Nicholas Phan: An esoteric evening

Published 6:19 pm Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Nicholas Phan, tenor, and Myra Huang, piano, opened Tryon Concert Association’s 57th season Oct. 7 at Tryon Fine Arts Center with an elegant but largely monochromatic recital.
While there is no more suitable pairing of composers than Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten, both English and both obsessed with intrinsic setting of text, avoiding the sameness inherent in programming only two composers presents a challenge that requires vision and a vast vocal “toolkit.” Though Purcell and Britten lived some 250 years apart, their music has common ingredients that added to this large challenge.
The program opened with six Purcell love songs. Phan’s tenor voice is beautiful and accurate, his stage presence exemplary but the depth of feeling in each song was attempted mainly with demeanor. Phan maintained a polished control in both music and gesture that eliminated the risk of letting go. His high notes did not float out easily, but he was able to approximate that effect by backing off each note the same controlled way each time.
Although I fought the impression that was looming as I listened, I eventually succumbed to enjoying Phan’s lovely building blocks individually. At one point, I was actually seeing, in my mind’s eye, children’s alphabet blocks. Phan seemed to choose the same colored block for a soft high G no matter where that G appeared, which added to the program’s linear feel. Huang’s crispy piano sound was not well suited for the sparse figured bass accompaniment in the Purcell, and at times overpowered Phan’s light voice, but the two were sympatico in terms of phrasing and pacing.
Britten’s “Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo” juxtaposed with his eight songs in the set, “Winter Words” presented Phan’s greatest opportunities for drawing the audience into his esoteric program. In spite of Britten’s unmatched gift at setting text in an intuitive way, his music is wildly difficult with description, color and drama bolstered mightily, and often created, by the piano. Huang’s abilities were best appreciated in these two sets and were a fine match for Phan’s facility. I wished for a way to pronounce these two sets gripping, but I’ve settled on very good. Age and experience might have added the missing depth, which would have taken these pieces to a level worthy of Britten’s complexity.
The closing set was more accessible but did not change the perceived lack of variety emphasized by Phan’s beautiful-though-one-dimensional style. These five selections from Britten’s many folksong settings, as well as the folksong encore, elicited some nods of recognition from the audience, but by then the overall sameness of this courageous programming had taken its toll.

– Music review by Rita E. Landrum

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