Stranger: Works for Tenor by Nico Muhly

Nicholas Phan

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Stranger: Works for Tenor by Nico Muhly Review

by James Manheim

Composer Nico Muhly has been on concert bills all over the U.S. and beyond in the early 2020s, and one reason is that he has a knack for creating music for the right performer at the right time. Tenor Nicholas Phan is a rising star who here contributes an essay about his difficulties, when performing at the Singer of the World competition in Wales, in coming up with a song that reflected his "American" identity, inasmuch as he is Chinese Indonesian on one side, and Greek American on the other. He would have found the perfect solution in Muhly's seven-section Stranger, for voice and string quartet. Muhly, himself the product of a highly multi-ethnic background, sets writing about the experience of immigration from various sources, including an interview with a Sicilian woman who arrived at Ellis Island in 1911 and a letter from a Chinese American about discrimination. All are in different registers, and Muhly's sensitive handling of text adds variety even as his musical language remains consistent. Phan's commitment to these pieces is palpable, but he shifts gears effectively in the other works on the program, Lorne Ys My Likinge, a setting of the Chester Mystery Play inspired by Britten's Abraham and Isaac, and Impossible Things, which sets translated texts by poet C.P. Cavafy. Phan's duet work with countertenor Reginald Mobley in Lorne Ys My Likinge is absolutely delicious, and the accompaniment by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and the New York chamber orchestra The Knights, is intimate and close. This marks a major step forward for Phan, and anyone who hasn't been following Muhly's music, which combines rigor with tremendous audience appeal (sample the ravishing "My Love" from Stranger), might do well to start here.

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