Saturday, January 14, 2017

Gods & Monsters Release


Gods & Monsters, my latest album with pianist Myra Huang was released this weekend.  This record - mine and Myra's third together - is the realization of a long time dream of Myra's and mine to delve seriously into the realm of German Lieder.  There are so many people to thank for helping usher this album to it's release, including Melanne Mueller, Steve Winn and all of the amazing team at Avie Records, our fellow executive producer Philip Wilder, the album's incredible producer and engineer Marlan Barry, and of course - Myra, who was such an inspirational and energetic force throughout the entire process, especially the sessions themselves, which were great fun.  Also, of course, none of this would be possible without the army of generous souls who's contributions have underwritten this labor of love - we truly can't thank you enough for generosity and support.

If you're interested in purchasing a copy or even just checking it out on Spotify, all the links and info you would need to do so are HERE



Saturday, December 31, 2016

Cusp 16 / 17

As we collectively consider the shadow of the past year while we cross over into 2017 this evening, what I have heard with even more vehemence than in previous years is basically a chorus of variations on the theme of "F**ck off, 2016!"  To be honest, like many people I hear singing that particular song, I am quite happy to put this year behind me, and I'm very tempted to join in the chorus of frustration much of the time.

Yet, while so many extraordinary horrible things have happened this year, so many extraordinarily wonderful things have happened this year, too.  I've experienced some extraordinary highs, particularly musically, this year, and I've felt inspired by those moments to take bigger and bigger leaps forward.  From my perspective, 2016 has mostly felt like a year of transition - political transitions, personal transitions, vocal transitions...you name it.  Some of these transitions have been welcome and some very unwelcome, but at the end of the day all transitions involve some sort of growing pains, both big and small.  Regardless of how uncomfortable or upsetting each of those shifts have felt over the past year, I am excited about 2017 as a new chapter, a clean slate - one in which we can regain our sense of hope, positivity and progressive momentum.

Looking forward, 2017 will hopefully be a galvanizing time on all fronts.  A time to settle into these new places into which we have transitioned, where we can hopefully find a bit of unity and acceptance.  As I've said before, I feel that as artists it is our responsibility to bring communities together, which is of more importance than ever in these turbulent times in which we live.  The turn of the year represents an opportunity to find the grace to begin again, to recommit to our work, which is so much about encouraging people to reflect, to think, to be mindful, to nurture compassion within themselves and to listen.

Rather than ruminate too long on all of this, I'd prefer to circle back to the idea of shadows and share this little song by Ned Rorem instead.  Considering Whitman's poem in the context of our current times, I think that there is something to think about in his words as we look at the long and dark shadow cast by our collective actions as a human race in 2016. As tempting as it is to throw around blame, only focusing our sights upon divisions and difference, we must ultimately accept and take ownership of the shadow we cast, acknowledging the part we play in shaping the reality in which we choose to live and that our shadows are parts of our selves.  



recorded LIVE at SF Performances Salons at the Rex, January 28, 2016
Ned Rorem: That Shadow, My Likeness 
TEXT (Walt Whitman)
That shadow, my likeness, that goes to and fro, seeking a livelihood, chattering, chaffering; 
How often I find myself standing and looking at it where it flits; 
How often I question and doubt whether that is really me; 
—But...among my lovers, and caroling my songs, 
O I never doubt whether that is really me. 
I hope everyone has a fun and safe time celebrating the New Year tonight, and to those who have already crossed the threshold in their respective time zones - Happy New Year to you.  May it be filled with peace, happiness, health and success for us all.
  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Peace, Goodwill


It's Christmas Eve morning here in Japan, and reading the morning news of calls for an arms race, tensions rising over Israel/Palestine resolutions at the UN, as well as updates about any of the myriad of other horrors reported this past week has not contributed to my sense of Holiday Spirit.  Waking up and reading the morning news each day this month has been heartbreaking - reading of our world that is so sharply divided and deep in conflict in every corner has been a stark contrast with the Messiahs I've been traveling around performing these past few weeks.

As the tenor soloist in a performance of Messiah, I have the distinct privilege of kicking off the piece with one of its most beautiful moments, an accompanied recitative: "Comfort Ye, my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplish'd, that her iniquity is pardoned."  Handel's setting of this text is stunningly beautiful in its simplicity and nakedness.  The beautiful E major harmony of the opening is warm and welcoming - the simple flowing eighth note accompaniment figures in the strings are almost like rays of peace and light, upon which the tenor line, floating above with clarion melodic figures, announces a new era of peace and enlightenment.  This leads into the exultant opening aria, which proclaims that every valley shall be exalted and every mountain made low, the rough places plain and the crooked straight.  It's one of the greatest beginnings in all of western classical music.

