When tenor Nicholas Phan appears in Handel’s Messiah later this month, it won’t be his first engagement with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. That occurred many years ago, and it launched his professional career.

These days, Phan is in demand all over the world, singing with top ensembles and conductors. His solo projects, too, have earned critical raves. And his work with the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, which he and two colleagues co-founded in 2010, is helping to promote art song and vocal chamber music with an annual festival, master classes, workshops and a salon series.

But in 2002, Phan was just 23 and studying at the Manhattan School of Music. One day, his teacher interrupted their coaching session to take a phone call. A slightly irritated Phan stood by, waiting to resume, when he heard the teacher say, “I think the person you’re looking for is standing right in front of me.” Then, to Phan: “Can you be in Chicago on Friday?”

Nicholas Phan, accompanied by Michael Brown, performs in recital as part of a Collaborative Works Festival, presented by the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago. | Photo: Elliot Mandell

It turned out the CSO needed a tenor to sing the part of Carthaginian poet Iopas in a concert setting of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, conducted by renowned maestro Zubin Mehta. Long story short, Phan auditioned in Chicago, got the job and returned a few months later to perform the work.

A violinist and violist growing up, Phan played with youth orchestras and dreamed of joining the CSO, but it wasn’t to be. “I often tell people I sing because that’s the only way I could have made a living as a professional musician,” he said, joking. “So the idea that I was suddenly standing up in front of this orchestra that I had idolized as a teenager was mind-blowing.”

By his own estimate, Phan has performed with the CSO seven or eight more times since his days as Iopas. While this latest visit (Dec. 20-23) will mark his Messiah debut with the ensemble, it’s far from his first Messiah. During his freshman year at the University of Michigan, Messiah arias were among Phan’s earliest repertoire, assigned by a practical-thinking instructor who knew the popular oratorio could serve as a steady source of future income. Despite having sung it so many times he has lost count, Handel’s masterpiece remains one of Phan’s favorite pieces.

“It’s done in such a wide variety of ways, whether you’re doing it with a modern instrument ensemble like the CSO or with period instruments, so that’s one way it inherently stays fresh,” he said. “And because it’s so technically challenging and the music requires such transparency, it’s a great annual winter cleaning, so to speak.”

Phan also loves its uplifting story. The opportunity to help tell that story with an orchestra he has adored for so long — particularly now, as a mature artist — is a bonus.

He finds the opening tenor solo, a warm and gentle movement titled “Comfort Ye,” especially affecting. It begins:

Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to
Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her
Iniquity is pardoned.

“Each year as I get older,” Phan said, “getting up to sing ‘Comfort Ye,’ with its idea of promise and hope and better times coming, seems so much more palpable to me.”

TOP: Handel’s Messiah remains a favorite for tenor Nicholas Phan: “It’s done in such a wide variety of ways … it inherently stays fresh.” | Photo: Henry Dombey