Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Nicholas Phan makes more fans at Celebrity Series

Tenor Nicholas Phan: a millennial Michael Fierstein?
From the moment he takes the stage, tenor Nicholas Phan (at left) seems to straddle two contrasting worlds of vocal performance.

For there's something casual as well as classic about him - his boyish good looks and bedroom eyes (the kind that whisper I'm singing this song just for you), inevitably tilt his performance toward the speakeasy rather than the salon. Indeed, if Phan leaned against the piano ever so slightly - or loosened his tie just a bit - you'd half-expect him to launch into  an American standard rather than a German lieder. And during his Celebrity Series performance last week, I sometimes found myself wishing he'd croon something by Gershwin rather than Schubert, so easily does he mix that comforting cocktail of wit and sentiment perfected by the likes of Michael Fierstein.

Gershwin wasn't on the program, though; Schubert and Britten were. And honestly - is lieder only a cabaret, old chum? Well, Phan intermittently made a persuasive case that it is. Although he's still a young singer, and so sometimes coasts on his own charisma; his technique isn't fully mature, and there's still something unsettled about his upper register, which occasionally sounded hooded last Thursday.

But the core of his voice is exceptionally strong and well-suited to lieder - not, perhaps, kissed with sun, but built of supple maple, inlaid here and there with cherry. And his German is so well-dicted it's almost lyrical - he convinces you (as Schubert does) that Deutsch ist eine musikalische Sprache.

Whether Phan convinces you of the depth of some of these songs is another argument - he's certainly getting there, but as romantic experience doesn't seem at all fraught for him, some of his Schubert came off as superficial. The opening "Frühlingsglaube" ("In Spring") for instance, lacked  genuine vulnerability, and he glossed over the pain in "Der Musensohn" ("Son of the Muses") while missing entirely the rapturous death wish in "Ganymed." And when Phan accidentally skipped ahead in "Frühlingssehnsucht," this led to a self-deprecating chuckle, and a joke from the pianist (the coolly capable Myra Huang) that "Nobody would have known!" Maybe so - and the moment itself was charming; but it left a glib echo.

Phan did better when he had exterior (rather than interior) drama to work with. "Frühlingssehnsucht" eventually built to a satisfying emotional pitch, and the most ambitious piece of the set, "Viola," proved its strongest. This extended ode to a fallen flower is almost epically structured, and while it sounds a bit much on paper, Schubert's musical inspiration is unfailing, and Phan conjured a winning mix of poise and escalating intensity.

The tenor then turned to Benjamin Britten, with whose work he is closely associated - and it was immediately clear why. In Britten, desire should be mixed with distance, and sympathy with irony, so Phan's presence suddenly felt specifically tailored to the material; and there was an added resonance to this handsome gay man essaying these particular songs, which had their premiere with Britten on piano, while his lover, tenor Peter Pears, did the vocal honors.

It also helped that the song cycle in question, Winter Words, is so terrific (arguably one of Britten's finest). The texts are drawn from Thomas Hardy's volume of poems of the same name (and if you don't know Hardy's quirkily muscular verse, I encourage you to get acquainted with it), and these were clearly selected with subtle care to construct a thematic arc reflecting the composer's own obsessions: the evanescence of evil and innocence in a fallen world, and the strange place of music in our lives as both at the core of our experience and an eternal thing apart. Intriguingly, at the center of the cycle we find a wryly poignant ode to a choirmaster (perhaps a factotum for Britten himself?), who is sung to his final rest by a choir of shades.

Even here, however, I didn't agree with all of Phan's decisions ("Midnight on the Great Western," for instance, struck me as far too forceful), but the tenor's own presence hinted at the homoerotic allure of some of these poems, and his wryly phrased takes sounded just right for the lighter texts, while calmly restraining the pathos of the darker ones. Phan wrapped the program with several folk songs arranged (exquisitely) by Britten - this tenor is hardly a rustic, but then neither was this composer; at any rate the most moving of these proved the familiar "'Tis the last rose of summer," while the wittiest was the sly satire "The ploughboy."  The crowd - clearly all Phan fans by now - called the singer back for two encores, one from Schubert ("Die Taubenpost") and another from Britten ("Greensleeves"), this time to reversed artistic effect: the Schubert proved far more straightforward and cleanly expressed. Two virtues which seem to be the keys to Mr. Phan's considerable talent.

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