Earlier this month, I had a conversation over email about the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago with pianist and executive director Shannon McGinnis. This is a (relatively) new venture in the art song world.  From the 29th-31st of March, they are presenting recitals of Schubert’s seminal song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, with baritone Jesse Blumberg and pianist Martin Katz. The thoughtful and wonderfully detailed answers to my questions are below -  if you are in the Chicago area, don’t miss these upcoming concerts.
 - Martha Guth

Why did you found the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago (CAIC), and can you let us in on beginning an arts business in a time of economic stress?

Shannon McGinnisCAIC emerged from a for-profit vocal coaching and accompanying studio (Collaborative Works, LLP), founded in 2006 by Nicholas Hutchinson and Jerad Mosbey, two fellow Martin Katz alumni, and me. CW achieved a lot of recognition quickly, and the three of us stayed insanely busy for the next three years, playing auditions, recitals, juries, opera rehearsals. Eventually it became evident that we’d boxed ourselves into a sort-of ‘accompanist-for-hire’ corner, which limited our ability to grow our business the way we’d originally hoped.

So one night, in a sort of ‘Jerry Maguire’ inspired moment, I sat down and wrote a mission statement and set of goals for our company. From that exercise it became clear that the values we held as a company were more clearly aligned with the non-profit sector than with the free-lance/service industry, so we set about determining what that would mean for the three of us. This was in spring 2009, I believe. By fall 2010, Nicholas Hutchinson and I, along with Nicholas Phan(another U of M alum) had filed Articles of Incorporation for Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, a non-profit institution with a two-part mission: 1) to provide educational support and performance opportunities for classically trained singers in the Chicago area; 2) to promote the study and performance of art song/vocal chamber music.

Of course we thought about the economic situation. In many ways it’s what drove us to make a change in the structure and focus of our business. But we weren’t starting from scratch, so start-up costs weren’t a factor. We already had a studio space, and we had an established clientele, as well as steady ‘outside’ jobs, and none of that changed. So the troubled economy didn’t deter us. The non-profit setup has enabled us to raise funds to help us subsidize our rate for private coaching. We charge less for coaching now than we did four years ago, and that’s enabled us to reach more singers - and enabled them to coach with us more consistently and with greater frequency.  Now the goal is to sustain and to continue to gain support.

Can you describe to our readers what the educational arm and the Festival comprises of, and why you decided to marry these two things together, as opposed to just doing one or the other?

SM: Our goal for the Festival is to present world-class artists in performances of art song and vocal chamber music, combined with master classes, coachings, and other educational events. This affords CAIC-affiliated singers and pianists the opportunity to interact with and learn from more established, seasoned artists.  Eventually - hopefully by 2013 - the Festival will take place at the end of the summer, in late August/early September. During the rest of the non-Festival year, performance opportunities come in the form of private House Concerts and other small, intimate art-song performances; educational support exists/will exist in the form of vocal coaching and a soon-to-be regular schedule of master classes and workshops related to art song specifically and singers’ needs, in general.

We focused on both aspects - education and performance - because in our world, they’re often inseparable and much of our work is with young singers. Sometimes we’re coaches, sometimes we’re recital partners, sometimes we’re accompanists for auditions or recordings.

Could you take our readers through the story line of Die schöne Müllerin and/or Winterreise and talk about why these pieces are relevant today.

SM: Die schöne Müllerin (the beautiul miller’s daughter), follows the story of a young miller’s apprentice who leaves his job in search of adventure and new opportunity, entrusting his fate to the guidance of a woodland stream. He finds work at another mill and soon falls desperately in love with his master’s daughter. Sadly, the miller’s daughter loves another - a virile huntsman, of course - and the grief-stricken miller lad drowns himself in the faithful brook.

The ‘story’ of Winterreise (a Winter’s Journey) really takes place before the cycle begins. In the first song we learn that the protagonist has been compelled by unspecified circumstances to leave the town where his beloved resides, beginning his ‘journey’ on a dark night in the dead of winter. What follows is less a physical journey than an emotional one; the listener bears witness to the protagonist’s struggle to find reprieve from his feelings of grief, despair, and delusion.  

Die schöne Müllerin represents youth - its hopefulness, its sense of adventure, its tendency toward heightened, ‘all-or-nothing’ emotional states, and its impatience. The protagonist is young, the action takes place in spring (spring = youth)... The emotional content - unbridled optimism turned to tragic angst - represents the Sturm und Drang of youth, as well. Even the theme of suicide represents a youthful Romantic ideal.  While we certainly don’t idealize suicide today, the emotional intensity of youth still holds true.

Winterreise is, in many ways, the ‘older brother’ of Die schöne Müllerin. I don’t mean to imply that it’s better or more complete, but the protagonist’s response to his experience makes him appear older.  The action takes place in winter (winter = age). and the stark, cold landscape feels old.  Whereas the protagonist in Die schöne Müllerinfinds relief, and eternal youth, in his suicide, the Winterreiseprotagonist grows increasingly older before our eyes. Suicide for this guy would be a relief, but does he doesn’t take the drastic step of taking his own life.  He wishes for death, yet he lives.  The last song of the cycle (Der Leiermann) represents a turning point, another phase of the journey, not an end.

