For Nicholas Phan, song singing is as much a crusade as an art form

From Chicago Tribune, September 05 2013

By John von Rhein

The festivities will begin later this week when the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, of which Phan is artistic director, presents its second annual Collaborative Works Festival. Bracketing the five-day event will be two recitals of songs by Britten and others performed by Phan, Kiera Duffy, Jennifer Johnson Cano, pianist Martin Katz and other artists.

The festival also will inaugurate a new tradition — an annual solo vocal recital — when it hosts the acclaimed American countertenor David Daniels in his first Chicago recital in nearly 15 years.

"CAIC's goal is to create a serious home for vocal chamber music in America in Chicago, and we hope to expand every year moving forward," Phan says. "Singers find fewer and fewer venues around the country with a commitment to this repertory. We want to ensure that Chicago audiences have the opportunity to hear artists of David's stature in recital on a regular basis."

That objective plugs directly into the larger mission of CAIC, a nonprofit vocal coaching and accompanying studio created here last year by Phan and executive director Shannon McGinnis. Their goal is to raise the general awareness of the rich art song and vocal chamber repertory, while cultivating a larger public for an intimate art form that has long been a tough sell in the city.

An alumnus of the vocal program at Ravinia's Steans Music Institute, Phan, 34, is well-qualified to lead the charge. Not only has he championed the art song literature all over the world, in recent years he has released two superlative recordings of Britten song cycles on the Avie label.

Indeed, he's engaged in a multi-year project to explore Britten's considerable output for the tenor voice, virtually all of it composed for tenor Peter Pears, Britten's life partner, companion and muse.

"What drew me to Britten's music, and what makes that music special to me to this day, is its perfect combination of head and heart," Phan says. "Unlike his British contemporaries, he really was an international composer. You get this masterfully crafted music that deals with extraordinarily poignant subjects everyone can relate to. Britten's music doesn't apologize for its technical difficulty, yet at the same time it pierces the listener's heart."

Phan discovered Britten during the late 1990s when he was a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. While delving through the stacks in the music library, he came across volumes of the composer's correspondence, which included numerous letters to Pears. The two men lived together during a perilous era when homosexual acts were illegal in Great Britain, and their domestic partnership came in for close official scrutiny.

"For a young gay man like myself living at that time, there weren't role models around like Britten and Pears," the singer says. "They were gay pioneers, although they probably would cringe if they heard themselves described that way. To realize these two men spent their lives together and enjoyed a very fulfilling, long-term partnership that was both creative and romantic, was really inspiring to me. That's when I started looking at Britten's music really seriously and began adding it to my repertory."

Chicago has not exactly built a reputation for being a world-class hub of art song performance and study. But this fall could bring about a sea change, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Nicholas Phan and friends.

In fact, the gifted American tenor will be all over the local classical music map this month and next, when he will headline several celebrations of Benjamin Britten's vocal music, keyed to the great British composer's centenary.

Despite the fact that Britten's music for high male voice was crafted to suit the distinctive timbre, range and qualities of Pears' voice (also, of course, his unique artistry), Phan says the songs fit him beautifully.

"This music has really taught me a lot about my voice and about singing in general," the singer explains. "Britten's notes have always led my throat to wherever it's supposed to go. It feels very natural for me to sing."

Following his two song programs for this year's Collaborative Works Festival, Phan will return Oct. 18 to present a recital of Britten and Schubert songs on the University of Chicago Presents series in Mandel Hall.

"As a Midwesterner, I always feel Chicago is my home away from home," he says. "It's nice to be able to spend so much time in this great city."

The 2013 Collaborative Works Festival will open with a free recital of Britten songs on texts by W.H. Auden and Edith Sitwell, to be presented in partnership with the Poetry Foundation and University of Chicago Presents. The performers include singers Nicholas Phan and Kiera Duffy; 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Poetry Foundation, 61 W. Superior St.

The festival continues with a song recital by countertenor David Daniels, with pianist Martin Katz; 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State St. ($40, $20 students).

It will conclude with a program of folk song arrangements by Britten and others, performed by Jennifer Johnson Cano, Phan and Duffy, with harpist Nuiko Wadden and members of eighth blackbird; 2 p.m. Sept. 15 at Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago, 915 E. 60th St.; $40, $20 for students at

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