Tenor Nicholas Phan Offers New Take on Old Music, Singing A Painted Tale
From 21C Media Group, January 09 2015
Tenor Nicholas Phan Offers New Take on Old Music, Singing A Painted Tale on New Solo Album (Out Feb 10) and in Carnegie Recital (March 18)
January 7, 2015
Nicholas Phan scored hits with his first two solo albums, both of which were recorded for Avie Records and made the New York Times “Best of the Year” lists in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Now the tenor’s third, A Painted Tale, is due for release by Avie on February 10. Comprising a pastiche song cycle assembled by Phan himself, it tells a story of love gained and then lost, through selections by Dowland, Purcell, and other master composers of the English Renaissance and early Baroque. The “Painted Tale” cycle may also be heard in live performance when the tenor – hailed as “an artist who must be heard” (NPR) – returns to Carnegie Hall for a second solo recital on March 18, marking one of the highlights of his New Year lineup. Recognized as “a major new Britten interpreter” (New York Times), he also looks forward to singing selections from the English composer’s song cycle Les Illuminations with the San Francisco Symphony (Jan 9 & 10), making his Dallas Symphony debut in the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings (Jan 22–25), and joining guitarist Eliot Fisk for an evening of music “From Dowland to Britten” at Da Camera of Houston (Jan 27). Besides serving as soloist in choral collaborations with orchestras including the Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati Symphonies, Phan rounds out the season with a star-studded staging of Sweeney Todd at Houston Grand Opera (April 24–May 9) and concert performances of Fidelio with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (June 25, 26 & 28).
A Painted Tale is a carefully curated selection of songs for voice, lute, and viola da gamba, by early English masters John Dowland, Thomas Morley, Henry Purcell, and their lesser-known contemporaries John Blow, Alfonso Ferrabosco, and Nicholas Lanier. Compiling such a program marks the realization of a dream that Phan has harbored since his teenage years. Recognizing that “the experience of love was the same in 1600 as it is now,” the tenor conceived the idea of presenting these early English miniatures within a genuinely dramatic context. As he explains in an illuminating liner note:
“What has drawn me so powerfully to sing this repertoire since I first encountered it in my teenage summer music camp days is its timelessness. Reading the poetry in these songs, I am fascinated by how little the human experience has changed over the centuries. By assembling these pieces into what I’m calling ‘a pastiche song cycle,’ I hope that creating a dramatic context for them will highlight how relevant they still are today.”
Phan drew inspiration from Schubert, whose song cycles represent the pinnacle of the genre.
“Taking Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin as a model, the songs on this album are ordered so that they tell a story, a so-called ‘Painted Tale’ of a young man who falls in love with a young woman, and is destroyed by the heartbreak that ensues, choosing death as the only possible escape from his torment. It was not hard to find songs that fit into this storyline.”
Incidentally, he adds, “I found that the object of many of these poets’ affections was coincidentally named ‘Celia’ – only in one instance have we had to change a ‘Sylvia’ to ‘Celia’ in order to keep our story cohesive.”
A video preview of A Painted Tale is available here, and Phan may be heard singing one of the songs from the cycle (Purcell’s “She loves and she confesses too”) here.
Both in the recording studio and in his upcoming return to Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall (March 18), Phan has the support of two colleagues with extensive experience in the repertoire. Viola da gambist Ann Marie Morgan is a frequent soloist with such leading modern and period orchestras as Apollo’s Fire, the Baltimore Symphony, and the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras. Likewise lutenist and theorbo player Michael Leopold regularly performs with the world’s foremost period instrument ensembles, Concerto Italiano and La Venexiana among them, as well as with opera companies including the San Francisco Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Washington National Opera, and Opera Australia.
The release of A Painted Tale on CD follows the success of Phan’s two previous solo albums. Both are all-Britten recitals recorded with pianist Myra Huang that scored five-star reviews in BBC Music magazine and went on to feature in New York Times “Best of the Year” lists. Issued in 2011, it was Winter Words that prompted the UK’s Sunday Times to hail the tenor as “a star in the making” and NPR to name him a “Favorite New Artist of 2011.” As the Classical Review realized, “Phan’s debut has ‘award winner’ stamped through it in every phrase and note.”
Similarly, 2012’s Still Falls the Rain was proclaimed “one of the great solo vocal albums of the year” (Musical Toronto). WQXR admired Phan’s “dapper, cultivated timbre, splendid enunciation, and keen intelligence and musicianship.” International Record Review declared: “I’ve never heard such a persuasive performance.” “There simply isn’t a more beautiful voice singing Britten these days,” agreed the Bay Area Reporter, and even Britain’s BBC Radio Three pronounced the album “an American Britten recital that really deserves its place among the best of the Brits.”
Phan’s exceptional way with the music of Benjamin Britten may be heard live in concert in his upcoming collaborations with the San Francisco Symphony (Jan 9 & 10) and Dallas Symphony, where he makes his debut under Nicholas McGegan with French horn player David Cooper in the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings (Jan 22-25). After hearing Phan’s account of the Serenade with the Toronto Symphony last season, the Star reported, “We needn’t have waited for the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth to hear this masterpiece of understated expression, realized as beautifully as anyone might imagine.”
These are just two of the tenor’s many key orchestral engagements in the coming months. For his first collaboration with Louis Langrée at the Cincinnati Symphony, he sings Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (Jan 15, 17 & 18), in which he previously “nearly stole the show” (Opera News) with the New York Philharmonic and the late Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. Having drawn raves last season with his signature portrayal of the Evangelist in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, this winter Phan returns to Boston Baroque for two performances of the Baroque composer’s St. John Passion (Feb 27 & 28). At the Baltimore Symphony, where his performance in Britten’s War Requiem proved “mesmerizing” (Baltimore Sun), the tenor takes part in Mozart’s Mass in C minor, and the same composer’s Requiem is the vehicle for Phan’s first appearance under Jeffrey Kahane’s leadership with the LA Chamber Orchestra (Feb 19). He also returns to his native Ann Arbor, joining the Ann Arbor Symphony as soloist in Mendelssohn’s Elijah (Feb 14), in which he provided one of the “evening’s clear highlights” (New York Times) with Kent Tritle and the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall.
To round out the winter season, Phan reunites with classical guitarist Eliot Fisk, last direct pupil of the legendary Andrés Segovia, for an intimate recital of English song by Dowland, Britten, and William Walton at Da Camera of Houston (Jan 27).
An alumnus of the famed Houston Grand Opera studio, spring sees Phan return to the company for Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, playing the part of Tobias Ragg alongside Nathan Gunn in the title role and Susan Bullock as Mrs. Lovett, in the American premiere of Lee Blakeley’s acclaimed new production (April 24–May 9).
With the Pittsburgh Symphony and Manfred Honeck, Phan reprises Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony during the orchestra’s BeethovenFest (June 5–7). He also looks forward to taking part in the San Francisco Symphony’s Beethoven Festival in June, undertaking the role of Jaquino in concert performances of the master composer’s sole opera, Fidelio, in a cast with Nina Stemme and Brandon Jovanovich, and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting (June 25, 26 & 28).