Under normal circumstances, I can't help but smile as I hear the opening E major chords of 'Comfort Ye', yet (as everyone on the American Left wisely keeps imploring us all to remember) these are not normal times.  They are extraordinary ones: so much so that the dictionary Merriam-Webster's word of the year for 2016 is 'surreal'.  This year, I feel a great sense of urgency and pleading in my heart as I sing these opening lines of Messiah.  My inner subtext wants to be: "enough with the battle cries - can't we all just get along?"  "Comfort Ye" wants to mean "Calm the F**k Down."  I feel heartbroken when I sing "that her warfare is accomplish'd,", as it seems that no one's warfare is accomplished - it only seems to be escalating along with everyone's temper and intolerance.

I have one more performance of Messiah here in Japan tomorrow afternoon, as well as a Gala Christmas concert this evening before my work is done for the year.  As I round out this final chapter of work for 2016, I want to wish everyone the happiest of holidays.  This year, I don't just wish - I implore this traditional seasonal greeting: Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards All.


Messiah filmed LIVE at Trinity Wall Street last year (December 26, 2015)




Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Protest and Dialogue

The other day, my beloved hometown orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, announced that it will be the latest in a long string of performers canceling their upcoming concerts in Chapel Hill, North Carolina as a protest to the state's anti-LGBT law, HB2.  It's been interesting to see the various reactions amongst my colleagues and musical friends to this decision this week.  While there have been many praising the SFS for their decision to take a stand against this horribly discriminatory law, there have also been many who are disappointed that the orchestra will not travel to Chapel Hill and feel that the decision is tantamount to sealing off the liberal bubble that the Bay Area can be at times at the expense of maintaining a dialogue through cultural exchange.

While I can appreciate both points of view, I must say that I am heartened, at a basic level, to see the SFS take a stand against bigotry and to engage in the general protest against what is basically government-sanctioned discrimination that is much wider-reaching and far more disturbing than specifying which bathroom people are to use, which the current reductive nicknames for the state law seem to imply.  I count myself lucky to be a part of a community of colleagues who understand the social responsibilities that come with our work and our public profile, and who understand the importance of saying no to bigotry, hate and discrimination in this great country. For that reason alone, I will feel extra pride when I appear with them for my 9th and 10th sets of performances with the orchestra this coming February and June.

That said, I have my own performances scheduled in North Carolina coming up on April 7 & 8, right at the same time as the concerts that the SF Symphony just canceled.  I am scheduled to perform Britten's War Requiem with the North Carolina Symphony on those days, and I will definitely be performing those concerts.

The current political and cultural discourse since the US presidential election in our own country seems increasingly more and more sharply divided, with people on both sides shouting more and more loudly into their respective echo chambers, and parties on every side seemingly both less empowered to and capable of hearing other points of view.  Specifically in North Carolina, things are so divided that only a handful of votes determined the outcome of the state's Gubernatorial election this year.  Tie that in with the atrocities being reported from Aleppo, reports of Russia's successful efforts to influence the US presidential election through cyber attacks and hacking, as well as the recent reports of China flying nuclear-capable bombers around the South China Sea to demonstrate their displeasure with the US President-elect's brazen foreign policy moves, and the times seem incredibly appropriate for a performance of the War Requiem.

The piece is the pinnacle of Britten's pacifist expressions, and it is chilling - particularly at the end, in which he juxtaposes the traditional In paradisum section of the requiem mass with an eerily unsettling setting of Wilfred Owen's poem, Strange Meeting, which depicts the meeting in Hell of two soldiers who have killed each other.  Just after one of the dead soldiers says to the other, "I am the enemy you killed, my friend...", Britten overlaps the In paradisum text, which is a prayer for angels to lead the dead into paradise where they can enjoy eternal rest, with the very end of Owen's poem. While the overarching effect of Britten's musical setting as it reaches its climax is hopeful, transcendent and ethereal, implying that paradise is eventually reached - it is a powerful ending that is tinged with a slight sense of both uncertainty and warning.


