Sam Martin: Cincinnati’s champion for art song

Thousands of lofty words have been written about the Cincinnati Song Initiative. About how it was “founded to bring a concentrated and cohesive source of art song” and how its programming has been filled with “large-scale thematic projects.”

They’re correct, mind you. But what those words fail to capture is the extraordinary joy that infuses almost every aspect of the CSI experience.

It’s understandable. To many people – most, perhaps – “art song” suggests a rarefied art form that is beyond the reach of all but the most elite music-lovers. At one time, the stereotype may have been deserved. After all, art song was born in the salons of the European gentry, where 10 to 20 people would gather to hear music – nearly always the partnership of a singer and a pianist – in the most genteel settings.

It’s that sense that art song is for “other” people that spurred Sam Martin to create the Cincinnati Song Initiative in 2016. Martin, a pianist who has a degree in collaborative performance from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, is a gifted musician and innovative entrepreneur. But his musical heart is as a proselytizer for art song.

Cincinnati Song Innatiative Sam Martin
Sam Martin

“In my experience, if I can get people in the door, they are blown away by the music,” said Martin. “They feel a connection to the performers. It’s the simplicity of the environment. Just an artist onstage with a pianist and the vibrant energy between them. There is no elaborate lighting, no chorus behind them, no orchestra.”

It’s not unlike an actor performing an evening-length, one-person play. It is daunting and demanding. There is nowhere to hide. It is just the performer and the audience. 

“It’s the equivalent of memorizing three or four opera roles,” said Martin. And then performing those roles without any supporting cast other than a pianist.

But that very simplicity of song, as Martin refers to art songs, is something of an impediment to its popularity. The experience may be profound, but it doesn’t have the scale or the opulence of other musical formats. It’s like comparing the drawing power of an exhibit of van Gogh paintings with one of Indian miniatures. The levels of artistry may be comparable. But van Gogh comes with monumental popularity, while Indian miniatures have a much smaller, if no less fervent following.

“I think it is probably due to the ‘grandeur’ factor,” said Martin. “Song is music that is set to poetry or speeches or prose, even. That is different from a show that has a hard-and-fast story. One of the beautiful things about song is that the texts are often open to interpretation by the audience. At its best, song is going to make audience members think critically. Or perhaps be challenged and inspired by the text.”

Kenneth Griffiths recalls when Martin presented the idea of CSI to him. Griffiths is a professor of collaborative piano at CCM, as well as director of collaborative piano activities. Martin was his student.

“I didn’t think he was mad,” he said, laughing gently at the memory of their conversation. “But when he started talking about developing an organization that would present regular seasons of concerts, I told him I thought that it was wonderful in theory. But what would it be like in practice? How could he actually make it happen?”

Good question. Martin had no money, no active supporters and no volunteers to help him. So like any good millennial – he’s 30 now – he ran a Kickstarter, an online, self-funding campaign. He raised just $900, not the sort of nest egg you’d want on hand before starting a season of performances.

“Looking back, I cringe,” said Martin. He spent $400 on legal fees and to establish a not-for-profit organization. That way, he could pursue grants and charitable contributions.

“I was left with $500 to produce our very first concert,” he said. “I was so determined and so inspired that I came out screaming with a full, 3-concert season. But did I know how to fund raise or get more money in the bank? Hell, no.”

Fortunately, that first concert went well. The audience wasn’t large – just 40 to 50 people. But the people who were there were eager to hear more of what Martin had in mind. And some even backed up that desire with contributions to assure that the series had a future.

Accompanist Jonathan C. Kelly and soprano Jeanine de Bique with Sam Martin in March
Accompanist Jonathan C. Kelly and soprano Jeanine de Bique with Sam Martin in March

The key to the series’ success, Martin said, is themed programs.

“We ran a four-concert Spanish song series,” said Martin. “That brought in a lot of new people. And we did a ‘Les Six’ series,” he said, referring to the group of early 20th-century French and Swiss composers. “For that one, we partnered with the Alliance Française de Cincinnati. Later, we partnered with the Wagner Society.”

It is classic niche marketing. In these cases, Martin focused on varying cultures or ethnicities. Sometimes it has been cultural ideals. Whatever the specific group that he has concentrated on, though, the goal has been the same; to get people in the door.

He has been so successful with all of this that he has been able to commission new works, so that he has actually been adding to the art song repertoire.

“There are a handful of organizations across the country and in Europe that are devoted to the beauty and the intimacy of the art song,” said noted composer Lori Laitman, one of those artists who has received a CSI commission. “But I honestly don’t know of another song series that has been as innovative as CSI, especially during the pandemic. What Sam did was just extraordinary.”

She’s referring to CSI Digital. Most performing art groups found ways to stream some content. But for most groups, the quality of their content couldn’t begin to approach that of their live performances. But CSI’s performances were different. For one thing, the production quality was vastly superior to many others.

But the programming itself was different from the norm.

“I remember when he started the ‘Composers and Cocktails’ series,” said Laitman. Some of the success was due to Martin himself, who Laitman describes as “approachable and witty – the perfect host.” But the very idea of having cocktails with composers and inviting streaming viewers to do the same thing gave the series an informal and even playful quality.

Today, CSI maintains a hefty digital library of performances, webinars and composer/performer discussions featuring a wide array of artists, from Laitman and Jake Heggie to Jeanine De Bique and Anthony Davis. And because of their high quality, CSI Digital, as it is called, provides yet another income stream for the group.

CSI is now into its seventh season. And things are continuing to go so well that you might even call it a “well-established” arts group. Certainly, Martin has no shortage of either the energy or ideas that have built his pie-in-the-sky concept into a group offering seven or eight presentations every year.

“Art song is all about telling stories,” said Martin. “Sometimes you want to tell one story. Or bring together a group of them to tell a larger, overarching story. I think those limitless possibilities are what inspired me to start this concert series. I was just overflowing with dozens of ideas for programs. And all of that needed an outlet. I guess I found it. Seven years later, here we are.” ν

Upcoming Cincinnati Song Initiative events

Nov. 6, 4 p.m. Mercantile Library, Downtown
The Belletrists: Songs to poems by Friedrich Rückert

Jan. 14, 7 p.m. Liberty Exhibition Hall, Northside
Cincinnati songSLAM, throwdown competition of new songs

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