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Café Concert: Nicholas Phan

09.22.11
Nicholas Phan
WQXR

Video: Nicholas Phan performs live in the WQXR Café

The tenor Nicholas Phan says that he’s as American as dim sum and souvlaki.

A New Yorker with a Greek mother and Chinese father, Phan received an early career break as a contender in the 2003 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in Wales. The Olympic-style event is one of the major competitions for young singers, and Phan said he was surprised to arrive at his hotel to find an American flag flown outside in his honor.

“You’re suddenly very aware you’re a representative of your country,” said Phan [pronounced paan]. “I had never thought of myself as an American or what that meant at that point. It was really interesting time. It made me realize that America is a cultural melting pot.”

Phan grew up in Ann Arbor, MI, a culturally diverse college town, but as an artist, he has always viewed himself as something of an outsider. This outlook partly draws him to Benjamin Britten, a composer whose operas (Peter Grimes, Albert Herring) are populated by outsider characters. This month, Phan, along with pianist Myra Huang, has released a new album of Britten's songs.

“He is the greatest composer of English language setting since Purcell,” said Phan, 32. “To be able to sing something in English helps you be able to connect with an audience in a really direct way.”

The centerpiece of Phan’s album is Winter Words, Britten’s setting for tenor and piano of poems by Thomas Hardy. English scholars have often mined this cycle, which was an homage to Schubert’s Winterreise, for hidden meanings and rich layers of allusion.

Phan had an epiphany about the cycle five or six years ago when a pianist friend invited him to give a recital at a small university in rural Missouri. At first, the two musicians were hesitant about introducing this complex work, and they padded the rest of the program with easy-to-swallow pieces.

Bracing for lukewarm responses after the concert, “instead what happened was every person came up to usthat night could not stop talking about how moving the Britten was for them,” he said. Audience members said "how much they loved Winter Words and they kept pointing to all of these specific things that they loved. I was really touched by this audience response and it made me realize how powerful this music is.”

Phan’s recording also includes six of Britten’s folk song arrangements (two of which he sang in the WQXR Café) and the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo.

While Phan has yet to break into some of the top opera houses, his schedule for the fall includes major orchestra dates including the National Symphony in Washington DC, the Baltimore Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

He’ll also be writing his blog, "Grecchinois," its title an amalgamation of his multicultural heritage.