Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Interview with Tenor Nick Phan About His New CD - Part 1

"Winter Words is the solo debut release by American tenor Nicholas Phan. The recording was made in the wake of a recital tour in 2010-11 which culminated in his Carnegie debut at Weill Hall. A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music and an alumnus of the Houston Grand Opera studio Nick has performed with the opera companies of Los Angeles and Seattle, symphony orchestras of Atlanta, St. Louis and San Francisco, and the Marlboro, Ravinia and Edinburgh Festivals, among others. He sang in Stravinsky’s Pulcinella with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez which was nominated for a Grammy Award." [Source]

Opera Fresh had an opportunity to ask Nick some questions about the recording and his personal thoughts on the composer Benjamin Britten. Here now is the first installment of a two-part interview. Be sure to check out a full biography of the tenor and a tracklisting for the CD after the jump. Part two of the interview will be published next week.

How did this project for your first solo recording come about and whose idea was it to go with Benjamin Britten for the repertoire?
I've been exploring Britten's music extensively over the past few years in recital programs, concerts with various orchestras, and my summers at the Marlboro Music Festival, and when Carnegie Hall presented me and Myra with the opportunity to have a debut recital in Weill Recital Hall last season, we both naturally drifted to Britten at first. Winter Words had become a favorite cycle of ours to program on recitals over the past few years, and that eventually led to us programming an entire recital of his music. We both collaborate on our programming, although it is definitely my fascination with Britten and his music that drew our programming towards him. As we rehearsed in preparation for the Carnegie recital, we realized that we both really wanted to record all of this music. Your first encounter with the composer was through orchestral music. What about the first vocal music you heard of Britten? My first encounter of Britten's vocal music was during my senior year at the University of Michigan. While I was looking for music to sing on my senior recital, I discovered a recording of his Purcell realizations, which then led me to his cycle, On This Island – I was drawn to it, because the first song sounds so Purcell-ian (Baroque music is my favorite music to listen to, if I had to choose a favorite). Also in that year, the University Chamber Choir performed Britten's Cantata Misericordium, which I also fell in love with at our first reading. Before that, I hadn't really listened to much of Britten's vocal music. Why does this composer resonate with you? He resonates with me for a lot of reasons, actually. Firstly, the heavy influences of Purcell on his vocal music were the initial draw because of my love of Purcell's music. Then there are the themes that resonate throughout his music: the plight of the outsider, the loss of innocence, pacifism, which are all themes that I am fascinate with. After I started to learn more about who he was and his life story, the fact that he was a gay man living pretty much openly in a relationship with Peter Pears made him even more of an idol for me. During that last year at U-Mich, I started to read more about him, including a lot of his correspondence with Pears. I was fascinated by how completely entwined their lives were – their relationship was the spark that created not only the some of the greatest repertoire for the tenor voice from the last century, but also some of the greatest music and opera of the last century. It was a complete union of souls – both personally and artistically. I find that fascinating.
How did these works grow for you musically or emotionally when you toured? Taking the music out in front of audiences always changes things – you find more nuance and new levels of details when you put it out in front of people. it's like when you prepare a speech and then finally take it out into public. It changes things when you are actually talking TO people as opposed to yourself. Performance of this particular material really drove home how emotionally powerful this music is. I write a bit about this in the liner notes, but it was my first performance of Winter Words in a small, midwestern town that made me realize that this music is really meant to touch everyone. As academic as it looks with all of Britten's copious and detailed markings on the page, this music is meant to be performed and experienced. It's meant to move people. What was it about Thomas Hardy's poetry that English composers like Britten, Finzi and Holst, felt compelled to set it to music? While Hardy's poetry is quite musical both in terms or theme ('The Choirmaster's Burial' and 'At the Railstation, Upway' for instance) and in his evocation of sound ('The Little Old Table', for example), I think it's also the thematic material that drew Britten to his poetry. There are these juxtapositions in Hardy's poetry of innocence versus experience, which provides the central theme to Winter Words. This theme was one that was central to much of Britten's work. Pieces like Winter Words, his second Canticle (about the Abraham and Isaac story), and Turn of the Screw are just some of his works that explore this theme in some form or another.

Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres was published posthumously in 1928, the year Thomas Hardy died. In some ways, does Britten's composition "memorialize" the poet? In the sense that Britten chose to set his poetry after Hardy's death, yes, it does. But I think that the Winter Words goes much further, using Hardy's poetry to create a a meditation on a theme that is universally experienced by any human.

Did you read the poetry first or play through Britten's music for this disc?
I read the music first – as important as I think text is to the singer's art, I was a violinist first as a musician. As a result, it's always, always the music that draws me to a piece or a composer first and foremost.