I am looking forward to April - it will be a privilege to perform this amazing piece, written by a pacifist and humanist who was a gay pioneer.  Its message is tragically timeless, and as the world seemingly spins more and more out of control with each passing day, it feels increasingly imperative to perform it. Not just as a prayer for peace in extraordinarily troubled times, but also as way to insert a different, more healing and unifying set of voices into the cultural and political dialogue.  Hopefully, our own disparate and divided voices will not just find unity in Hell, like Owen's ill-fated soldiers, but perhaps beforehand while we are all still living on this beautiful Earth, as well. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

I Argue You Thee That Love Is Life

One of the most insightful and wise people I know, as he encouraged me to follow my dreams to make recordings, once told me that rather than thinking of recordings as definitive documents of an interpretation of a piece, I should regard them as snapshots in time.  To think of them as a freeze frame of an artist in a particular moment.  When viewed this way, it alleviates one of the feeling of pressure to make the absolute and to create perfection.  It frees one up to hear a recording as one would look at a picture of oneself from many years past.  We see the beauty and innocence (and sometimes folly) of youth.  We see how we are still the same person, yet evolved and changed.

Sifting through the selection of videos of American songs recorded live at a salon performance presented by San Francisco Performances at the Hotel Rex in January of this year, I find myself looking at all of these songs through a slightly altered lens after the events of this past week.  I had originally planned these programs as part of an expression of patriotism and love of country as we walked through a transition to what we all naively thought would be a giant step forward for us as a nation.  Now, in the wake of the results of this past Tuesday's election, I find myself looking at some of this music with slightly different eyes.

One of these songs that I programmed back in January was an incredibly beautiful setting of a poem by the great American poet Emily Dickinson, written by Jake Heggie - a man whom I consider to be a good friend as well as a deeply heartfelt and thoughtful composer.  When we filmed our performance of this piece earlier this year in San Francisco, I had a much more personal take on this poem, thinking more of a romantic love of one person to another.  After witnessing the anger of the majority that voted for progress as many protest through the streets of America's biggest cities, I wonder if Emily Dickinson's words also resonate on a broader level.  Seeing the numerous accounts of the rising voice of bigotry and xenophobia that has seemingly felt legitimized by Tuesday's election results, I wonder if the love that Dickinson is talking about is perhaps a different, greater kind of love than just the love of one person.  Perhaps she is talking about an unconditional love for all our brothers and sisters?  And perhaps, at the end of the poem, when she says that she will have nothing but suffering if the object of her affections doubts her unconditional love, is she presciently touching on the feeling those of us who voted for progress feel right now?  For it is clear that so many of our brothers and sisters doubted our love for them this past Tuesday, and because of their choices which resulted from that doubt, we now have nothing to show but grief, anxiety and fear.

Whether she meant it that way or not, it is difficult for me not to see it through this new lens after all that has happened this week.  Regardless of her meaning, it is vitally important now, more than ever, that we remember Dickinson's argument that Love is indeed Life.

I will perform the song again live on WFMT on November 21st.  When we perform the piece that night, it may not sound incredibly different from this performance below recorded in January. But inside my heart, my feelings about it are not quite the same.


Jake Heggie
That I did always love
from Newer Every Day

TEXT (Emily Dickinson)

That I did always love,
I bring thee proof:
That till I loved
I never lived enough.

That I shall love alway,
I argue thee
That love is life,
And life hath immortality.

This, dost thou doubt, sweet?
Then have I
Nothing to show
But Calvary.


CREDITS
Nicholas Phan, tenor
Robert Mollicone, piano

recorded LIVE at SF Performances Salons at the Rex, January 28, 2016

Executive Producers: Nicholas Phan, Philip Wilder

SOUND:
Producer / Recording Engineer: Lolly Lewis
Recording assistant: Emma Logan
Mastering / Mixing: Piper Payne, Coast Mastering

VIDEO:
Cinematography: Catharine Axley, Kristine Stolakis
Editor: Catharine Axley

This project is a fiscally sponsored project of FRACTURED ATLAS.
To find our more information and to make a TAX-DEDUCTIBLE 
donation to support the continuation of this project please visit:

Thursday, November 10, 2016

River of Progress

Like a great many people I know, I woke up yesterday morning with the heaviest of hearts.  It was easy in the post-election haze of shock and awe to feel depressed and defeated.  Even the journalists on every news network I watched Tuesday night (and I checked in with all the major networks across the spectrum) seemed somewhat bewildered, confused, and...well...low-energy, to say the least.

It's an extraordinary thing that America chose to elect a man who received no endorsement from any living former president nor any major news publication...a man who was endorsed by the KKK.  It's an incredible thing that America chose to elect a man with absolutely no political experience who unleashed and rode a tidal wave of misogyny, bigotry, and xenophobia to our nation's highest office.

