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MUSIC : A Voice for American Music : Baritone Sanford Sylvan is at once populist and avant-gardist, dedicated recital artist and leading-edge opera favorite

April 05, 1992|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar

To many, he's the wheelchair-bound victim of Palestinian cruise ship hijackers in the controversial John Adams-Peter Sellars opera "The Death of Klinghoffer." To others, he's the gentle Chou En-lai of "Nixon in China." And for some, he's one of the musical pillars of Sellars' trendy updatings of "Le Nozze di Figaro" and "Cosi fan Tutte."

But for baritone Sanford Sylvan, one of opera's increasingly lauded young voices, such new American work is only part of the picture. A dedicated recital artist who boldly goes where the more sales-conscious fear to tread, Sylvan has aficionados beyond the chichi world of avant-garde opera.

A soft-spoken maverick, he's won a following with his devotion to lieder, chamber music and American composers. "The recital persona is the real me, the musician that was in place before I met Peter," Sylvan says of his two-track career. "Through the back flips of 'Figaro,' that lieder singer is always there. The issues of musical commitment are the same. Mozart informs Adams, which informs Mahler and Schubert."

Says Adams, who composed "The Wound Dresser" with Sylvan in mind: "What's refreshing about Sandy is that he's resisted the kind of handling that goes on with younger singers, who get discovered and whom management pushes into the same realm singing the same repertoire. While he loves Schubert and Mozart and Bach, creating roles gives him a level of pleasure that also utilizes his extraordinary intellect."

Sylvan, who was nominated for a 1990 Grammy for his recording of "The Wound Dresser," has also released two 1991 recordings on the Nonesuch label and has several other discs due out in the near future.

He makes his Los Angeles recital debut at the Doheny Mansion on Friday, in an event sponsored by the Da Camera Society. The following week, April 16-19, Sylvan will join the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with Adams conducting "The Wound Dresser" and the local premiere of his "El Dorado." (The program also includes Adams' arrangement of Liszt's "The Black Gondola" and Britten's "Sinfonia da Requiem".)

Sylvan and pianist David Breitman's Doheny recital will feature Schubert's "Die schone Mullerin," which the duo recently recorded for Nonesuch for fall release. Breitman will also play Schubert's Three Piano Pieces, D. 946.

These are good times for artists like Sylvan. "We're in a renaissance for vocal recital music in the last 10 years, although it's been something of a struggle," he says.

"Sometimes managers of concert series are reluctant to program vocal recitals, thinking they're not popular. There will always be the parade of European artists, but now there are a lot of American singers singing recital music too."

This newly warm welcome for home-grown talent is just part of a greater freedom in the music world. "At this point, everything is up for grabs," Sylvan says. "Things are less narrowly defined than they were, which might be a way of saying that the musical Establishment is being opened up to accept a wider variety of forms."

Such change, the baritone says, comes none too soon: "We must augment the masters with the work of our time. What will break down the barriers (of classical music and opera) even more is the opening up of the boundaries of the forms themselves."

Sylvan grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and studied at Juilliard Prep and the Manhattan School of Music. During the mid-'70s, he came under the tutelage of soprano Phyllis Curtin, and in 1977, at age 23, he moved to Boston, where he continued his work with her.

Curtin instilled in Sylvan an appreciation of and commitment to music composed by living Americans, as well as the relatively unconventional belief that it is possible to sing elegantly in indigenous English.

"I was lucky that I studied with one of the great champions of American music," Sylvan says of Curtin. "It's hard to tell where her guidance and my love met. One of the things she gave me is a love of American English."

Says Adams: "First and foremost he has a beautiful voice with a slight, lingering melancholy quality to it. English is not an easy language to set to music or to sing, but Sandy has this way of singing American English with its peculiar rhythms and making it sound utterly natural and beautiful to the ear."

Sylvan cites singing Bach cantatas amid the swirl of the late-'70s early music boom in Boston--where he still lives--as one of the formative experiences of his artistic life. Yet he also cites extramusical endeavors that have earned his career the tag of "unconventional."

While Sylvan dismisses the myth of the "conventional" career, he's long happily resided off the beaten path. Not only is he based outside New York, but in 1980 he took a hiatus from singing to take up a spiritual retreat at Findhorn, a farming community in Scotland.

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