Weekend MusicWatch: Vocal virtuoso and vivacious violinist

Nicholas Phan sings at Chamber Music Northwest.

Nicholas Phan sings at Chamber Music Northwest.

by BRETT CAMPBELL

When tenor Nicholas Phan handed the proposed repertoire list for his senior recital to his  college adviser, she was astonished–and appalled–at its length and breadth. “When did you have time to learn all that?” she exclaimed, gazing at the thick sheaf of print outs covering composers from Baroque to contemporary.

“I’ve been in school for four years,” the University of Michigan senior replied. “Those were my assignments. I’m curious about a lot of music.”

In the decade or so since then, Phan has maintained the curiosity and versatility that make him a rarity among today’s top classical singers, most of whom wind up specializing not just in choral or opera or solo recital repertoire, but even in sub-niches within those categories – Wagner or Rossini or Puccini opera roles, for example, historically informed early music, 20th century songs.

Not Phan. “It might sound radical now, but to my mind it’s really conservative,” to sing a wide range of classical music, he told Oregon ArtsWatch. “You look at the really great singers–Jessye Norman, [Dietrich] Fischer-Dieskau, [Thomas] Hampson, Susan Graham, Christa Ludwig –they had these gigantic operatic careers, but art song was also an important part of what they did. Jessye Norman cultivated her artistry by doing these one-person shows. Peter Pears did a Bach Evangelist, Britten’s music, Schubert songs, he’s in ‘Turandot.’ He did everything.”

The reference to Pears, the tenor best known for singing so much of the music written for him by his life partner, Benjamin Britten, is telling. Phan was initially fascinated by England’s greatest 20th century composer, who was born 100 years ago this November, because of his role as a (closeted) gay classical music pioneer.
Tonight, Phan will sing Britten and Pears’ music, along with songs by Felix Mendelssohn and Hugo Wolf, at Chamber Music Northwest. And on Monday and Tuesday, he’ll sing Britten’s 20th century classic, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943) in another recommended and diverse CMNW concert that includes another great 20th century composer’s masterworks, Gyorgy Ligeti’s 1953 “Six Bagatelles” for wind quintet, American composer Joan Tower’s 2006 “A Little Gift” for flute and clarinet, one of Paul Hindemith’s rare non-tedious works (“A Little Chamber Music” for woodwind quintet, from 1922), and a comfortably commonplace pacifier for timid listeners otherwise inclined to flee the hall in terror at the prospect of encountering so many unfamiliar 20th century sounds, Mozart’s overly familiar serenade “A Little Night Music.”

Pianist Pei-Yao Wang and Nicholas Phan perform Britten's songs in a CMNW concert at Reed College.

Pianist Pei-Yao Wang and Nicholas Phan perform Britten’s songs in a CMNW concert at Reed College. Photo: Jim Leisy.

Still safely under age 35, Phan is one of the hottest singers in classical music. A rare rising star in both the concert and opera worlds, Phan appeared with most of the country’s top orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and San Francisco Symphony, recorded four albums, and worked with conductors as diverse as British period instrument specialists Harry Bicket and Nicholas McGegan and arch modernist Pierre Boulez. And he’s performed with some of the world’s leading opera companies, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Houston, New York City, and Frankfurt.

Amid all his peregrinations, Phan has a special affinity for Oregon in general and Portland in particular. Phan recently blogged about his love for the city of Portland and its coffee, laid back atmosphere, and natural beauty. “I have a real fondness for Oregon,” he says. “The state is beautiful, and I love the coffee, the wine, the food and the people.”

The feeling is mutual, because along with his second straight CMNW appearances, Phan was all over this month’s Oregon Bach Festival, performing in big choral orchestral works from Bach to Beethoven, vocal recitals, opera arias, and more. (Last year, he stepped in at OBF after another tenor canceled on two weeks’ notice.) That’s on top of his May appearances with Portland Opera, where last month he filled in ably in a major role after a cast member was injured in rehearsal for Verdi’s “Falstaff.” He’s also sung with PO in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and with the Oregon Symphony in Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”

Intimate Pleasures

As successful as he’s been in such orchestral and operatic settings, the Michigan-born, New York based singer equally treasures what he calls “vocal chamber music” and others term (somewhat pretentiously) “art music.” But in the US, the rise of popular music and its more “natural” singing styles (from Broadway to blues to indie rock to hip hop) has often made classical music featuring a singer and pianist or small chamber ensemble sound hoity toity. Not Phan, though, whose vocal warmth and astonishing ability to connect with audiences have won him wide acclaim and such star piano partners as Mitsuko Uchida, Richard Goode, and Jeremy Denk. He even founded the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago to promote the teaching, performance, and development of vocal chamber music.

