Interview: Tenor Nicholas Phan on intention, emotion and the lasting appeal of Benjamin Britten

From Musical Toronto,  October 31 2013

By John Terauds 

American tenor Nicholas Phan smiles as he notes the nice if not immediately obvious fit between Hallowe’en and this week’s Toronto Symphony Orchestra programme, which includes Carl Orff’s popular Carmina Burana and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings by Benjamin Britten.

Even though they make no overt appeal to the ghoulish, there is a dark side to both pieces — as well as Powder Her Face, the opera about a decadent duchess by British composer Thomas Adès from which we’ll hear orchestral dances tonight through Saturday at Roy Thomson Hall.

Phan gets to wail the plaintive cry of the swan roasting on a spit in Carmina Burana. But the real reason he’s in Toronto (and with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony at the end of November), is the Britten Serenade.

Now based in Chicago, Phan is a lyric tenor tailor made for early music as well as a lot of modern stuff. He has been dividing his career equally between opera, concert work (like this week’s Toronto début) and art song recitals. And no composer is more important to him personally and professionally than Benjamin Britten, whose 100th birthday would have fallen on Nov. 22.

People who enjoyed the Canadian Opera Company’s recent production of Peter Grimes should note that Britten wrote the Serenade while he was waiting for Montagu Slater to finish writing the opera libretto. The aesthetic of the music and the ways in which Britten incorporated a series of poems in the Serenade are almost identical to Grimes: hypnotic, insinuating and — in a way completely different from Carmina Burana — emotionally charged.

Phan, who discovered Britten’s music and life story as a student in Ann Arbor, Mich., eloquently describes the composer’s appeal.

“He’s got that perfect combination – and it’s so rare in a composer, too – of head and heart,” Phan says. “There’s a beautiful balance between this emotional core that some people criticized for being too sentimental, but I find very direct and extremely visceral, yet he never apologises for technical mastery.”

The tenor is tailor-made to fill the vocal shoes of Britten’s life partner, muse and perennial soloist, Peter Pears. He also relates to Britten’s economy of means to get maximum emotional effect.

“[Britten] doesn’t dumb-down his music in order to grab at heartstrings,” Phan explains. “He tugs at heartstrings by using extraordinarily sophisticated technical means in order to get to the emotional core of his music and what his beliefs were.

“Those themes that he ponders are ones I personally can relate to – these ideas of being an outsider, of a threat to innocence and nighttime – what nighttime represents and mourning the loss of that innocent time in which we didn’t know better.”

These themes pervade modern art. As Phan puts it, “I think these are all things that we, on some level, grapple with, and I think that’s why this is great music.”

Phan, who is still in his early 30s, has spent a lot of time thinking about and doing things to help connect people to music, art song in particular.

He has already recorded two excellent albums featuring the music of Benjamin Britten — the second funded on Kickstarter. He is one of the founders of the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, which is trying to build new audiences for art song. He is also fearless in jumping across musical eras, singing a Handel opera one week, and new music the next.

The tenor says that interpreting new music has clear benefits for older works, as well. He relates a recent conversation with Eighth Blackbird violinist/violist Yvonne Lam.

“We were talking about how doing a lot of new music makes you look at the rest of music in general with fresh eyes, because you’re so concerned with how to communicate what’s written down on the page to an audience that you suspend all sense of expectation,” says Phan. “You look for the reason and purpose behind everything, so that every gesture is very intentional.”

This also explains why audiences and critics find Nicholas Phan so musically attractive.


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