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 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.

Nicholas Phan, tenor
Robert Mollicone, piano

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

Executive Producers: Nicholas Phan, Philip Wilder

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

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!

Nicholas Phan, tenor
Robert Mollicone, piano

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

Executive Producers: Nicholas Phan, Philip Wilder

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

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 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 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.

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

Executive Producers: Nicholas Phan, Philip Wilder

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

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:

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sneaking a Peek

Here is a second preview video for Gods & Monsters!  This video is a film of us recording an early complete take of Gustav Mahler’s haunting song, Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  As this is a peek of one of our early complete takes of the piece, it is not a perfect performance! But it gives you a great preview of the kind of album that Gods & Monsters is turning out to be and what the recording process was like up at Skywalker.  

To those of you who have already specifically donated to this project - thank you so much from all of us on the Gods & Monsters team.  It means the world to us to have your support behind this project, making it possible for us to usher it through it’s final stages towards its release this coming January on Avie Records.  If you haven't had a chance to donate yet - there is still time to pre-order your copy of the album, as well as make a tax-deductible contribution to the project.

Hope you enjoy!  Again, many thanks!

Gustav Mahler
Wo die shönen Trompeten blasen from 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn'

Nicholas Phan, tenor
Myra Huang, piano

LIVE full take from 'Gods & Monsters' recording sessions at Skywalker Sound, August 9, 2016 


Wer ist denn draußen und wer klopfet an, 
Der mich so leise, so leise wecken kann?
Das ist der Herzallerliebste dein,
Steh auf und laß mich zu dir ein!

Was soll ich hier nun länger stehn?
Ich seh die Morgenröt aufgehn,
Die Morgenröt, zwei helle Stern,
Bei meinem Schatz, da wär ich gern,
bei meiner Herzallerliebsten.

Das Mädchen stand auf und ließ ihn ein;
Sie heißt ihn auch wilkommen sein.
Willkommen, lieber Knabe mein,
So lang hast du gestanden!

Sie reicht ihm auch die schneeweiße Hand.
Von ferne sang die Nachtigall
Das Mädchen fing zu weinen an.

Ach weine nicht, du Liebste mein,
Aufs Jahr sollst du mein eigen sein.
Mein Eigen sollst du werden gewiß,
Wie's keine sonst auf Erden ist.
O Lieb auf grüner Erden.

Ich zieh in Krieg auf grüner Heid,
Die grüne Heide, die ist so weit.
Allwo dort die schönen Trompeten blasen,
Da ist mein Haus, von grünem Rasen.


Who is then outside, and who is knocking,
Who can so softly, softly waken me?
It is your darling,
Arise and let me come in to you!

Why should I stand here any longer?
I see the dawn arrive,
The dawn, two bright stars,
With my darling would I gladly be,
With my heart's most beloved!

The maiden arose and let him in;
She welcomed him as well:
Welcome, my beloved boy,
You have stood outside so long!

She reached to him her snow-white hand.
From afar a nightingale sang;
The maiden began to weep.

Oh, do not cry, my darling,
Next year you shall be my own!
My own shall you certainly be,
As no one else on earth is.
O Love on the green earth!

I go to war on the green heath,
The green heath that is so broad!
It is there where the beautiful trumpets blow,
There is my house of green grass!

Translation copyright © by Emily Ezust,
from the LiederNet Archive --

Executive Producers: Nicholas Phan, Philip Wilder

Producer / Recording Engineer: Marlan Barry

Clubsoda Productions (

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:

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Things our Fathers Loved

One of the other recording projects I'm currently working on is producing art song and vocal chamber music content specifically for YouTube.  The initial material that was recorded for the first stage of this project is from a salon concert I gave as the resident artist for San Francisco Performances earlier this January.  As tonight's final presidential debate looms, the subject matter of the program we recorded feels very timely.  The program was built from CAIC's 2015 Collaborative Works Festival, which explored America's relationship to faith and spirituality through music.