What went into the studying the historical context of the poetry for the recording?
I did a lot of research with regards to Michelangelo's poetry. His poetry was quite difficult for me to understand without the historical and biographical context in which it was written. Michelangelo used poetry as a means of meditating on the events of his life. Without knowing what was going on, I felt that I was missing a certain level of understanding and comprehension.

Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 – 76)
Winter Words, Op. 52
1. At day-close in November (1:45)
2. Midnight on the Great Western (or “The Journeying Boy”) (4:50)
3. Wagtail and Baby (A Satire) (2:13)
4. The Little Old Table (1:28)
5. The Choirmaster’s Burial (or “The Tenor Man’s Story”) (4:17)
6. Proud Songsters (Thrushes, Finches, and Nightingales) (1:08)
7. At the Railway Station, Upway (or “The Convict and Boy with the Violin”) (2:53)
8. Before Life and After (3:12)
9. Come you not from Newcastle? (1:18)
10. Little Sir William (2:52)
11. The Salley Gardens (2:50)

Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op. 22
12. Sonnetto XVI Sì come nella penna e nell¹inchiostro (2:14)
13. Sonnetto XXXI A che più debb¹io mai l¹intensa voglia (1:33)
14. Sonnetto XXX Veggio co¹bei vostri occhi un dolci lume (3:56)
15. Sonnetto LV Tu sa¹ ch¹io so, signor mie, che tu sai (2:00)
16. Sonnetto XXXVII Rendete a gli occhi miei (1:52)
17. Sonnetto XXXII S¹un casto amor, s¹una pietà superna (1:23)
18. Sonnetto XXIV Spirto ben nato, in cui si specchia e vede (4:45)

19. The Ash Grove (3:21)
20. Last Rose of Summer (4:28)
21. The Plough boy (1:26)
Total time: 55:51

Recorded 13 April 2009 (tracks 1-8) and 24 June 2010 (tracks 9-21), Bicoastal Music,
Ossining, NY, USA
Producer, engineer and editing: Marlan Barry

American Nicholas Phan continues to distinguish himself as one of the most compelling young tenors appearing on the prestigious concert and opera stages of the world. 

Mr. Phan begins the 2011 – 2012 season with performances of Lurcanio in Handel’s Ariodante with Alan Curtis and his acclaimed orchestra, Il Complesso Barocco, in Turin and Bucharest, followed by his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for Mozart’s Requiem.  Other highlights of the season include performances with the New York Philharmonic, the Baltimore Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony, and the National Symphony Orchestra; a further concert tour of Ariodante, including stops at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Theater an der Wien in Vienna, and the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid; a solo recital on the prestigious Philadelphia Chamber Music Society series; and a return to the Atlanta Opera for Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. He will also return twice to Carnegie Hall this season – for Bach’s Magnificat with Robert Spano and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and again for Bach’s St. John Passion with Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy.

Mr. Phan has appeared with many of the leading orchestras in the United States and Great Britain, including the BBC Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has also appeared with the Edinburgh, Ravinia, Rheingau, Saint-Denis, Bard and Marlboro music festivals, and at the BBC Proms.  Among the conductors he has worked with are Harry Bicket, Pierre Boulez, James Conlon, Jane Glover, Manfred Honeck, Nicholas McGegan, Zubin Mehta, John Nelson, Helmuth Rilling, David Robertson, Patrick Summers, and Michael Tilson Thomas. In recital, he has been presented by Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and the University of Chicago.

An avid proponent of vocal chamber music, he has collaborated with pianists Mitsuko Uchida, Richard Goode, Cecile Licad, and Principal Horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Jennifer Montone, among others.  He is also the Artistic Director of the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, a Chicago-based organization devoted to promoting the teaching, performance, and development of the vocal chamber music repertoire.

Also considered one of the rising young stars of the opera world, Mr. Phan recently made his debut with the Seattle Opera as Count Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia. Other recent opera performances have included his debuts at the Glyndebourne Opera and the Maggio Musicale in Florence, as well as appearances with the New York City Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, Chicago Opera Theater, Opéra de Lille, and Frankfurt Opera. His growing repertoire includes the title roles in Acis and Galatea and Candide, Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore, Fenton in Falstaff, Tamino in Die Zauberflöte, Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Don Polidoro in La finta semplice, and Lurcanio in Ariodante. 

Mr. Phan’s first solo album, Winter Words, was released in the fall of 2011 by AVIE. His growing discography includes the Grammy-nominated recording of Stravinksy’s Pulcinella with Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO Resound) and the world premiere recording of Evan Chambers’ orchestral song cycle, The Old Burying Ground (Dorian).

A graduate of the University of Michigan, Mr. Phan also studied at the Manhattan School of Music and the Aspen Music Festival and School, and is an alumnus of the Houston Grand Opera Studio and the Glimmerglass Opera Young American Artists Program. He was the recipient of a 2006 Sullivan Foundation Award and 2004 Richard F. Gold Career Grant from the Shoshana Foundation.

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