A Critic's Notebook: Tenor Nicholas Phan sings Britten at Spivey Hall
From Creative Loafing Atlanta, November 6 2013
The relationship between composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears is one of the great love stories of the 20th century. It also, not coincidentally, resulted in some of the greatest music of the 20th century.
New York-based tenor Nicholas Phan, who has been called "a major new Britten interpreter" by The New York Times, makes his Spivey Hall debut this Saturday, November 9. It's been a busy year for the singer, who has become especially renowned for his accessible, intelligent and poetic interpretations of Britten's music. We caught up with Phan to ask him about taking on the music Britten wrote for Pears, performing for the 2013 centenary celebrations of the composer's birth, and overcoming audiences' infamous 'fear of Britten.'
Why do you feel that Britten's music is a match for you as an artist?
When I was in college, I started reading some of the correspondence between Britten and Peter Pears, the love letters they exchanged back and forth, and I was really moved by this story that spawned such incredible music. Pears really was his primary muse. Obviously, as a tenor, I'm looking for things to sing. And there's a lot Britten wrote for tenor because Pears was a tenor. Through that love story and the notion that a love like that could spawn such creativity, I started exploring the music. I find it to be really powerful stuff. Britten has the perfect combination of head and heart which is so rare in a composer. He has this very touching, moving, relatable emotional core to his work, yet he never apologizes for his technical mastery. He uses very sophisticated techniques to engage the audience in meditation on very poignant themes.
Is there a challenge in singing Britten that makes it different from the challenges of singing, say, Handel or Mozart?
I think the challenge is that, because he's a 20th century composer, it takes some time to get familiar with his musical syntax. When you approach a Handel aria, or Mozart or Schubert, that musical language is so ingrained in us. That musical language becomes intuitive to us very quickly. But Britten is less familiar. Another part of the challenge is that there's tons of instruction on the page; he's incredibly specific about what he wants. The challenge becomes trying to decipher the meaning behind all of those instructions, why he wants those effects, why he wants those gestures and what the intention is behind them. You don't want to get lost just dotting the i's and crossing the t's, but you also want to tell the story, which is of utmost importance to Britten. Britten is a masterful storyteller. This is demonstrated by the amount of vocal music and the number of operas that he wrote. He's extraordinarily interested in drama and story. We have to make sure we're telling a human experience, even though there is this cornucopia of instructions on the page.
With the 100th anniversary, you've obviously been very busy, performing for all sorts of events around the world. Is there any one that stands out as particularly special?
Actually, the most special experience I had with Britten happened back in 2006, but it ties into the anniversary. In 2006, early in my career, I was invited by a friend of mine who was teaching at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri to give a recital. She said the one thing she really wanted to do was "Winter Words." I looked at it and thought it was great, but our concern was "How is an audience in Kirksville, Missouri going to respond to the music of Benjamin Britten?" Most of the time people see his name on a program and think, "Ugh. I don't like Britten." His name on a program doesn't sell out a house. People think his music will be difficult. We thought we'd program a bunch of fluffy, light, appealing things around "Winter Words" to help the medicine go down, so to speak. But we were both really surprised afterwords: the one thing people talked about was "Winter Words." They talked about how beautiful it was, how moving it was, how they weren't really familiar with Britten's music but they wanted to know more. That was really the moment that I thought, even though this stuff is really sophisticated and techincal, it really has the power to reach audiences in a unique and powerful way. That's when I thought I have to keep going with this. I embarked on this multi-year, multi-album project trying to record and explore these works that Britten wrote for Pears, and what started it was "Winter Words," which is the piece I'm going to be performing at Spivey.
It's been wonderful this year to trot his music out for audiences all over the world. Just last week, I was in Istanbul performing the program we're doing at Spivey. It was really exciting to take this music that's not really heard in a place like that and expose new audiences to it. My hope for the Britten anniversary year is that it will make him a little less daunting and a little less scary. I hope it will open the world's eyes up to how important this man's work was. It is truly some of the most moving and powerful music composed last century. It has to be performed, and it has to be heard.