That evening in January, we began the program with some songs by Charles Ives, a visionary composer whose music still sounds so fresh and current today, despite the fact that it was written 100 years ago.  A true patriot whose music is steeped in the history of New England and the United States, one of his signature techniques was his ability to conjure up nostalgia and memory by creating aural snapshots of the past.  He did this by employing a pastiche technique, incorporating quotes from a number of popular tunes and hymns, seamlessly weaving them together, creating something that sounds entirely new and remarkably unique and individual.

In his short, 105-second song, The Things our Fathers Loved (a setting of one of his own texts), there are countless numbers of popular American tunes and hymns quoted, including Battle Cry of Freedom, Dixie, and Come Thou Font of Every Blessing, just to name a few.  The song weaves all of these tunes together quite elegantly at first, creating a sense of wistfulness for a golden age past.  Gradually, though, the tunes begin to collide with one another, and the voice and piano start to drift in different directions tonally, creating a slight sense of chaos and cacophony.  It is as if the present moment, being the sum of all things past leading up to now, is a bit of a messy jumble, the simplicity of yesteryear a distant memory.  The song ends beautifully, but in a quite unresolved way.  The story is unfinished, the future is both uncertain and unwritten.

Looking ahead to this evening's debate and considering just how acrimonious, sensationalist and low-brow this whole presidential election cycle has been, Ives' song about the continuing clash of the conflicting forces of American history (the song begins with a quote from the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy and then quotes a popular Union tune just 12 measures later!) feels eerily prescient.  It's almost as if he understood the timeline and progress of American history and politics as one of continual conflict, with the hope for growth through some sort of resolution of these opposing forces.  The sense of panic and instability he creates at the song's climax where the piano and voice are in very different tonal worlds, with no seeming relation to each other and both at a dynamically loud peak, feels not unlike the mood right now when thinking about the dirty mud-slinging and ideological conflict that pervades American politics today, in which presidential candidates can't bring themselves to be good enough sports to, at the very least, shake hands at the beginning of a debate.

Charles Ives
The Things Our Fathers Loved

TEXT (Charles Ives)

I think there must be a place in the soul
all made of tunes, of tunes of long ago;
I hear the organ on the Main Street corner,
Aunt Sarah humming Gospels; Summer evenings,
The village cornet band, playing in the square.
The town's Red, White and Blue,
all Red, White and Blue; Now! Hear the words
But they sing in my soul of the things our Fathers loved.


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

Executive Producers: Nicholas Phan, Philip Wilder

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

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:

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


What are songs but stories set to music?  Whether they are confessional stories of the self or telling any variety of narrative, songs are tales spun to music.

Back in February of 2009, I had the privilege of participating in one of the Marilyn Horne Foundation's National Artist Residencies in Oberlin, Ohio.  These residencies consisted of a full recital on the local presenting series (in this instance, the Oberlin Conservatory's Artist Recital Series), preceded by a couple of days of outreach performances, taking art songs into the local schools.  The most challenging and rewarding part of this week in Ohio were these outreach performances.  My pianist colleague and I performed in classrooms filled with children as young as 5 years old - 1st and 2nd graders.  We were limited to only art song - no opera arias, no crossover repertoire.  The task of presenting the songs of Robert Schumann and Benjamin Britten to these young people was a daunting one - how does one hold a child's attention with this music?  It was a transformative experience for me (one which I blogged about at the time), and it revolutionized my approach to performance ever since.

At one point a few years ago, I was seeking programming advice from one of the artistic planning directors at Carnegie Hall, when he told me something that reminded me of that experience with those children back in 2009.  "When it comes to art song, you have to remember, there really is NO standard repertoire," he said.  It was a liberating reminder, making me remember that any song repertoire will be falling on ears as fresh as those young schoolchildren back in Ohio.  The same techniques apply, regardless of one's audience - one has to mine every detail, and pretend that they are telling a tall tale to a group of children around a campfire.  No stone must be left unturned, and every colorful extreme must be brought to life.

