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Nicholas Phan: First Impressions of Britten

In this post from The Carnegie Hall Debut series, Nicholas Phan, who makes his Weill Recital Hall debut with pianist Myra Huang on November 12, shares his first impressions of the music of Benjamin Britten, which is featured on his program.


The first time I encountered Britten was as a 16-year-old second violinist in my youth orchestra in Detroit when we played his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. At our first reading, I was immediately excited by the majestic beauty of his orchestration of Purcell's initial theme, which forms the basis for the piece. I was fascinated by how Britten showcased each section of the orchestra, exploiting each instrument's range of color and expression. It was like being part of an aural Wikipedia (had such a thing existed at the time). I was excited to be playing a piece that showed off and explained this incredibly complex and expressive musical entity that had become my life's obsession since I started playing in orchestras at 11 years old.

My first impression of Britten: Exciting, beautiful, cool, brilliant—fun!

15 years later, at a rehearsal this March with Myra, after our first reading of the songs, I said to her, "These feel really great in my voice—yet they seem kind of academic and strange." Myra agreed; they did seem kind of dry and bizarre on first read, not understanding much of the Italian and having a missed a few (or many, at times) notes and/or rhythms here and there. Despite those initial impressions, I said to her, "Still, there is something in me that is really intrigued and excited by them and feels really drawn to them ... I can tell that we are barely scratching the surface of what is here."

Our first impression of Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo: Academic, strange, dry—yet we're intrigued without quite knowing why.

It turns out that, in this instance (as often happens), our first impression was wrong. The sonnets are anything but academic or dry—they are packed full of an intense passion that is both heart-wrenchingly frustrated and disarmingly tender in its confessional vulnerability.

Read the full post on Nicholas Phan's blog grecchinois.blogspot.com