The Chamber Music Festival of Lexington's artistic director, Nathan Cole, offered Nicholas Phan something irresistible when he asked the tenor to perform at this year's event: a chance to call his own tune.
"He told me I could do whatever I wanted and we could talk about repertoire," says Phan, who will be the first vocal soloist in the festival's seven-year history. "He lured me in saying it was free-form; I had free reign."
Phan (pronounced pon), has been getting more and more chances recently to do what he wants.
Over the past few years, Phan's star has risen thanks to performances with leading international orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and on operatic stages including the Seattle Opera.
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But chamber music is a specific passion, and Cole essentially gave Phan an open invitation to the festival, which kicks into high gear Friday through Sunday at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion.
Given that latitude, Phan has planned an evening devoted to the music of Ralph Vaughn-Williams on Friday and a song cycle by Franz Schubert for Saturday and Sunday. He also is participating in the world premiere work by composer-in-residence Raymond Lustig on Saturday (see accompanying story).
Friday night's Vaughn-Williams program will feature On Wenlock Edge, a composition for piano quintet and tenor that is among the best-known vocal chamber music works "for a reason," Phan says. "It is really beautiful music, and the use of strings in it adds the whole other dimension that you normally don't get with just regular songs with piano."
The evening will start with a lesser-known Vaughn-Williams, Merciless Beauty, a setting of three poems by Geoffrey Chaucer.
"The English is very old," Phan says of the work by the 14th-century English author best known for The Canterbury Tales. "There are some very unfamiliar words in there."
The Chaucer also will give him a chance to sing with strings, which Phan, a former violinist, says he particularly enjoys. He says his roots as an instrumentalist gave him a leg up when he started studying voice and helped establish his passion for chamber music.
"What I love about songs is that you actually get to communicate with the audience, without a fourth wall," Phan says. "In opera, you're running around with costumes and makeup and talking to other characters, and everybody is just sort of watching. Songs give you a chance to communicate directly with an audience about things that are personal and intimate, and it brings everyone together.
"Vocal chamber music allows you to have the best of both worlds. You get those instruments in a sort of mini orchestra, but you still are directly communicating with an audience."
The Schubert Schwanengesang will really give Phan a chance to communicate.
"Those songs are so interesting, because you almost see where Schubert was going," Phan says of the work, which was Schubert's last composition before his death in 1828. "It's so operatic, you almost hear strains of Wagner. It's amazing to think what would have happened if he had lived five or 10 more years. It really gives you a glimpse into where his brain was going — there's some very dark and twisted stuff in there as well as some sweet stuff."
As much as the chance to perform some of his favorite works in his favorite form lured Phan to Lexington, there might also be a more cosmic draw.
Perched on a stool in the bar overlooking the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion, where the concerts will take place, Phan says, "My Chinese zodiac sign is the horse, so it seems kind of apropos."
IF YOU GO
Chamber Music Festival of Lexington
What: Seventh annual festival of chamber music concerts with returning artists Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto, violins; Burchard Tang, viola; Priscilla Lee, cello; and Alessio Bax, piano. Guest artists are Nicholas Phan, tenor, and Raymond Lustig, composer-in-residence.
Tickets: Various prices; listed below. Available at the Downtown Arts Center box office, 141 E. Main St.; (859) 225-0370; or Lexarts.tix.com.
Learn more: Chambermusiclex.com
Aug. 22: Preview performance and open rehearsal with returning and guest artists. 7:30 p.m. Natasha's Bistro, 112 Esplanade. Free.
Aug. 23: Music by Vaughan Williams and Beethoven. 7:30 p.m. Fasig-Tipton Pavilion, 2400 Newtown Pike. $15, $35.
Aug. 24: Music by Schubert, Ravel and world premiere by Lustig. 7:30 p.m. Fasig-Tipton Pavilion. $15, $35.
Aug. 25: Music by Mozart, Schumann, Prokofiev, Schubert and Shostakovich. 2 p.m. Fasig-Tipton Pavilion. $15.