Nicholas Phan and Brooklyn Rider find meaning in song at PIVOT

United StatesUnited States Various, PIVOT Festival [1]: Nicholas Phan (tenor), Brooklyn Rider (Johnny Gandelsman, Colin Jacobsen [violins], Nicholas Cords [viola], Michael Nicolas [cello]). Presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, 21.10.2021. (HS)

Brooklyn Rider and Nicholas Phan (tenor)

Thomas Campion – ‘Never weather-beaten sail’
Rebecca Clarke – ‘Daybreak’
Schubert – String Quartet No.14 in D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’

Brooklyn Rider, the string quartet that dresses like a pop music group and plays classical music with signature warmth and vigor, brought composer Nico Muhly’s meditation on the immigrant experience to their San Francisco Performances appearance on Thursday evening in the cozy Herbst Theatre.

Stranger, featuring the captivating lyric tenor Nicholas Phan, made a worthy centerpiece for the program. He was also positioned in the middle of the quartet, rather than at the front as most soloists would be. Whether it was illusion or reality, this helped make him a seamless part of the ensemble.

The 15-minute Muhly piece fit nicely into SFP’s weeklong new-music PIVOT series, this year pairing contemporary works with older, more traditional chamber music. Muhly’s soothing harmonies shared the stage with a pair of love songs from the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, and the concert finished with Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet.

Muhly dedicated the work to Phan, noting that they share mixed-race American immigrant heritages. Phan sang a few debut performances of this song in early 2019 before pandemic lockdowns put it on the shelf until now. American writings on immigration, rather than poems, provided whole paragraphs of prose for the music.

The piece starts with an academic question: how can scholars ‘give voice to the voiceless’. It then quotes an Italian immigrant on bringing food traditions with her; covers protests about the notorious nineteenth-century Exclusion Act; and includes a passage from Leviticus about treating strangers properly and Jewish immigrants’ plaints about their suffering families.

This material would seem to offer plenty of opportunity for colorful music to underline the emotional points and provide atmospheric music recalling the places of origin. In performance, however, Muhly’s matter-of-fact settings never expressed the anger and intensity seething in the words. The music painted a more delicate, even generic, picture, with high intervals and serene textures creating a lacy frame for Phan’s polished, sweet tenor.

And then came the final excerpt. A touching and eloquent letter from an American woman at home to her husband at war during World War II inspired some of the most stunning, gorgeous music Muhly has ever written, weaving lush harmonies in the strings with high-lying melodic lines that took advantage of Phan’s extensive range. This could easily be excerpted for a knockout tenor solo anytime, and should be.

The concert opened with a song by the English composer Thomas Campion, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s who wrote his own lyrics. ‘Never weather-beaten sail’ refers to pilgrims, and Brooklyn Rider’s transcription adds sustaining legato to the original lute accompaniment. The twentieth-century composer Rebecca Clark, born in a London suburb to a German mother and an American father, wrote the second song, ‘Daybreak,’ in the early 1940s to a John Donne love poem. The setting, for voice and string quartet, also had an antique quality and received a touching performance.

In introducing the Schubert quartet, violist Nicholas Cords allowed that his fellow Brooklyn Rider musicians, though known for their explorations of new music, consider this work one of their desert-island pieces. He also noted how Schubert’s ambiguous tendencies, such as shifting constantly from major to minor and rooting this particular quartet in one of his own songs, fit easily into this program.

They certainly approached the piece with familiarity, favoring rapid tempos and generously rich tone. The best was the second movement, Andante con moto. The set of variations on the title song arced from tentative articulation of the swaying motif at the start to bold and expansive playing in the more elaborate variations at the end of the movement, all of it beautifully controlled and compelling.

They delivered the opening Allegro with round tone, more heart-on-sleeve than crisply precise, stepped up the pace significantly in the third-movement Scherzo and launched into the Presto finale at a breakneck pace. As impressive as their playing at these speeds was, too many details flew by without the musicians bringing them out as clearly as they might. The chorale in the finale (a particular favorite of mine) hardly slowed at all, thus losing a good deal of its impact. It all finished in a breathless rush.

Harvey Steiman

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