Nicholas Phan dates his serious engagement with Benjamin Britten’s music to a recital he gave seven or eight years ago. It took place at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., where a friend was on the faculty. She encouraged Phan, a tenor, to sing Britten’s “Winter Words,” a song cycle on poems by Thomas Hardy.
Phan was enthralled with the piece — a stark, powerful meditation on the threat to, and eventual loss of, innocence — but worried about how it would go over with the audience. So they “programmed around” the Britten, surrounding it with lighter fare so that listeners would get what Phan, in a recent phone interview, called “their medicine with a spoonful of sugar.”