In the wake of that, when viewing it from that perspective, it's easy to feel disgusted, despondent, depressed and like one wants to give up.  I understand that the Canadian immigration website crashed under the deluge of traffic it received Tuesday night, and scrolling through my Facebook feed yesterday morning was like a visual depiction of grief and all its stages - most prevalently anger.

During the administration of President George W. Bush, many Americans with whom I was close (including my partner at the time) were desperate to ex-patriate to Europe, where life seemed better and people seemed more accepting.  I believe the Canadian immigration website was getting a lot of traffic back then, as well.  Yet I never, ever had this inclination, despite the fact that I was frequently working in Europe for extended periods back then.  I was adamant about staying in the US, and proudly being an American despite the jokes that I should pretend to be a Canadian citizen during my foreign travels.

I believe that America is beautiful, and I am proud that it is my home.  Not only is it a stunningly beautiful country in its landscape and natural wonders, but it is a country founded by a handful of visionary geniuses (who were riddled with all the flawed trappings of human genius) on the principle of Freedom.  Part of the beauty of that freedom is that our wonderful land is a place where truly all voices can be heard - most importantly those of dissent.  We witnessed the humbling power of that beauty yesterday, when a strong and vocal minority of the electorate raised their voices of dissent and swept a terrifying, seemingly despotic man whom they felt represents their ideals into power for at least the next 4 years.

The river of progress is a winding one that, just like rivers in nature, sometimes winds back upon itself.  In a strange twist of history, a vestigial institution of a time when our founding fathers felt that both one's genitalia and the color of one's skin determined suffrage was the quirk of our voting system that empowered this minority of voters.  The Electoral College, which was established in lieu of a direct, popular vote as a compromise to appease the slave-owners of the South, empowered a minority voice of dissent against the future legacy of our first black president and the possibility for a woman to finally break the ultimate glass ceiling in America.



I think that it is important to remember that while rivers may wind back on themselves occasionally, and sometimes narrow almost to streams, they always continue to flow.  The analogy makes me think of yet another beautiful, American creation: Charles Ives' setting of Robert Underwood Johnson's poem The Housatonic at Stockbridge.  The river of progress is, like the Housatonic of Johnson's poem, sometimes "overshy" and sometimes "masks its beauty from the eager eye".  But I do believe it will continue to carry us ever onward, and that this week's shocking result is just a "restive ripple" which encourages a "faster drift". I hope it is a wake-up call for us to try to extricate ourselves from our liberal echo chamber and truly hear this voice of dissent, as Michael Moore was encouraging us to do back in July.  I, like the narrator in the poem, "also of much resting have a fear", and I look forward to following this river "to the adventurous sea" that lies beyond, no matter how seemingly meandering its path.

We must remember that we are the voice of the majority of the popular vote that chose progress.  As a result, no matter who is our president, progress was made, and progress will continue.  Perhaps taking confidence in that, we can continue to appreciate the terrifying beauty of our right to Freedom of Speech and listen to these voices of dissent with a bit of compassion, hopefully enabling us all to find a path forward...together. 





Charles Ives
The Housatonic at Stockbridge


TEXT (Robert Underwood Johnson)


Contented river! In thy dreamy realm
The cloudy willow and the plumy elm:
Thou beautiful!
From ev'ry dreamy hill
what eye but wanders with thee at thy will,
Contented river!
And yet over-shy 
To mask thy beauty from the eager eye;
Hast thou a thought to hide from field and town?
In some deep current of the sunlit brown
Ah! there's a restive ripple,
And the swift red leaves
September's firstlings faster drift;
Wouldst thou away, dear stream?
Come, whisper near! 
I also of much resting have a fear:
Let me tomorrow thy companion be, 
By fall and shallow to the adventurous sea!

CREDITS
Nicholas Phan, tenor
Robert Mollicone, piano

recorded LIVE at SF Performances Salons at the Rex, January 28, 2016

Executive Producers: Nicholas Phan, Philip Wilder

SOUND:
Producer / Recording Engineer: Lolly Lewis
Recording assistant: Emma Logan
Mastering / Mixing: Piper Payne, Coast Mastering

VIDEO:
Cinematography: Catharine Axley, Kristine Stolakis
Editor: Catharine Axley

This project is a fiscally sponsored project of FRACTURED ATLAS.
To find our more information and to make a TAX-DEDUCTIBLE 
donation to support the continuation of this project please visit:
https://www.fracturedatlas.org/site/fiscal/profile?id=10592

Thursday, November 03, 2016

By Turning We Come Round Right

This being a presidential election season, I took up some American songs this past year, performing and curating American-themed programs in Chicago, Washington DC, Istanbul and San Francisco this past year.  The theme I chose for many of these concerts, specifically those in Chicago and San Francisco, was something I loosely titled, American Spirit, focusing in on the American pre-occupation with faith and spirituality.

