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Singer's Not Jubilant in Name Alone

Music: With a career spanning pop, gospel and classical, baritone Jubilant Sykes admits a passion for his craft that makes him 'want to do too many things at one time.'

December 13, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Just call him Jubilant.

After all, his recital four years ago at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena followed seven years of no recitals, and this year alone he's performed 40. And that doesn't include orchestral dates, such as a pair of Christmas concerts tonight and Saturday in Costa Mesa with the Pacific Symphony and the All-American Boys Chorus.

Besides, that's what his mother called him.

"She named me that simply because she wanted me to be jubilant," said baritone Jubilant Sykes, just off a plane from concerts in Sioux City, Iowa, in the door of his Venice Beach home, and on the phone for an interview earlier this week. "And when it comes to music, I am."

Sykes' career has spanned pop, gospel and classical music, with the decisive shift to classical coming with a first place in Metropolitan Opera regional auditions in Los Angeles and subsequent New York Met debut six years ago. He has since performed as a vocal soloist with orchestras under the direction of Lorin Maazel, Raymond Leppard and Cristoph Eschenbach, and often performs duo recitals with guitarist Christopher Parkening.

"I have a passion for music, and I probably want to do too many things at one time. I've got to take myself seriously enough to work, but not so seriously that I become more neurotic. At this stage of the game, you take [engagements] as they come . . . and they come by God's grace. Now it's just being careful when to say no, when to chill out a bit. When you love music, that's hard."

As for exactly what stage of the game Sykes is at, that's another story altogether.

"You never ask singers their age," Sykes admonished good-naturedly. "Don't you know that?"

Sykes offered no concrete reasons why not but apparently believes it affects careers.

"Ask my management," he said. (Management wouldn't say, either.)

Sykes eventually allowed that he is in his mid-30s but said that the popular perception is that he is younger:

"Probably two years ago, someone wrote in a newspaper that I was in my 20s. All of a sudden it was everywhere, 'profoundly young singer.' I thought, 'I'm not profoundly young.' But management said, 'Let it go, let it go,' and no one's ever said anything. The age thing never came up."

The ages of Sykes' sons, however, are not a secret--1, 3 and 6. He hopes in the new year to spend "even greater quality time" with them and his wife, Cecelia, "just hanging out with the kids in the backyard."

Although Sykes started out in pop, the closest thing to that these days was a tour with the Boston Pops Orchestra last December. This year, he was named Sacred Music USA's vocalist of the year, and his "bread and butter" on the concert stage is Mahler's orchestral lieder.

This weekend's "Christmas Show With Jubilant Sykes" also features soprano Pamela Hinchman, tenor Kip Wilborn, conductor Randall Craig Fleischer and the Coast Ballet Theatre. The program includes excerpts from Handel's "Messiah" and Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker," Lucas Richman's "Hanukkah Festival Overture," "O Holy Night" and two dozen carols. Sykes will sing several traditional spirituals and James Ramsey's "Away in the Manger."

Sykes joined a small but distinguished coterie of opera singers recording spirituals two years ago with "Jubilant Sykes Sings Copland and Spirituals," on the Arioso Classics label and accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra. Sopranos Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle had released their acclaimed recording of spirituals shortly before. As for whether that phenomenon is fad or fixture, Sykes said, "I don't think it's a fad.

"To me it's a matter of being true to the music. If you can't commit, you need not do it. I'd say the same if the question were about country music. . . . If you try to do it for the sake of being popular, that's one thing. But if you hear someone singing country music and you see a truth, a sincerity. . . . To me, commitment is the dividing line."

* "Christmas Show With Jubilant Sykes" features the baritone along with soprano Pamela Hinchman, tenor Kip Wilborn, the All-American Boys Chorus and the Pacific Symphony tonight and Saturday at Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. $22-$58. (714) 755-5799.

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