A 'Stranger' Here Myself: Two Nicks Produce a Boundary-Moving CD

by Tim Pfaff

Bay Area Reporter

Wednesday July 6, 2022

composer Nico Muhly (photo Ana Cuba) and tenor Nicholas Phan
composer Nico Muhly (photo Ana Cuba) and tenor Nicholas Phan  

Two American musicians nicknamed Nick found a side-door through the pandemic that was deadly down-time for most of their fellow performing artists. A 2020 project of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society made it possible for San Francisco-based tenor Nicholas Phan to commission a song cycle from New York-based Nico Muhly, which has just appeared as the centerpiece of a CD named after the song cycle "Stranger" (Avie).

With "Stranger," Muhly, an in-demand composer with two Metropolitan Opera commissions notching his belt, identifies as the scion of an immigrant Belorussian Jewish family with roots in several countries.

Phan, now in the double digits of "solo" CD releases, would be the first to point out that they're all collaborations. He's known throughout the industry by his social-media moniker @grecchinois because of his Greek mother and Chinese father, also immigrants to the U.S.

Such as the two men share an identity it's as American-born gay men, which confers on them an outsider status even in their patently successful careers.

Among the innumerable things that have disappeared during the pandemic is the identity hyphen. No longer are Asian Americans, for example, Asian-American. The hyphen-eating but otherwise mute space between the proper nouns now speaks volumes.

Not that long ago, it wasn't uncommon — in fact, it was practice — to smoosh the designators together, enslaving one to the other with that low-lying but connecting punctuation mark. But our current identity politics is strongly anti-smoosh — pardon the hyphen — for reasons that are basically anti-imperialist. No one gets to own a piece of someone else's identity, word-order be damned.


No Thank You, Masked Man

As I write, a bi mezzo-soprano of both local and international renown is sitting out COVID symptoms in Santa Fe, Munich has canceled all but the opening performance of a new production of the rarely performed "The Devils of Loudon" due to cast decimation, and you have to be a sorcerer to figure out who's singing lead tenor in a London revival of "Cav-Pag." If the bug has taught us anything, it's that this is why god made recordings.

How much of a tour this CD can have will depend as much on microbiology as the market. Live performances of its component compositions have already been subject to what are now the usual changes.

But what will give "Stranger" lasting impact is its deep emotional engagement with one of the signal features of life today, not a pandemic but the grim fact that some ten percent of the world's population are refugees.


A Stranger Here Myself

I haven't been moved by a recording as strongly or in a comparable way since Teresa Stratas published her CDs of Kurt Weill songs a quarter-century ago. The collective pain and individual longing in those songs fused in "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," from a musical Weill wrote with the American poet Ogden Nash, best known now for his comical verse.

It was precisely in the way those two CDs were "downers" — which audiences always love, never mind the marketers' briefs — that made them runaway hits. They saluted the sobering truth expressed in another famous song, "We all dance the last dance alone."

Tellingly, the words Muhly sets are not taken from sad Romantic poetry, but, more typically, prose. Oral histories obtained at Ellis Island rub shoulders with texts protesting the Chinese Exclusion Laws, pleas to presidents for racial justice, and accounts of daily life in the Jewish sectors of the Lower East Side.

A single Bible verse is not a railing against homosexuality but, rather, Leviticus 19:24: "The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be among you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him like thyself. For you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

The settings are, for the most part, spare. The music-making by a battery of ensemble players is penetrating. Phan's singing, which is unafraid of venturing into falsetto, is both direct and otherworldly. Nothing about this CD smacks of performance.


Phan has made his mark as a purveyor of songs, and his recordings of the works of Benjamin Britten and the French and German masters of song are salient and lasting. Here he finds another level of engagement with both words and music. His voice, now full, virile, and seasoned, carries with that taut relaxation encountered only in mastery of the first order.

Together he and Muhly make music at once deeply personal and yet purged of easy sentimentality.

The CD is completed, not merely fleshed out, with two other Muhly compositions. "Lorne Ys My Likinge" is a vivid setting for Phan and countertenor Reginald Mobley of a 19th-century medieval Chester mystery play, a passion setting for the Biblical Marys, and "Impossible Things" sets three Cavafy poems in their Daniel Mendelsohn translations for tenor and solo violin.

If that sounds good, just wait until you hear it.

Nico Muhly, 'Stranger and two other works,' Nicholas Phan, tenor, Reginald Mobely, countertenor, Brooklyn Rider, Eric Jacobsen's The Knights, and pianist Lisa Kaplan, Avie Records. www.avie-records.com

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