As a child, one of the first books I remember falling in love with was a copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. I’ve been fascinated with tales of the legendary and fantastic ever since.  As more and more children have entered our lives, most notably Myra's two daughters and my niece, storytelling has become a greater part of our personal lives, leading us to this fun Gods & Monsters program that is so full of musical imagination. One of the most astounding aspects of these powerful musical miniatures is the incredible amount of color and atmosphere they lend to these stories, so that each song becomes an epic tale of almost cinematic proportions.  

I found myself standing in front of an audience full of fresh ears yet again last Friday in Washington, DC.  Myra and I took our Gods & Monsters program out for its maiden voyage in public, as part of a benefit concert for a fantastic volunteer organization called YSOP.  Standing in front of an audience of YSOP's many supporters who there to support their efforts, and experience a new musical experience; some of the young people that YSOP engages in community service projects, and some homeless people who are the beneficiaries of YSOP's programs, I felt not unlike I did standing in that Oberlin 1st & 2nd grade classroom seven years ago.  It was a thrill to be able to pretend that we were all sitting around a campfire, with Myra and I telling them tales of kings, knights, witches, gods and monsters in as much vivid detail as possible, seeing everyone's eyes brighten as their imaginations fired up just as much as ours were.

Myra and I at the YSOP benefit recital last Friday in Washington, DC.

There's still a couple of weeks to pre-order your copy of Gods & Monsters, as well as make a tax-deductible contribution towards underwriting the final stages of the project before its January 2017 release.  Pre-order your copy and make a donation HERE!

Nicholas Phan Recording Projects is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non­profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of Nicholas Phan Recording Projects must be made payable to “Fractured Atlas” only. Any contribution above the value of the goods and services received by the donor is tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.   

Sunday, October 16, 2016

#ThisIs2016 - Asian-Americans Respond

Sometime in early January of 2001, as I was beginning to consider my post-college options, I went out to Los Angeles to visit a Chinese-American soprano friend and meet her voice teacher, whom she had been raving about since moving out to SoCal.  She felt that she had revolutionized her vocal technique, opening up new horizons for her.  This voice teacher was a visiting voice teacher for the apprentices out at the Santa Fe Opera every summer and was equally impressively connected elsewhere throughout the United States, maintaining a studio filled with young, successful and (most importantly) working singers.  During my visit, I arranged to have a lesson with this esteemed pedagogue, as I knew the next chapter in my studies was approaching, and it was an important time to consider every option before me.

During the course of an hour-long lesson at this teacher's home studio, she told me that she admired my voice and my singing, and then offered a few technical tips, which I found quite helpful and interesting.  My friend sat on her couch as we worked, attentively observing the session.  Towards the end of our hour, the teacher asked me: "Your mother is Greek, right?  What is her maiden name?" I replied to her seemingly strange question, and she repeated my first name combined with my mother's maiden name a few times.  "That sounds great!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands. She then shared with me her final piece of advice for our hour together: "You should definitely change your name to that, so when you start doing all of these important competitions, people won't think you're just another dumb, Asian singer."

While I have lived a privileged life in music and opera since then, and I try to focus on the many opportunities that I have been granted and positive experiences that have filled my life, I have felt a tiny bit of discomfort as the dialogue about race relations has intensified over the past couple of years, with subjects as wide-ranging as the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the lack of diversity amongst the Saturday Night Live cast members and staff writers, to the debate over the Metropolitan Opera's decision to not put dark makeup on the Russian tenor performing the title role in their production of Verdi's Otello last season.  Let me be clear that I believe wholeheartedly that it is fantastic that we are having these discussions about racial inequality and bigotry so openly now - black lives matter. They matter a great deal. My level of discomfort only stems from the temptation to frame these discussions in simple black and white, when in reality, we live in a world of technicolor.

