Nicholas Phan’s Britten recital finds its footing at Mandel Hall

Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 2:13 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Nicholas Phan performed music of Britten and Schubert Friday night at Mandel Hall.
Nicholas Phan performed music of Britten and Schubert Friday night at Mandel Hall.

Tenor Nicholas Phan was back onstage in Chicago Friday night, finishing up his fall whirlwind celebrating the centennial of Benjamin Britten’s birth.

In early September he performed Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings at Ravinia with the Knights chamber ensemble. A week later in downtown Chicago he participated in two recitals focusing on Britten, part of the annual Collaborative Works Festival he has been involved with since 2010.  And Friday night in Mandel Hall in a concert called “A Salon Evening with Nicholas Phan,’’ he performed works by Britten and Schubert with pianist Myra Huang, harpist Sivan Magen and hornist Gail Williams.

The atmosphere at the University of Chicago Presents event was as close to a relaxed musical salon as possible in a proscenium theater with more than 900 seats. A Michigan native and alumni of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, the 34-year-old Phan obviously feels at home in front of Chicago audiences. His commentary between sets of songs by Britten and Schubert and Britten’s Canticles V and III was lively and informed. He has clearly studied Britten’s life and music very closely. There was an easy rapport between him and his gifted colleagues.

During the concert’s first half, however, especially in two sets of songs chosen from Britten’s myriad arrangements of English folk tunes, Phan often sounded affected. He seemed to be overselling each song, exaggerating its dramatic peaks and valleys. His tenor is flexible and sweet-toned with an attractive, dark hue. But he punched out loud notes and often allowed final quiet phrases or high, hushed notes to simply disappear. Like watching a revolving high-intensity beacon, we were alternately blinded by bright light and left in darkness.

Elsewhere in the first half, however, Phan found firmer footing. Britten’s Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, Op. 89, is a deeply strange work. Set to a text by T. S. Eliot that fuses images of the doomed Narcissus and the Christian martyr St. Sebastian, Britten’s music brims with brooding harmonies and an almost ecstatic undercurrent of violence.  Punctuated by Magen’s fierce, austere harp, Phan’s vocal line was mesmerizing, shifting from raptly expressive lyricism to aggressive half-speech.

The recital’s first half closed with a beautifully spun Auf dem Strom by Schubert, enhanced by Williams’ mellow horn and Huang’s serenely rippling piano.

After intermission, Phan settled more easily into Britten’s folk songs, all accompanied by harp. Lord! I married me a wife was full of comic desperation while Bonny at Morn proceeded eloquently from innocence to something more unsettled.

Three Schubert songs about spring (Fruhlingsglaube, Im Fruhling and Der Musensohn) were subtly shaded, with high, open notes that floated easily above Huang’s piano.

Britten’s Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain, Op. 55, for tenor, horn and piano, was hair-raising. An outcry by Dame Edith Sitwell about the Nazi bombing of London in World War II, its text combines accusation and hallucination. At times, Phan’s singing took on the weight of ancient chant, its otherworldly aura aided by the sustained, ominous notes of William’s horn and Huang’s gnarly piano chords.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment