists are sopranos Shareese Arnold and Alexandra Schoeny, tenor Jason Weisinger and pianists Marie-France Lefebvre and Matthew Umphreys. Featured composers include Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, Ned Rorem and Libby Larsen.

“It’s a living, breathing genre to this day,” Martin says of American art song. “Just like most things we know of as being American, it’s the summation of this beautiful diversity of essentially hundreds of other cultures coming together… and these beautiful, beautiful things come as a result. We call them American, (although) they all stem from elsewhere. But that’s what makes them American.

“If a lot of people don’t know what an art song is and they come to a concert featuring current contemporary American art song, I bet you they’re going to want to come to another concert,” he continues. “It’s just like any other musical American genre — it’s a total reflection of American culture.” 

But he does point out that every culture has art songs; they can exist in any language. Song Initiative will provide an example of that when it performs music by the post-World War I French composers known as Les Six at a concert on Jan. 28.

For Martin, Cincinnati had the right elements for the Song Initiative. A graduate in Collaborative Performance from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, with an additional degree from Ithaca College in piano performance, he found himself drawn to this region’s rich musical and singing heritage.

Martin is hopeful that local audiences will respond to the many facets of the art song. 

“This interpretation of poetry is such an intimate art, and to put that to music is going to set people up to have powerful, moving experiences,” he says.


CINCINNATI SONG INITIATIVE presents “Americana” 3 p.m. Sunday at Weston Galley. Tickets are $20. More info/tickets: cincinnatisonginitiative.org.

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