classical music

Guitar and Voice Virtuosos Visit Menil For Concert of English Music

Eliot Fisk and Nicholas Phan will perform songs by British composers from John Dowland to Benjamin Britten.

By Sydney Boyd January 23, 2015

Eliot Fisk, guitar

From Dowland to Britten: Nicholas Phan, Tenor; Eliot Fisk, Guitar
Jan 27 at 7:30
The Menil Collection
1533 Sul Ross St.

Love may be imperfect, messy, in many ways indefinable, but it has endured as central concern—perhaps the central concern—of music. On Tuesday, Da Camera presents a concert of works stretching from John Dowland to Benjamin Britten, from Elizabethan England to Churchill’s United Kingdom, with love at its core.

Dowland was a renowned English lutenist of the 16th and early 17th century who amused the courts—a musician “whose touch upon the lute doth ravish human sense,” in Shakespeare’s words. Poet Richard Barnfield compared the composer to Spenser in his 1598 sonnet “If music and sweet poetry agree.” Britten, on the other hand, is a 20th-century composer better known for his attention to the darker aspects of love. Also on the program are Mátyás Seiber’s jaunty Four French Folk Songs and William Walton’s Anon in Love.

Guitarist Eliot Fisk and tenor Nicholas Phan first performed a version of this program at Boston GuitarFest 2013, where Fisk is the artistic director. That year the festival celebrated the birthdays of Britten, Dowland, and guitarist and lutenist Julian Bream. “They were looking for someone to join Eliot to play some Britten, and obviously I was a natural choice because I had been working so much with his music over the past five, six years, so that’s how we met, and we really hit it off really quickly,” Phan said of his first collaboration with Fisk.

Nicholas Phan, tenor

In 2011, Phan released his first solo album Winter Words, named for Britten’s 1953 song cycle pulled from eight Thomas Hardy poems. Since then, Phan has built an impressive reputation as a reigning vocal authority on Britten. And in terms of period, the tenor is a remarkably flexible artist. As in this Da Camera program, which spans almost 400 years, Phan commands two pretty extensive canons. His forthcoming crowdfunded solo album, A Painted Tale, promises a complex chamber program of English Renaissance and Baroque songs.

Fisk, who will be accompanying Phan, is considered by many to be the best classical guitarist in the world. Among his numerous accolades, in 2006 King Juan Carlos of Spain gave Fisk an award for his service to Spanish music. Renowned as an enigmatic performer and generous teacher, Fisk is also known for his guitar transcriptions of Baroque and contemporary music. As a young violinist, I wore out my copy of his 1995 album The Best of Eliot Fisk, which features wild pieces by Paganini I’d only ever heard performed on the violin. 

Phan and Fisk will be performing at the Menil, where the exhibition Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence, is currently on view. While the Elizabethan portion of the program sticks to a love in a strictly romantic sense, Britten opens up a space for broader definition.

“Make love not war, I think, is a very simple adage that comes out of any program about romantic love,” Phan said. “Britten, who is a large inspiration for this program obviously, was a very staunch pacifist. While he was conscientiously objecting to the war, he did fall in love romantically with Peter Pears, and he became a giant inspiration. And actually that relationship is one of the three threads that kind of ties this program together.”

For Fisk, Britten connects to Dowland’s songs through a more philosophical line of questioning. “[Dowland’s] ‘In Darkness Let Me Dwell’ is almost a nihilistic text, like Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be,’” Fisk explained. “It ends on the dominant, it doesn’t end on the tonic—it ends in nothingness. The Elizabethans really kind of discovered a new kind of atheism. They’re very close to the void that Britten looked into with the War Requiem.”

The concert offers a rare chance for Houstonians to hear a genre of music, the song cycle, that isn’t often performed these days. While Britten is perhaps better known for his operas (Houston Grand Opera just finished a series of Britten operas in 2012), his song cycles are just as remarkable, full of mindful provocations that lay bare the raw essence of what it means to be human and in love.

As Fisk discussed the concert program, he lingered on Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op. 70. “It ends unfinished because the very question of the Nocturnal is unanswerable: What is death? It all ends incomplete. It is the big unanswered question.”


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