Acclaimed tenor and artistic director for the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago Nicholas Phan (photo courtesy of FaceCollective).
By Fred Cummings
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
From the Summer 2016 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
One would think that performing in some of the world’s most prestigious concert arenas and music festivals just as a matter of course would be enough for any young tenor. But for Nicholas Phan, singing with the world’s greatest orchestras and working with leading conductors is his idea of just getting started. For Phan, passion for vocal music repertoire runs so deep that he and a few equally passionate artists decided to helm an arts education initiative aimed at attacking the dwindling list of vocal series on the crowded concert landscape.
How does he do it? I scarcely can say. Even after having had an opportunity to throw a few questions at the artist and administrator, I’m still convinced he must have a twin somewhere. But even if he does, they both have to be some pretty driven guys. And at the rate he’s going, Phan’s passion for art song just may take Chicago to a renaissance for the art form some day very soon.
Q: In the midst of an already prolific career as a young concert and operatic tenor, you have done what few others in your position would. You’ve chosen to artistically helm a genre-specific educational and performing arts initiative that, in and of itself, is blazing trails in the promulgation of that genre: art song and chamber vocal music.
With a demanding performance schedule and so early on in an already celebrated career, what was the impetus for launching into the all-consuming role of artistic director for an initiative like the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago (CAIC)?
A: The primary impetus for taking on this role and co-founding CAIC was mainly that, as a singer who is devoted to the art of song and the song recital, I noticed that there are fewer and fewer platforms for the art form. There are only a handful of classical music presenting series around the country that are committed to presenting vocal recitals. In fact, a few years ago, when I performed Schumann’s Dichterliebe with pianist Jeremy Denk at Orchestra Hall as part of the Chicago Symphony’s "Keys to the City" festival, I was told by someone backstage that it was perhaps the first time that a song cycle had been performed in its entirety on that stage (a stage that used to present vocal recitals somewhat regularly) in almost a decade.
The reasons for this trend are many, but it all basically comes down to the fact that audiences for the vocal recital repertoire have been dwindling, and presenters worry that vocal recitals won’t sell. We formed CAIC in an effort to counteract that trend and attack the issue from two sides: to try to build both audiences as well as performers for this repertoire...I think I speak for both my co-founders (pianists Shannon McGinnis and Nicholas Hutchinson) when I say that we are incredibly proud of how quickly our audiences have grown (last year’s Collaborative Works Festival played to rooms almost filled to capacity) as well as the incredibly high level of performance of art song we’ve been able to provide for Chicago audiences in the very short time we’ve been around…
Q: With performances in prestigious music festivals and residencies with symphony orchestras from San Francisco to Chicago to New York, how do you juggle the demands of a hectic concert schedule and expanding the artistic scope of a growing arts education institute?
A: It involves a lot of phone calls and emails…and careful time-management! Also, none of this would be possible if it weren’t for my amazing co-founders and colleagues…as well as our phenomenally active and devoted Board members and army of volunteers.
Q: There's a real intimacy that is very present in the beauty of art song, and it goes well beyond the salon setting. How does a young artist begin to develop the communicative forces that impart that level of intimacy, or is that one of those things that can scarcely be taught?
A: I strongly believe that developing the ability to create the kind of intimacy and vulnerability that is required for a performance of art song is very much something that can be both taught and learned. In fact, this is why I think it is so important for classical singers to spend time with art song—it only enhances a singer’s ability to communicate and express and will only make one’s operatic work that much more moving and compelling…
Q: What kind of impact have you seen in the growth of the young musicians with whom CAIC artists and coaches have worked?
A: I think that the main things we strive for when working with young musicians is to encourage them to think for themselves and to be constantly digging for deeper and deeper layers of meaning and expression. Chamber music and art song are the only realms in which musicians are required to think for themselves—there is no conductor or director telling you what to do. You have to be your own artist, and I think that this is one of the greatest values of studying this repertoire as a musician.
Q: Of all the programming and initiatives coming out of CAIC, I believe the annual Collaborative Works Festival shines the brightest light in the city on the beauty of art song and vocal chamber works. Tell me about the breadth of this year’s festival and what audiences can expect?
A: The Collaborative Works Festival is indeed the jewel in the crown of CAIC’s programs, and this year’s festival is a very exciting one. This year, rather than explore the work and influence of a composer, we will be exploring the influence of a poet. The poet is the French poet Paul Verlaine, whose poetry has been set by a myriad of composers and who lived a rather colorful and exciting life. The festival will feature many works by Claude Debussy, Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré...Featured festival artists in addition to myself will include the rising star soprano, Sarah Shafer, who has been recently singing leading roles at the San Francisco Opera and Opera Company of Philadelphia in addition to having performed regularly at the Marlboro Music Festival; and Grammy-award winning mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor will return to the festival after having been an integral part of our 2014 Collaborative Works Festival, which explored the works of Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms...
Also, with each Collaborative Works Festival, CAIC aims to ensure that central Chicago has at least one high profile, traditional solo vocal recital. This year is no exception, and CAIC is excited to present 2016 Beverly Sills Award winner Ailyn Peréz as the festival solo recitalist. Her recital partner will be pianist and Ryan Opera Center's music director, Craig Terry, who will also lead the annual festival master class.
Q: I’ve noticed the personal affinity you have with the role of Evangelist in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Your performed it here with the Chicago Bach Project in their first year, and your recording of the work with Ensemble Orchestral de Paris was well lauded. Tell me about your relationship with this role and how it has evolved since you first performed it professionally.
A: I’ve actually developed an affinity for both Evangelists: the St. John and the St. Matthew. I think, as with all of Bach’s music...relationships with these roles continue to evolve over a lifetime, and I feel very privileged to have spent so much time with them over the course of my career, so far. The main thing with both Evangelists is that they are incredibly difficult to learn. The first few performances I did of them were very stressful, because they are such demanding roles, so it’s felt wonderful to grow more and more comfortable with them over the years. Now, they are among my favorite roles to perform.
It’s incredibly naked vocal writing, as the musical means Bach uses in order to communicate the story are very spare and unbelievably efficient. There is a reason for every note Bach writes in those recitatives, and it’s really gratifying to come back to these roles year after year and keep discovering new layers. I’m particularly grateful for the large amount of time I’ve had to work on these roles with the conductors Helmuth Rilling and John Nelson, both of whom have spent a lifetime devoted to studying Bach’s music and these pieces—they’ve been key to understanding the nuances of these works.