One of the most striking anecdotes in the NY Times video above is the story Dorothy Hom relates about her white husband not realizing that she is not white.  Once, discussing the lack of racial diversity in the opera world and the struggle of the African American opera singer, I was told by a colleague in a moment of heated debate that I cannot understand their struggle, because I can pass for white.  Yet, I don't pass for white.  As a bi-racial person, the most common question I hear upon meeting someone is "what are your origins?".  I obviously take pride in my ethnic origins (as evidenced from the title of this blog), but that stems from my ownership of being "other" when it comes to the "Race or Ethnic Group" section of a voter registration form.  Yet despite the fact that the "other" box is the best option I can choose when encountering the race/ethnicity choices on a form, there is this sense that people don't view Asians as people of color, who grapple with issues of prejudice and bigotry, and a history of struggle and oppression within the United States.

In the very first joke of the cold open of the October 9 episode Saturday Night Live (a show which endured harsh criticism a couple of years ago for its lack of diversity), new cast member Melissa Villaseñor says, "I am the new Hispanic cast member, and tonight I'll be playing Asian moderator, Elaine Quijano, steps".  Baby steps, indeed.  I am so happy to see this piece being done by the New York Times, bringing us into the dialogue.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Oedipus & Rock Climbing

Sunday afternoon's performance of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex at Cal Performances was a thrill, in every sense of the word.  Stravinsky's score is daunting in every respect.  It is demanding both musically and vocally, requiring a huge dynamic range, an expansive sense of line and phrasing,  rhythmic precision, and a willingness to tread the extraordinary path Oedipus navigates as he discovers the shocking truth of his origins.  Performing it for the first time with colleagues who were so experienced with the piece was an honor and luxury - I hope I have the honor of getting to perform the piece many more times in the future.

Rather than just collapse in exhaustion after surviving my first foray with Oedipus, I spent the Monday touring San Francisco's more majestic and epic spots for the photo shoot of the Gods & Monsters album cover.  Instead of taking a chance to netflix and chill all day, I found myself climbing rocks on the beach, desperately trying to not fall into the Pacific as my dear friend Henry snapped conceptual shots of me. We had a great time touring around many of San Fransisco's most beautiful spots - we should have some good album cover options from the hundreds of snaps Henry took yesterday.

Photo shoot day. #GodsAndMonsters #HomeLife #Beach#Moody #KarlTheFog #👙

Speaking of Gods & Monsters, all of us on the G & M team have been overwhelmed with the many generous contributions that have streamed in steadily over the past week - it's an honor and joy to feel so supported in these artistic adventures, and we are all incredibly grateful for everyone's generosity so far.  If you haven't had a chance to check out the project's IndieGoGo page, you can by clicking HERE. There are chances to pre-order your copy of the album (even signed copies) while also making a tax-deductible contribution towards underwriting the album's final stages of post-production before it's release next January.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

National Coming Out Day

A very happy National Coming Out Day to one and all.  

I've always believed that it is of the utmost importance to be out, subscribing to the belief that is a public responsibility to be out in order to show the world, most especially those younger than us, who have yet to embark upon the journey of coming out, what happy, beautiful and fulfilling lives it is possible to lead as LGBT people.  I discussed this back in 2010 in an interview for the Huffington Post.  While the world has changed greatly in the past 6 years, the need for us to be out and proud beacons of hope remains just a necessary as it ever has.  It's wonderful the giant strides we have made  towards achieving our civil rights around the world, but coming out still means braving the terrors and real dangers of bigotry, hate and homphobia.

I applaud and celebrate all of my LGBT sisters and brothers, thank you for being such brave and bight lights, illuminating and enlightening this world in which we live. 

Previous National Coming Out Day posts are here, here and here.

Friday, October 07, 2016


One week from today, on October 14, Myra and I will be giving our Gods & Monsters program its maiden voyage in public, as a benefit recital in Washington, DC for an amazing organization, Youth Services Opportunity Project. From their website, YSOP's mission is to engage youth, college students and adults in meaningful service experiences through an innovative program that combines an orientation to the issues, hands-on volunteer work and reflection. Using orientation and reflection to frame their service experiences, YSOP inspires participants to broaden their perspectives and become engaged citizens.