When thinking about the United States’ beginnings, we often think of the Pilgrims, whose famous meal with the Native Americans they encountered upon landing here we attempt to recreate every year at Thanksgiving. These pilgrims represent the two basic principles upon which the United States’ foundation is based: the search for both economic and religious freedom.  Ever since, Americans have been pre-occupied with their relationship to a higher power - whether it be the New England Transcendentalists seeking God in Nature, Joseph Smith translating the golden plates of the angel Moroni and founding the Mormon Church, or the political rise of the religious right.  I, myself, in true San Franciscan 'spiritual' fashion own no fewer than three yoga mats.

While faith and religion have played a fundamental part in the evolution of American identity, American composers have developed a distinctly unique relationship with these topics in contrast with their European counterparts.

What we now generally define as ‘Classical Music’ has its roots in the religions of Europe. Its earliest forms were composed specifically to augment religious rites, and eventually evolved into integral parts of worship. When we think of the great European composers, much of the music that deals with the topics of faith and religion is composed in a religious context—the many masses, cantatas, magnificats, te deums, requiem and passion settings that we know and love today. While there are, of course, exceptions to this generalization (Handel’s oratorios, for instance, which were composed as a practical and more economic replacement for the London opera productions that were becoming increasingly too expensive for him to mount), most of these pieces were composed for specific religious services and intended to be performed as part of the worship service. 

In contrast, much of the music written by American classical composers that deals with faith and spirituality has been written in a distinctly secular context. Even Bernstein’s Mass is a theater piece, juxtaposing the formal ritual of the Mass with texts by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz that challenge the religious teaching of the mass. The American composer generally only encounters this subject in the form of an artistic meditation on faith and belief, in a way that in recent years has become in fashion to call ‘spiritual’. These American Spirit programs explored some of these meditations.

The concept of what it is to be an American has loomed in my mind ever since having the honor to represent the United States at the BBC Singer of the World competition back in 2003.  The competition is a sort of vocal olympics, and walking into the lobby of my hotel in Cardiff, seeing the American flag hanging amongst the other flags of the other countries represented that year was the first time I really had ever considered what it was to be a representative of the United States and to be an American.  As the bi-racial child of an immigrant who grew up in the very white and black midwest, I had always felt a bit of an outsider in America.  Yet it was in that moment that I realized I am very much a part of the history of the great American cultural melting pot.  I've considered the many facets of what that means ever since, and performing these programs over the last year has been a wonderful deepening of that epiphany that I experienced so many years ago in Wales.

As we push through this final week of this wretched election cycle, I leave you with one of the songs we performed at the Hotel Rex for San Francisco Performances back in January: Aaron Copland's beautiful arrangement of the Shaker tune, Simple Gifts.  The words from the middle section of the song take on a different meaning for me now, after all the baseness and drama of the past few months of this fraught presidential contest: "To turn, turn will be our delight, and by turning, turning, we come round right." After all of the spinning we've been through as these campaigns have waged their wars against each other, I do hope that next Tuesday, we do actually come round right, so that we can, as the song says, "find ourselves in that place just right...to be in the valley of love and delight."



arranged by Aaron Copland
Simple Gifts from 'Old American Songs'

TEXT (Shaker Folk Song):

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight
'Till by turning, turning we come round right.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.


CREDITS
Nicholas Phan, tenor
Robert Mollicone, piano
recorded LIVE at SF Performances Salons at the Rex, January 28, 2016

Executive Producers: Nicholas Phan, Philip Wilder


SOUND:
Producer / Recording Engineer: Lolly Lewis
Recording assistant: Emma Logan
Mastering / Mixing: Piper Payne, Coast Mastering

VIDEO:
Cinematography: Catharine Axley, Kristine Stolakis
Editor: Catharine Axley

This project is a fiscally sponsored project of FRACTURED ATLAS.
To find our more information and to make a TAX-DEDUCTIBLE 
donation to support the continuation of this project please visit:
https://www.fracturedatlas.org/site/fiscal/profile?id=10592