Review: Phan highlights Concordia Players concert

By David Patrick Stearns, Inquirer Music Critic. 

In theory, musicians can inhabit pastoral music just as convincingly in a coal mine as in the late-autumn graciousness of Bucks County. Musical poetry, after all, comes from within. But Sunday’s Vaughan Williams and Elgar program by Concordia Chamber Players (the second in the group’s five-concert season) benefited not only from its setting – Trinity Episcopal Church at a picturesque hilltop crossroad in Solebury – but the sense that the season’s days are numbered.

Tenor Nicholas Phan, who has a prestige career in concerts more than in opera, sang Vaughan Williams’ Merciless Beauty and On Wenlock Edge, supported with vibrant synergy from the quintet of Concordia regulars, all conspiring to give extra dimensions to the total effect of the composer’s word settings. Many believe this repertoire wants British performers; the Merciless Beauty texts are attributed to Chaucer and On Wenlock Edge is based on A.E. Housman. But the outsider status of American-born Phan yields objectivity that takes him places British singers don’t think go.

His diction is perfect, but not in the well-drilled fashion of, say, Ian Bostridge. The primary intention is communication, not correctness – a great asset in the antiquated Chaucerian language of Merciless Beauty. Though Phan’s warm, medium-weight tenor was especially alert to the elegiac Housman poems, his singing isn’t about highly italicized details but creating an emotional zone that allows the listener to come to him. You’re a participant rather than an observer.

Instrumental contributions were key, especially from pianist Anna Polonsky, in creating a dialogue with keyboard and singer conveying congruent messages but in their own distinctive ways.

Though the Housman poems connected strongly in the British psyche in World War I, the Elgar Piano Quintet, written near war’s end, treads a more abstract path – a nice way of saying the thematic content is a bit weak – that formed a telling companion to On Wenlock Edge. And as an intriguing concert footnote (and trademark of cellist Michelle Djokic’s artistic directorship), Webern’s Langsamer Satz inhabited similar harmonic terrain. But in contrast to the outdoorsy Brits, Webern’s Viennese sensibility was strictly indoors.

POSTED: November 11, 2015

Scroll to Top