You might assume a singer would mess things up.
The instrumentalists, after all, have been performing together for six years, developing rapport, character, and sound. They have had other players in, all instrumentalists who became part of the group — not frontmen or women.
Then comes this tenor, the attention grabber of the male voices. Surely, when he steps to center stage, it’s going to throw off the mix. It will become his show.
Unless, he becomes part of the band; another thread in the fabric of this ensemble.
And that is exactly what tenor Nicholas Phan, a vigorous proponent of vocal chamber music, did Friday night at the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington. He is the first vocalist the festival has engaged in its now seven-year history, and he was given free reign to do what he wanted.
His selection was a pair of works by Ralph Vaughn-Williams that leaned on the ever-changing moods of the instrumentalists weaving and re-weaving together to create the textures of On Wenlock Edge, which put Phan on stage with the entire chamber fest ensemble — violinists Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto, cellist Priscilla Lee, violist Burchard Tang and pianist Alessio Bax.
The six-song cycle is based on the poetry of A.E. Housman from his collection A Shropshire Lad, war-based poems that occasionally let up for light memories but convey an overall sense of loss and sadness. The six musicians moved together through these stories from the stormy title song to the spiritual From Far, From Eve and Morning to the jaunty and quick Oh, When I Was in Love With You.
Phan likes chamber music as a chance to communicate with the audience, which he certainly did — his haunting stare into space at the end of the concert was unforgetable — both with this and the concert opener, Vaughn-Williams’ Oh Merciless Beauty, which was almost disconcertingly short.
Sandwiched in between the vocal works were two Ludwig van Beethoven instrumental pieces: Cole and Bax’s fine-tuned rendition of the Kreutzer sonata and the String Quartet in B-Flat, Op. 18, No. 6. Both are standards of chamber repertoire that gave the players chances to show what great musicians can bring to pieces you’ve heard scads of times already.