A formative experience I had as a young person was being required to engage in my own community in Michigan as a volunteer throughout middle school and high school. The school I attended from grades 6 through 12 had an annual community service requirement of its entire student body – every student was required to volunteer for a certain number of hours each semester. As I began my path towards following my dream of becoming a professional musician, those volunteering experiences helped me understand that, ultimately, being a musician is a career of service – our work is to serve the music on the page to the best of our ability and to bring communities together – whether it be to aid in healing during a in a time of mourning or to help a community celebrate all sorts of joyous occasions. 
I can think of no better organization to support through music than YSOP, who clearly aim to help young people to become conscious citizens of the world as they enter adulthood.  If you live in the Washington, DC area, want to hear some beautiful German Lieder, as well as support a worthy organization that is doing amazing work to make the world a better place, tickets and more information can be found HERE.

Thursday, October 06, 2016


This season't theme of mythology reared its head again yesterday, as I started my first rehearsals for this weekend's Oedipus Rex with Cal Performances in Berkeley this weekend.  yesterday's meeting was a chance to check in with Esa-Pekka Salonen's wonderful assistant for this project and begin to get an idea of his structural ideas for the piece (the Philharmonia Orchestra is still on a concert tour through more southern parts of California working their way North until Friday).

This Sunday will be my maiden voyage in the sandals of Stravinsky's Oedipus.  The piece is a central pillar of his neo-classical period, a chapter in his compositional history with which I am strangely and randomly well-acquainted, having performed his Pulcinella, Mavra, Canticum Sacrum, and Cantata many times over the years (as well has having studied and salivated over The Rake's Progress since I was a college student). So, while it is the first time I will be sailing these particular waters, there is something that feels quite familiar about essaying the musical journey that Oedipus takes as he discovers the horrifying truth of his origins and stabs his eyes out.

Funnily enough - this weekend's Stravinsky debut has a little connection with what I consider to be my professional debut.  I initially met the current Artistic and Executive Director of Cal Performances, Matias Tarnopolsky, while he was still working at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra back in 2002.  Matias was part of the team that generously hired me for my first major professional assignment: to sing Iopas in Berlioz Les Troyens with Zubin Mehta and the CSO.  Still a master's student at the Manhattan School of Music, I remember being so young and fearless that when I was called to audition for the role, I didn't hesitate to learn Iopas' challenging aria in a matter of days for the audition, because my enthusiasm for how beautiful the music overpowered any sense of nerves or doubt I might have had about such a vocally difficult piece of music.

After landing in Chicago a few months after that audition to rehearse and perform the role, I decided that since it was my very first adult, big time engagement, I needed to wear a proper bow tie with my tails for the performances, as opposed to the clip-on, pre-tied white tie that I had used throughout college when I needed to wear tails.  It was the first time I had ever considered wearing a proper bow-tie, and once I had returned to my hotel room with my fancy, new purchase, I realized that I had absolutely no idea how to tie it.  In a panic, I went to the nearest men's store to find a guide on how to tie a bow tie and was advised by the kind salesperson there that I should not fret, it was just like tying a shoe.  Easy.

Fast forward to a few hours later, when I am in my dressing room frantically trying to tie my tie, and the concert has already started.  As my first entrance approached, I was still struggling with the cursed pique monstrosity, when Matias knocked on my door to let me know that I needed to go to the stage.  I looked at him helplessly and sheepishly admitted that I had absolutely no idea how to tie a bow tie.  He calmly turned me around, tied my tie for me from behind, and then pushed me on stage.  Teaching a young musician how to tie their bow tie was not something I would have imagined to be on the list of duties of an artistic planning director of the Chicago Symphony, but this is how I learned how to properly deal with that particular piece of men's formalwear.  Ever since, whenever I am wearing white tie and tails, there is always a moment when I smile to myself, thinking of Matias and that nerve-wracking experience.  

While I won't be wearing my white tie and tails for this weekend's performance of the Stravinsky (it's on a Sunday, and we are in suits), it is wonderful to reconnect with Matias again for an important debut of music that I am extraordinarily enthusiastic about, and I'm grateful to him for yet another milestone opportunity.