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Open Space concert: Nicholas Phan and Myra Huang

I heard singer Nicholas Phan and pianist Myra Huang in an Open Space concert on 8/9/20. Huang was the first to speak and she said that they had been collaborating for twenty years. Here's a YouTube special, Phan and Huang performing Debussy's "Green:"


They opened with a heavenly Schubert song, “Frülingsglaube.” Phan sang to a pre-recorded piano part played by Huang. His singing was lovely, classic Lieder singing, limpid and highly expressive use of the text. I knew we were in for something special.

Plan said that they decided to program some solo piano pieces and a cappella vocal pieces, to make the most of them being separated. The first a cappella piece was “Mad King” by Sarah Kirkland Snider on a text by William Blake. It was well written for voice alone, you could imagine the harmonies supporting the vocal line.

The next piece was a piano solo, one of the most famous piano pieces ever, Debussy’s “Clair de lune.” Huang told the story about seeing the moon reflected on a still, black lake one night when she was quite young and how this piece makes her remember both the image of the moon on the lake and her feeling seeing it. She played it with such tenderness and delicacy, it was profoundly moving. It’s a piece I’ve heard maybe a hundred times (maybe more), and yet she made it sound fresh and personal.

Phan was the next to speak, he said it was “so luxurious” to hear her play. They performed two songs from Lili Boulanger’s song cycle *Clairières dans le ciel,* “Elle était descendue” and “Elle est gravement gaie,” with Phan singing live to a prerecorded piano part by Huang. Phan sounded dreamy, he took some stunning, pianissimo leaps into high voice.

Phan sang three songs from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s *Ten Blake Songs,* “London,” “The Shepherd,” and “The Divine Image.” The pieces were written for singer and oboe, he sang them alone, without the oboe part. I felt like they were missing something, maybe because I’d heard them before with the oboe. I understand why Phan wanted to program something else on a Blake text, but I didn’t feel it quite worked for voice alone. There are many other songs written that way, I wish he had done one of them instead.

Next was the piece I was most looking forward to hearing, Huang played Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major. It’s probably my favorite solo piano piece ever. I grew up listening to a Horowitz recording, and the problem with hearing a specific recording of a piece many times, especially when you’re a pre-teen, is that you’re basically imprinting the music on your brain in that extremely specific way. That’s the recording you hear in your head even when you hear anyone else play the same piece. Horowitz did a masterful job of making the two outer voices prominent and keeping the fluttery, inner voices very quiet. Huang didn’t quite achieve that, but who says it has to be played that way? And Horowitz is freaking DEAD after all, someone else (a living person, for example) should be given the chance to play it a different way. So thank you, Myra Huang, for opening my ears to a new way of hearing this beloved piece. She played it beautifully.

Huang said that the piece is used in the movie *Gattaca,* a movie I love. She said that the movie, to her, is about the power and beauty of imperfections, and the Schubert was both transcendently beautiful and probing and dark. She said that to her true love can come out of times of crisis.

They performed a song by Howard Swanson, “I Will Lie Down in Autumn.” Gorgeous song, challenging and full of impact. We watched a video of their performance, recorded together but separately. It was a treat to hear them and see them performing live together.


They ended with three songs by Benjamin Britten, “Wagtail and Baby,” “Before Life and After,” and “The Last Rose of Summer.” Huang’s part was prerecorded, Phan sang live, and I should say that it never bothered me, hearing and seeing songs performed in this format. It’s what we’ve got right now, much of the time!

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