Of course both experiences are relevant. Who hasn’t had his or her heart broken? I remember vividly my response to the failed ‘romances’ of my teens and early twenties. Those felt like life or death situations, and in the past several years I have experienced a type of heartbreak that I felt utterly desperate to escape. During that period, every day brought a new level or type of sorrow. That’s what grief does.  I identify strongly with both of these characters’ experiences, and these emotions are timeless and universal, aren’t they?

As a pianist, can you talk about the way you shape the narrative? 

SM: Well, of course, the gratifying thing for the pianist about these cycles (as with most of Schubert) is that the pianist is as much a part of the story-telling and emotional-journey creating as is the singer. In both cycles, the pianist is responsible for creating a landscape. In Die Schöne Müllerin, we’re painting scenery: we want our singer and listener to hear the babbling of the brook, to feel the turning of the mill-wheels, to fear and loathe the hunter’s horn, and to be seduced by the brook’s lullaby. In Winterreise, we’re creating an emotional landscape - one of almost unrelenting bleakness and despair. Texture is extremely important, as is pacing between songs in both cycles. Even how one handles page turns has an impact on the drama or the momentum of each cycle. And, of course, the singer should be free to shape text in a sincere, authentic way, and it’s the pianist’s job to help him do that.

Can you tell us a bit about your two performers for the upcoming concerts?

SM: Jesse Blumberg and I were colleagues at University of Michigan, but our time there overlapped by only a year or so. We were in one or two of Martin Katz’s song classes together, though, and I remember being taken in by his artistry and sincerity in the song repertoire, in particular. Since then, it’s been amazing to watch his career develop: two world premieres, featured roles across the U.S., and top prizes in international competitions. I also very much admire the type of artist Jesse is: he is equally at home in - and committed to - operatic, concert, and recital repertoire, and in all things he is, besides a first-rate singer and interpreter of songs, a generous and sincere performer. His Five Boroughs Music Festival (in NYC) has seen tremendous success, and I have so much respect - and empathy - for his commitment to the arts in that regard, as well.

I first encountered Martin Katz when I played on a master class he gave at Florida State University, when I was in graduate school there. That experience led to my eventually going on to study with him at U of M, where I had the most rewarding experience, both musically and personally. Mr. Katz is a consummate teacher, and he is my mentor in that regard. He has an uncanny ability to make students feel like artists, and he was able to meet me exactly where I was in my journey as a musician - and a person - and make me better. His voice is in my mind’s ear whenever I approach a piece of music - be it a song, an opera, or a violin sonata. To hear him partner singers in the song repertoire is a truly singular, fully authentic experience. There’s no one quite like him.

I know from my conversations with Martin that his ongoing collaboration with Jesse is a particularly gratifying one; these performances will be something special, to be sure.

These foundations are often very much a labor of love at the beginning of the process - well lets get real, throughout the lifetime of the process - How did you found the CAIC and if someone wanted to help, how could they do it?

SM: Once we’d done all the necessary soul-searching to determine whether the non-profit route really was the right step for us (we lost one of our original business partners in that process, unfortunately), we set about researching the process and filing A LOT of paperwork with city, county, state, and federal government offices. We established a Board of Directors and filed Articles of Incorporation, which involved expanding on our mission statement quite a bit. There were numerous trips and phone calls to the Secretary of State, the City Clerk, etc, etc. The next major hurdle was completing the IRS application for tax-exempt status. That was an exhausting process, but an invaluable one, as well. We were forced to answer a lot of questions that we hadn’t even thought to consider, and we learned a lot about ourselves and our business in the process. We completed that application at the end of October 2010, and we expected that the IRS would respond with a request additional supporting materials (that’s fairly standard). We did not expect for our first submission to be approved, and we certainly didn’t expect for that approval to come right away - in December 2010! Suddenly, we were up and running, and we hadn’t even begun the process of closing our initial partnership. It was great, though, because that quick success gave us the momentum we needed to get things started. We had our first fundraising event in March 2011, and we raised enough money at that event to allow us to lower our hourly coaching rates, which had been an initial goal.

We have an active and vibrant five-member Board of Directors, as well as a fantastic team of supporters and volunteers who ensure the success of our House Concerts and the upcoming 2012 Collaborative Works Festival. We are always looking for people to host House Concerts, and I think we do a great job of working with our hosts to create unique, enjoyable events that are meaningful to their guests. House Concerts are a great way to help CAIC advance its mission, raise funds, and increase our audience; anyone interested in hosting a CAICHouse Concert can contact me at: 312-443-9508 or

Of course, we would like for our Festival concerts to be well attended, and we urge people to help us by purchasing tickets at (search for Collaborative Works Festival) and to tell their friends about the Festival, too! We are also raising money to help offset expenses associated with producing the Festival; anyone interested in supporting the cause with a small donation (or a large one!) are asked to join our Kickstarter campaign: (Collaborative Works Festival).

After this year’s Festival ends, we’ll be asking for support for additional upcoming projects, and we’ll be announcing those on our website: and via our monthly newsletter. Folks can sign up to receive our newsletter by contacting us via email.

JENNIFER HINNELL on the appreciation of song

JENNIFER HINNELL on the appreciation of song

ELIZABETH McDONALD on connecting to repertoire

ELIZABETH McDONALD on connecting to repertoire