IN: News & Features

Sanford Sylvan Leaves Us


Known to Bostonians as frequent collaborator in director Peter Sellars’s and conductor Craig Smith’s re-imaginings of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and Le nozze di Figaro (which also appeared in PBS’s “Great Performances”), for his work as a member of Emmanuel Music, for his longtime collaboration with pianist David Breitman in such works as Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, and with the Lydian String Quartet in Fauré’s La bonne chanson, the beloved baritone Sanford Sylvan died yesterday.

Over the years in the Boston Globe, Richard Dyer has often been touched by Sylvan’s accomplishments, once describing how he had:

“…arrived at an accomplishment denied to most professional singers, the art of delivering American English in a completely natural, unaffected and expressive way… without a trace of the opera singer’s…orotund recital delivery; instead there is a confidential, communicative, and even at times imposingly public statement of private feelings. Over the years Sylvan has simplified his performances as his understanding has deepened, and today he is one of America’s master singers.”

His voice took on, “an impact and ring at the top while retaining the lucidity and transparency that have always been its most cherishable characteristics. Sylvan’s ear remains impeccable; his art deepens with every appearance…as the loving, terrified, essentially decent Klinghoffer, [he was] touched by rare spiritual grace.”

Born in New York City in 1953, Sylvan graduated from the Manhattan School of Music. He also studied at the preparatory division of the Juilliard School and at the Tanglewood Music Center.

In the summer of 1994, Sylvan made his debut at the Glyndebourne Festival, performing the role of Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Sylvan has participated in the American premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse, the world premiere of Philip Glass’s The Juniper Tree, and a performance at the Proms in London of Michael Tippett’s The Ice Break.

In 1995, Sylvan performed in the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, the Ojai Festival, and the Carmel Bach Festival. He also appears annually with the New England Bach Festival under the direction of Blanche Moyse. As a chamber musician, he has sung with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, on several Music From Marlboro tours, and with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, with whom he has recorded John Harbison’s Words from Paterson. Sylvan has performed with orchestras throughout the world, including the Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, New Jersey Symphony, London Sinfonietta, St. Luke’s Chamber Orchestra, NHK Symphony, and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Sylvan received five Grammy nominations: Charles Fussell’s Wilde (2009) and John Adams’s The Wound-Dresser (1990), which were written for Sylvan; Fauré’s L’horizon chimérique (1999), Beloved That Pilgrimage (1992), and the soundtrack for the Penny Woolcock film of Adams’s opera, The Death of Klinghoffer (2003). He premiered a number of works by Philip Glass, Peter Maxwell Davies, John Harbison and Christopher Rouse, and performed in Adams’s A Flowering Tree at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. Perhaps as Zhou Enlai in Adams’s Nixon in China he created his major role.

He served as a professor of voice at the Juilliard School, the McGill University Schulich School of Music, and the Bard Conservatory Graduate Vocal Arts Program. He belonged to the vocal company at the College Light Opera Company.

In 1998, journalist Allan Ulrich profiled him HERE in The Advocate about his commitment to contemporary music, his 1996 wedding to his same-sex partner, and about coming out publicly in the New York Times during an era when that took some bravery.


19 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Sandy will be remembered and his his voice will be recalled whenever many songs cometo mind.

    Comment by John Achatz — January 30, 2019 at 7:20 pm

  2. I remember going to see Sandy at one of the last Emmanuel Schubert Series concerts. Among other things, he sang “Der Taucher,” that 20-something minute ballad by Schiller, and it was mesmerizing. At the reception afterwards though he said “I can’t sing that again until I either get longer arms or some better glasses!”

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — January 30, 2019 at 10:47 pm

  3. What a loss of a brilliant artist, inspiring teacher, and an open and generous spirit. His performances of Schubert and Bach at the Carmel Bach Festival in the 90s were sensitive to every nuance of the text, and his voice delivered its meaning with transcendent beauty.

    Comment by Bruce Lamott — January 30, 2019 at 11:37 pm

  4. A beloved student of my mother’s many decades ago, Sandy’s talent, passion for excellence and exquisite sensitivity for music would have been more than enough to distinguish him as a singer at the highest level. Ultimately, though, it was his heart, his love for life, his passion for the music he sang and his devotion to those whom he loved that will live forever in the hearts of those who remember him.

