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Tenor Nicholas Phan Sings Britten as Composer’s Centenary Nears

With two highly praised Britten recordings under his belt – including his most recent, Still Falls the Rain, named one of the best classical CDs of 2012 by the New York Times – tenor Nicholas Phan continues his passionate advocacy for Britain’s most important 20th-century composer. With the centenary of Benjamin Britten on the horizon (he was born on November 22, 1913 and died in 1976), Phan will present one of his most ambitious Britten concerts to date when he sings both the Nocturne and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings with the Marsh Chapel Collegium led by Scott Allen Jarrett at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel (Feb 2). He follows this with a performance of Britten’s haunting Les Illuminations with the Alabama Symphony (Feb 22 & 23), along with additional Britten concerts and recitals scheduled for this summer and throughout the 2013-14 season (details TBA). Along with Britten, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach will figure prominently in Phan’s schedule this winter and spring, in concerts with the New York Philharmonic (March 6-9) and in Washington, DC (March 24) and Lucerne, Switzerland (March 27 & 28). Among other upcoming highlights, Phan returns to The Philadelphia Orchestra (Feb 14-16) and the San Francisco Symphony (April 5 & 6), and makes his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra (April 11-14). He reappears on the opera stage in May, in the role of Fenton in Verdi’s Falstaff at Portland Opera.
On A Roll with Britten
Britten’s music was thrust into the spotlight of popular culture recently when it was used so artfully and imaginatively in Wes Anderson’s delightfully quirky film Moonrise Kingdom. While some of Britten’s works – such as the The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the War Requiem, and the “Sea Interludes” from the opera Peter Grimes – have been frequently performed, much of his music remains to be rediscovered and appreciated. Phan is increasingly recognized as one of the composer’s most ardent – and insightful – interpreters.
Phan has been singing Britten’s music since his student days at the University of Michigan and considers him one of the most important and compelling composers of the 20th century. The tenor comments:
“I have been passionately devoted to Britten’s music ever since I witnessed its power to touch people universally while performing his works. What I love about Britten as a composer is that he never, ever underestimates his audience – he trusted his incredibly sophisticated compositional style’s ability to touch people’s hearts in the most deeply moving ways. On a personal level, I’ve also always been incredibly inspired by Britten as a gay icon. While I am sure he would never have considered himself as such, the 30-plus year relationship he openly shared with Peter Pears, and the creativity that they sparked in each other, is beautiful to me.”
Phan’s advocacy of Britten’s music hit an especially sweet spot with his two recordings for Avie Records. Released in October, Still Falls the Rain is Phan’s second solo album for the label to explore the music of Britten. The recording features The Heart of the Matter, a song cycle for tenor, narrator, horn, and piano, performed with renowned actor Alan Cumming, Jennifer Montone (principal horn of The Philadelphia Orchestra) and Myra Huang. Still Falls the Rain also includes A Birthday Hansel, Op. 92; Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, Op. 89; Folksong Arrangements for voice and harp, with Sivan Magen; and Folksong Arrangements for voice and piano, including “Greensleeves” and “The Holly and the Ivy.” BBC Music raved about the new recording, noting: “Having scaled the heights of Britten’s song-cycle masterpieces, including a sun-kissed account of the Michelangelo Sonnets, tenor Nicholas Phan moves into rarer territory in his second disc for Avie…Phan’s first, swelling note immediately establishes his refinement and steel, rare among Britten’s recent tenors.” Critic David Nice concludes his review with a simple request: “More please!”
The tenor’s previous Britten release – his debut solo recording, Winter Words – proved a breakthrough project, making many “Best of 2011” lists, including those of the New York TimesNew YorkerTime Out New YorkBoston Globe, and Toronto Star. Celebrating his achievements, NPR named Phan one of their Favorite Artists of 2011.
Phan discusses Britten’s music with Gramophone’s Editor-in-Chief, James Jolly, in a podcast available here.
Performances with Major American Orchestras
Phan’s February concerts with The Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos – and his debut in April with the Cleveland Orchestra and its Music Director, Franz Welser-Möst – both feature Phan singing the treacherously high “Olim lacus colueram,” the sole tenor aria in Orff’s Carmina Burana. Reviewing Phan’s performance with the New York Philharmonic last spring, Opera News observed, “Tenor Nicholas Phan nearly stole the show with his poised, ironic portrayal of the swan roasting on a spit.”
Phan returns for the second consecutive season to the New York Philharmonic in March, this time singing music by Bach and Mendelssohn as part of the orchestra’s Bach Variations Festival. For this program of Magnificat settings by Bach and Mendelssohn – and the latter composer’s unfinished oratorio, Christus Phan will sing for the first time with guest conductor and celebrated Bach authority Masaaki Suzuki.
In April performances with the San Francisco Symphony directed by Bernard Labadie, Phan is the tenor soloist in Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day – so named in honor of the Patron Saint of Music. Composed in 1739 to a text by English poet John Dryden, this choral work – by turns joyous, ebullient and sublime – celebrates music as nothing less than a central force in the creation of the world, raising (and answering) the question, “What passion cannot Music raise and quell?”
The Connecticut-born, Michigan-raised Phan documents his journey as a musician in his blog, The tenor explains its name: “I sing. I travel. I am half Greek and half Chinese – thus the blog’s name, a combination of the two nationalities in French.”
Additional information about Nicholas Phan, including a complete biography, is available at the artist’s website:
Nicholas Phan: upcoming engagements
Feb 2
Boston, MA
Boston University Marsh Chapel
Marsh Chapel Collegium/Scott Allen Jarrett
Britten: Nocturne
Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings
Feb 14-16
Philadelphia, PA
Kimmel Center
The Philadelphia Orchestra / Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Orff: Carmina Burana
Feb 22-23
Birmingham, AL
Alys Stephens Center
Alabama Symphony Orchestra / Justin Brown
Britten: Les Illuminations
March 6-9
New York, NY
Avery Fisher Hall
New York Philharmonic / Masaaki Suzuki
Bach: Magnificat
Mendelssohn: Magnificat
March 12
Albany, NY
Cathedral of All Saints
Cathedral of All Saints Orchestra and Choir/Woodrow Bynum
Mozart: Requiem
March 24
Washington, DC
Washington National Cathedral
National Cathedral Orchestra / Michael McCarthy
Bach: St. John Passion
March 27-28
Lucerne, Switzerland
KKL Luzern Konzertsaal
Lucerne Symphony Orchestra / James Gaffigan
Bach: Mass in B minor
April 5-6
San Francisco, CA
Davies Symphony Hall
San Francisco Symphony / Bernard Labadie
Handel: Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day
April 11-14
Cleveland, OH – DEBUT
Severance Hall           
Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst
Orff: Carmina Burana
May 10, 12, 16, & 18
Portland, OR
Keller Auditorium
Portland Opera / George Manahan
Verdi: Falstaff
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©21C Media Group, January 2013

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