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A Voice Apart

Sanford Sylvan loves opera, but he'd just as soon spend an intimate evening in recitalsinging art songs.

November 15, 1998|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

Sanford Sylvan isn't your usual baritone. Instead of making the operatic stage his sole focus, he has a commitment to art-song recitals. They do little to boost the singer's profile, and even less for his bankbook. But they provide balance to the glitzier fare--and a chance to breathe life into a genre some dismiss as stuffy and highbrow.

"I love operas--they're a hoot," says the singer who first attracted national attention starring in Peter Sellars' stagings of "Cosi Fan Tutte" (1986), "The Marriage of Figaro" (1988) and John Adams' "Nixon in China," which premiered in Houston in 1987. "But they involve artistic decisions about costumes, lighting, makeup, the conductor--things beyond your control. In vocal recitals, it's just you and the pianist speaking to people about intimate topics--using the most direct, honest form of communication you can."

On Friday, Sylvan and his longtime collaborator David Breitman will communicate with an audience at El Camino College Center for the Arts, serving up a program titled "An Evening of American Song." Featuring works by composers such as Virgil Thomson, John Harbison and Samuel Barber, it's a showcase not only for the two-time Grammy nominee but also for the new music that he loves.

"A life of music written only before 1940 is far less interesting," says Sylvan, 44, speaking on the phone from Edinburgh, Scotland, his home, along with Boston. "Yet 20 years ago, presenters were reluctant to go with it. Now it's requested as much as Schubert's song cycles. Society is catching up."

The New York-born musician has always followed his own drummer. Though his parents steered him away from the uncertainties of an artistic life, he determined his course early on. At 12, he watched a slide show of Leontyne Price's "Aida" on a visit to the new Lincoln Center library. He applied to Juilliard's prep division the following year.

"Voice studies weren't supposed to begin until 16, so I lied about my age," Sylvan recalls. "My teacher nearly had a heart attack when I told him the truth. He took me on anyhow and gave me spectacular ear training. I was sent to concerts--Janet Baker, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau--and expected to report back."

After high school graduation, Sylvan enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music, ushering at the Met and holding four other jobs to make ends meet. Summers, he headed for Tanglewood to study with famed soprano and vocal coach Phyllis Curtin. She shared with him her passion for new music and the use of American English. "A shift from the rolled Rs and elocution-lesson variety so popular 30 years ago," Sylvan explains.

At the same time, Sylvan started singing with a Renaissance group called Pomerium Musices, with whom he recorded. Five years later, in 1978, he defied friends who warned him he was sabotaging his career by moving from New York to Boston.


Boston, as it happened, was an excellent choice, with its diverse, grass-roots music scene and assortment of choral ensembles and chamber groups. Working there, he says, allowed him to build a foundation in "every piece written for baritone soloists with chorus." Singing at the city's Emmanuel Church brought him to the attention of its conductor, Craig Smith, who went on to cast him in the title role of Handel's "Orlando" in 1981. This was Sylvan's first contact with Sellars, who directed the opera at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.

Sylvan also ran into Breitman, a New England Conservatory piano student who was to become his creative partner and accompanist. "Sanford and I have been duking it out over musical matters for 20 years, which is more typical of a chamber group than a voice and piano duo," Breitman says from Ohio, where he teaches at Oberlin College. "And he has a rare sense of the importance of the part the piano plays--he makes me feel valued."

Their first joint project was a 1979 Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored American music competition at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Though the duo finished third, the event, broadcast on National Public Radio, won them some concert dates.

From the outset, Sylvan and Breitman shared a stylistic vision, favoring accessibility over artifice. "There are no arch gestures, no sentimentality," Breitman says. "Sanford makes the performance as human as possible, getting out of the way to let the poet and composer speak."

Critics, too, have praised Sylvan's impeccable diction and sensitivity to the text. "For sweetness and clarity, for immediacy of communication and openhearted singing, Sylvan commands attention," the Boston Globe has observed. Referring to his "intelligence and character," the New York Times called him "an art-song singer of unusual versatility."

Words are magic, Sylvan maintains. Emily Dickinson is his all-time "American hero." In the second half of the El Camino "American Song" concert, her poetry is set to the music of Wes York. Earlier on, David Leisner's work embellishes text by Emily Bronte.

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