    Comment by Claudia d’Alessandro — January 31, 2019 at 3:40 am

  5. Sylvan singing Schütz, circa 1985:

    Comment by Joel Cohen — January 31, 2019 at 4:32 am

  6. I remember first hearing Sandy as a Tanglewood vocal fellow when I was in the high school program there and he and I became friends when we were in Boston together. His singing was always fully committed and incisively delivered. What a musician and what a special person he was! He leaves us far too soon.

    Comment by Beth Sperry — January 31, 2019 at 7:47 am

  7. Performing with Sandy was a special privilege, rehearsing with him, even better. He took the poetry seriously. I can recall us discussing the strophes of Schubert’s “Des Fischers Liebesglück and the care he took with the song’s detail. And of Frank Martin’s “Jedermann,” I cannot imagine a more spiritual performance. He always got to the heart of the music and poetry.

    Comment by Terry Decima — January 31, 2019 at 10:20 am

  8. I met Sanford after hearing him perform with David Breitman many years ago, when David and I were both graduate piano students at New England Comaervatory. Sylvan’s voice is utterly unforgettable. What a loss to the world of music, and to the world!

    Comment by Linda Cutting — January 31, 2019 at 10:56 am

  9. Terribly sad to learn of the passing of this wonderful man and brilliant artist. I had the pleasure of touring with him when I was Managing Director of The Boston Camerata and Sandy was one of our soloists. He introduced me to the music of John Adams sharing his wonderful recordings with me during long bus rides, and at each destination I got to listen to his glorious voice in various concert halls. He leaves me with wonderful memories, and a sense of great loss.

    Comment by Kati Mitchell — January 31, 2019 at 11:11 am

  10. A terrible loss, and we were so lucky so hear many of his Boston performances. Love and condolences to his colleagues, friends and appreciative audiences.

    Comment by Debra Cash — January 31, 2019 at 11:15 am

  11. I had the honor of singing with Sandy in the Carmel Bach Festival for a number of years. He was one of the kindest, most gracious people I’ve ever met. I’m heartbroken. My sincere condolences to his family and friends.

    Comment by Marie Hodgson — January 31, 2019 at 11:35 am

  12. Shocking news! His performances at Carmel Bach remain indelible in my memory. Some have remarked on his unique tonal palette but his standout feature to me was his profound sensitivity to the words, especially in JS Bach and Schubert.

    Comment by Scott MacClelland — January 31, 2019 at 1:22 pm

  13. What a tragedy! I had the great pleasure of presenting him singing the Wound Dresser by John Adams, and it still stuns me.

    Comment by Nancy Barry — January 31, 2019 at 2:30 pm

  14. more tributes and clips:

    Comment by davidrmoran — January 31, 2019 at 3:43 pm

  15. His presence has been an incredible source of support and mentoring for our daughter who is in the early stages of her career. As a Vocal Fellow for two seasons at Tanglewood and a graduate of Bard College’s VAP, from first meeting, his inspiration and honesty in his music encouraged her to take risks and make diverse choices in repertoire. Our conversations were full of joy and encouragment.

    Comment by Susan — January 31, 2019 at 6:49 pm

  16. and a marvelously specific recall:

    Comment by davidrmoran — January 31, 2019 at 9:50 pm

  17. more

    check out this Cosi

    Comment by davidrmoran — January 31, 2019 at 10:30 pm

  18. I heard Sanford Sylvan sing “An Die Musik” at an NEC program in Jordan Hall about 10 years ago. Strangely, no doubt because it was in German, the audience didn’t respond to it very enthusiastically, most no doubt unfamiliar with it or with the German language — surprising because it is so well known and sung in a great music conservatory. It was one of the most profound musical experiences of my life. I wrote Sylvan in care of NEC to tell him how deeply I appreciated his performance but it was returned unforwarded. Sadly I did not further pursue the attempt to contact him, a deep regret.

    Comment by Jan Dovenitz — February 2, 2019 at 2:34 pm

  19. I had the great pleasure of seeing him in NIXON IN CHINA in Los Angeles — I went twice because I loved it so much, and his performance as Zhou Enlai, both vocally and as an actor, was one of the biggest reasons why. Incredibly moving, and no one I’ve heard since has come close. What a loss!

    Comment by Lisa Brackmann — February 2, 2019 at 5:45 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.