“Presenters always look at vocal recitals as a tough sell,” Phan acknowledges. “It’s a two-pronged problem. First, it’s a really important part of a singer’s education that’s sometimes overlooked. Art song is deceptively difficult because there’s a lot of detail and nuance to be mastered. You have to get beyond that challenge, and kind of face your fear of looking people in the eye and saying something to them.”

Phan club members who saw their man perform at Chamber Music Northwest last year, appreciate the young tenor’s ability to forge those connections with his audience, which he attributes in part to his musical theater training and background. “You have to boil it down to simple conversation,” Phan says. “That’s something I learned in acting class. I think of it in terms of cabaret: you’ve assembled this group of songs you love, and you want to share them with people.

“I’m looking for that moment of authenticity in song recitals where you get to connect with the audience directly,” Phan continues. “It’s a different kind of connection. I feel like I’m developing a relationship with the people I’m singing for. There’s no makeup, no costumes–you’re there to really communicate and share extremely personal feelings. When you can personalize the text, it’s really like doing a cabaret performance.””

But achieving that kind of sharing can be really tough in today’s typically super-sized, super-stiff classical music settings. “People are exposed to it in the wrong way,” Phan insists. “We pick these big concert halls, formal settings–this gigantic remove from the audience. What I love about art song is that it’s so intimate. In an intimate setting, people can experience the possibility of great nuance and details. They can see the beautiful trees in the beautiful forest. The most passionate listeners are the ones who’ve experienced it close up.”

The chamber music Phan most treasures is Britten’s, which he’ll perform tonight at CMNW. Phan admires the composer’s “perfect balance between head and heart. There’s his technical virtuosity — everything is put together perfectly — but at the same time, everything serves an expressive purpose about love, war, loss of innocence, feeling like an outsider — anything you can ponder for the rest of your life,” Phan explains. “These are things we all grapple with. He’s a masterful storyteller. There’s just something about the way he arranges things that lifts the music off the page.”

Along with the Phan concerts, CMNW offers another world premiere in its Saturday and Sunday concerts: Lowell Liebermann’s “Four Seasons for Mezzo-Soprano, Clarinet and Piano Quartet,” setting poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The New York-born, New Jersey resident has won a deserved reputation as one of the most listener friendly of today’s leading American composers. The program also contains chamber music by J.S. Bach, including selections from the great “Art of Fugue,” arranged for anachronistic modern instruments.

Monica Huggett plays Bach and more on Sunday.

Monica Huggett plays Bach and more on Sunday.

Violin Virtuosa

A more intimate, authentic, historically informed approach to Bach pervades the other major classical concert this weekend in Portland Baroque Orchestra artistic director Monica Huggett’s Sunday recital at Gresham’s St. Aidan’s church. The English violinist, who’s also one of Oregon’s musical heroines for her work in making PBO one of the country’s great orchestras, wields her recently acquired 1750 Baroque fiddle, whose sound is close to what J.S. Bach had in his ears when he was writing his great solo violin works, like the Partita #2 that contains (barely) the mighty and mighty famous Chaconne that Huggett will play, along another Bach solo partita and sonata, plus more solo Baroque violin masterpieces by Bach’s great German Baroque predecessor Heinrich Biber and Nicholas Matteis the Younger.

Vocal music fans can experience a quite different vocal music tradition from Nick Phan’s in Sunday night’s raga recital by Portland singer and Indian music guru Michael Stirling, with David Jacobs on tabla, at Portland’s Sung Gate Studio. Also on Sunday afternoon, pianist-composer David Salminen plays another solo recital, this one on piano and comprising his own astronomically inspired music, at Portland Piano. Jazz fans can check out north Portland’s venerable Cathedral Park Jazz Festival all weekend, featuring visiting trumpeter Dmitri Matheny, Portland pianist-composer Ezra Weiss, New West Guitar Group (the inventive LA-based trio led by UO alum John Storie, which also plays Portland’s Jimmy Mak’s club with crooner Spencer Day on Monday), and many other excellent local and touring improvising musicians, workshops, talks, and more.

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