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.”
To his astonishment, after the recital virtually every audience member told him how beautiful and moving they’d found the Britten. It was all they could talk about. “I was really dumbfounded,” Phan said. “As an audience member, it’s kind of hard sometimes to digest something that’s really challenging on a first listen. But obviously, whatever [Britten] was onto, he was able to really communicate to an audience.”
Since that recital, Phan, 34, has become one of the public’s most visible and talented advocates for Britten’s vocal music, including dozens of concert performances and two superb all-Britten CDs. On Saturday he will join the Marsh Chapel Collegium at Boston University for two signature works for tenor and chamber orchestra: the Nocturne and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings.
BENJAMIN BRITTEN:100th Anniversary Festival, Marsh Chapel Collegium, Scott Allen Jarrett, conductor, Nicholas Phan, tenor
The Kirksville experience taught Phan an important lesson about underestimating listeners’ adventurousness, no matter where they are. “The thing I love about [Britten] is that he never underestimates the intelligence of his audience,” Phan said. “He always assumes the best in people, and I think there’s a great optimism in his writing — that he’s so willing to trust his sophisticated style in terms of imparting something deeply emotional and moving. It kind of hits you in a very primal way, even though it’s intellectually and technically very well composed. It’s a beautiful balance.”
Much of Phan’s attention is devoted to Britten these days, as 2013 is the centenary of the composer’s birth. He began exploring Britten in college, fascinated not only by the music but also by the composer’s longtime personal and creative relationship with tenor Peter Pears, for whom so many of his great vocal works were written. “There was something really romantic about the idea that these two people could fall in love and have this amazing creative output result from that,” he said. “There’s this great wealth of music that he was writing for his husband, basically.”
It wasn’t just the confluence of the personal and the artistic that caught Phan’s imagination; coming into his own as a young gay man, Phan felt as though he’d found role models as well.
“It was inspiring to see that such a thing was possible,” he explained. “[Britten and Pears] would never have considered themselves gay icons or gay heroes. They just lived their lives. They were very open about it, but they weren’t in your face about it or staunch gay rights activists. In a way I find great elegance and grace in the way in which they handled all of that.”
One discovery Phan made was the extent to which so much of Britten’s music was created for a network of friends and colleagues, Pears being the most obvious example. Two of those were the poet Edith Sitwell and horn player Dennis Brain. Britten set Sitwell’s poetry in the third of his Canticles, “Still Falls the Rain,” which contains an obbligato horn part written for Brain. Another muse was the harpist Osian Ellis, whose playing inspired the fifth Canticle, “The Death of Saint Narcissus.”
Those two pieces are among the Britten works on Phan’s most recent Britten recording, “Still Falls the Rain,” released in October on the Avie label. (His first CD, “Winter Words,” made several “best of 2011” lists.) Just as Britten’s closest colleagues had inspired the music, Phan found himself working with his own network of longtime friends on the recording, including pianist Myra Huang, horn player Jennifer Montone, and harpist Sivan Magen. (One piece includes a speaking part which is performed by actor Alan Cumming, perhaps best known for his work on the TV show “The Good Wife.”)
“I’m always fascinated by . . . the idea that nothing is really made in a vacuum,” said Phan. “Especially with musicians — we all kind of bounce things off each other and then somehow, only by living in this musical community, do we create really amazing things, because we each inspire each other in some way.”
Asked what makes a great Britten singer, Phan returned again to Britten’s primary muse. Pears, he said, was both a lieder singer of elegance and sensitivity and an opera singer capable of inhabiting so powerful a role as the title character of Britten’s “Peter Grimes.”
“What’s required is being able to be a bit of a Gemini about it,” Phan said. “Be able to have those two sides to yourself, and go back and forth between them with ease. Which is pretty challenging.”