Tenor Nicholas Phan sings Franz Schubert’s “Schone Mullerin” (Beautiful Milleress), the first ever vocal recital of its kind, at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton on Friday and Saturday, February 1 and 2. Phan describes the work as “the most important work in the vocal recital repertoire and labels the pieces “moving and a pinnacle of their genre.”
Phan’s accompanist is Myra Huang, his most regular recital partner. The two met in 2001, and Huang played for Phan’s Manhattan debut about a decade later. He enhanced the risks of a debut recital by selecting works tied to Benjamin Britten, one of the anchors of 20th-century British music.
Phan and Huang’s February recitals are next to the last of the 2018-’19 events curated by IAS artist-in-residence David Lang, who ends this season with concerts Friday and Saturday, March 8 and 9, featuring actor Paul Lazar and Sandbox Percussion with work by John Cage. Lang, who is concluding his first term as artist-in-residence, made his mark by devising programs that illustrated ways in which patterns form a basis for larger musical structures.
Lang unearthed the patterns in “Die Schone Mullerin” by his close examination of the 20 poems by Wilhelm Muller for which Schubert composed musical settings.
The Schubert work commands both piano and orchestral versions. In Princeton Phan performs with piano. However, he premiered the orchestral version in November, 2018, in Houston. He considers sampling both “a good experiment.”
“You have to think in bigger gestures with the orchestral version,” he says, “and move away from the intimate details. The advantage of the orchestral setting is that it gives you more room and a wider dynamic range. The advantage of the piano setting is that you’re closer and see a greater choice of possibilities; it’s more flexible and intimate.”
Finally, Phan concludes, the piano version is both “simple” and “more special.”
Schubert is only one of the elements within Phan’s musical horizon. His repertoire begins with Monteverdi in the baroque period, passes through standard repertoire, and culminates in contemporary music. He claims no favorite period.
“I have such a wide range,” Phan says, “because my mind and heart are curious. Everything I encounter informs everything else. I can’t imagine it any other way. I would be bored if I was doing one or two things all the time. I love bouncing between periods. They influence each other. Each time I encounter something new, it enhances the old.”
A devotee of yoga, Phan has immersed himself in various yoga styles for more than a decade. “I use yoga breathing and meditation techniques to deal with the pressures and challenges of live performance,” he says. “I find that the way yoga focuses on the breath is parallel to the way singing focuses on the breath. For me yoga is a way of coping with the demands of performing.”
Phan made his breakthrough performance at Carnegie Hall in 2009 on three hours’ notice, filling in for a sick colleague scheduled to appear in Franz Josef Haydn’s “Creation” in German with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Looking back on the event, he says, “I wasn’t really concentrating on the challenges involved. I didn’t have time to think beforehand. It didn’t really dawn on me how risky it was. There was no time to worry. I had 30 seconds of panic on stage. But it was one of my best stage experiences. In fact, I consider it my most dramatic appearance on stage.”
The following year he founded the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago (CAIC). Struck by the decline in audiences, Phan aimed to rebuild attendance using innovative programming as the main bait. His goal was to make Chicago a center for vocal chamber music. Word of mouth and normal publicity efforts helped turned things around. Ticket sales surged from 35 in 2012 to the full capacity of several hundred.
Phan is currently a member of the DePaul University School of Music in Chicago.
Born in 1979 in Connecticut, Phan comes from a mixed ethnic heritage. His mother’s background is Greek. His father is of Chinese and Indonesian background. Singer Nicholas pays homage to both ethnicities by naming his blog “Grecchinois.” He grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Both of his parents were passionate music lovers — concertgoers with a large record collection. Nicholas’ younger brother loves music but is not a performer. His field is software for the hospitality industry.
Nicholas attended Greek classes from ages five to 14 and can read Greek. His spoken languages include French, Italian, and German.
As a child Phan’s principal instrument was violin. Musically gifted, he also explored viola and viola da gamba from the time he was four. His vocal studies began when he was 16.
“I was bitten by the drama bug in high school,” he says. “I discovered that I had a voice in high school musicals. My first high school gig was a production of ‘The Music Man.’ That started my transition away from violin and viola to singing. I continued to play the instruments in high school, but once I hit college, my focus shifted to singing.”
As an established performing vocalist, Phan now says, “The only time it all consistently makes sense is when I sing.”
Phan studied voice at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater, and Dance in Ann Arbor. “The University of Michigan was one of the best vocal training grounds in the country,” he says. He points out that Wagnerian soprano Jessye Norman studied at Michigan’s Ann Arbor. “Ann Arbor had incredible opportunities,” he says. “I worked with Martin Katz and Rosemary Russell.”
“One of the advantages of Ann Arbor was its phenomenal classical music performances,” Phan adds. He goes on to list four performances that linger in his memory: a performance of Georg Frideric Handel’s “Messiah”; violinist Midori’s performance of an unnamed concerto; Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto played by Yo Yo Ma and New York’s Orchestra of St. Luke’s; and an unnamed piece by mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli.
After his apprenticeship in Michigan, Phan studied voice at New York’s Manhattan School of Music and made his professional debut while still at Manhattan. He is an alumnus of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, a selective training program open to eight to 12 young professionals each year who receive a stipend of more than $30,000 annually. He has also participated in Vermont’s elite Marlboro Music School.
Phan, a San Francisco resident, describes himself as “an openly proud gay man since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s; and an outspoken advocate for gay rights.”
Phan’s vocal world is available to the public on YouTube, where he shares his musicality with anyone who makes the connection. The site conveys his energy and emotion as well as the intimacy his vocalism embodies. Remarkably, it communicates a sense that huge reserves are the foundation of his vocal achievements. Moreover, he gives the impression electronically that his performance aims at the single listener who has tracked him down.
Nicholas Phan, Edward T. Cone Concert Series, Wolfensohn Hall, Institute for Advanced Study, 1 Einstein Drive, Princeton. Friday and Saturday, February 1 and 2, 8 p.m. Free but reservations required. www.ias.edu/air