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A Voice Apart

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

“Two 19th century women of genius writing poetry that’s revolutionary,” Sylvan says of the pair. “Bronte expresses her questions through belief while Dickinson questions all belief. I love having a feminine presence in a concert which is otherwise entirely male.”

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A staunch proponent of diversity, Sylvan offers up Virgil Thomson’s exuberant songs (“America at its most ‘frontier’ ”) as well as Earl Kim’s music for verse expressing the parting thoughts of a suicide. It also includes the “Hermit Songs” of Samuel Barber, whom he calls “the pillar of American recital music.” Rounding out the program is “Flashes and Dedications,” written by John Harbison in honor of the Sylvan-Breitman duo.

Sylvan throws his weight behind his creative instincts. Unhappy with a production of “Don Giovanni” at the Glyndebourne Festival four years ago, he bought himself out of the second season. Still, he once questioned whether he was cut out for the artistic life. In 1982, he put singing on hold for a year to do some soul-searching at Scotland’s Findhorn retreat.

“Studying since 13, performing since 18, I needed to find out who I was when I wasn’t being a musician,” recalls Sylvan, a bearded, barrel-chested man, both likable and intense. “It’s easy to get into that ‘victim-martyr’ mentality that comes from too many hotels and airports. I discovered that, while I could live happily without singing, I sing because I choose to.”

Sylvan’s breakthrough came with Sellars’ controversial Mozart operas, which aired on PBS’ “Great Performances” series in the late 1980s. John Adams’ 1989 “Wound Dresser” (written for the singer) and “Nixon in China,” in which Sylvan drew kudos as Chinese premier Chou En-lai, provided a further boost.

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“ ‘Nixon’ was that odd moment when mass media and the classical world interface,” says Sylvan of the opera, which went on to win an Emmy and a Grammy. “For me, it was as important internally as externally. [With all that attention] I had to deal with stage fright, which I hadn’t dealt with before.”

Sylvan followed “Nixon” with the lead in “The Death of Klinghoffer"--which Adams wrote for him and Sellars staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1992. During the 1995-96 season, the singer performed in Robert Wilson’s production of Thomson’s “Four Saints in Three Acts” at the Houston Grand Opera, Lincoln Center and the Edinburgh Festival. In the midst of all this, he kept pushing the boundaries of his recital career.

“In 1997, Schubert’s 200th anniversary, Sanford dragged around a replica of a 19th century fortepiano and performed Schubertiades,” Breitman says. “That was a stark contrast to his new music performing and his work with the medieval ensemble Sequentia. Most people are known for one thing, but Sanford resists pigeonholing.”

There’s nothing wrong with the limelight, says Sylvan. It’s just not a goal in itself.

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“You can’t do ‘Boris Godunov’ with two pianos and a kazoo,” he says. “And I wouldn’t walk away from the Met. But having a cross section is important to me. I like to think of myself as a painter, working on seven canvases at a time.”

* “AN EVENING OF AMERICAN SONG,” Marsee Auditorium of the El Camino College Center for the Arts, 16007 Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance. Date: Friday, 8 p.m. Prices: $18-$21. Phone: (800) 832-ARTS.


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