Making his Bargemusic debut Saturday is
a very big deal to Sanford Sylvan.
"I’ve never played there, and I’m
really looking forward to it," says the 47-year-old baritone
about his performance this weekend on the city’s only floating
barge that doubles as a first-rate concert hall.
"It’s a great idea, and they’ve yielded
a lot of great chamber music playing over the years," Sylvan
said of the barge moored at the end of Old Fulton Street. "It’s
wonderful that in New York, small can work too."
Sylvan, a native of Boston, will join several
of his colleagues Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon for a
program coordinated by Carmit Zori of great, but not often played
Sylvan’s contributions include "Dover
Beach," Samuel Barber’s pristine song written for the rarely
heard combination of baritone and string quartet, and several
songs of Johannes Brahms, where he will be accompanied by pianist
Raim will also play Bach’s Italian Concerto,
while the string quartet that accompanies Sylvan’s Barber rendition
– violinists Zori and Nicholas Eanet, violist Brian Chen and
cellist Julia Lichten – will perform another obscure 20th century
masterwork, Paul Hindemith’s Third String Quartet.)
Even though Brahms is considered a master,
his songs are not held in high renown – at least not in America.
"In Europe, Brahms’ lieder are sung
all over the place," Sylvan notes. "We’ll be doing
four of his most popular songs, and even though they’re not folk
songs per se, Brahms always had an interest in folk music, so
these songs have that feel to them."
As for Barber, one of the greatest composers
this country has ever produced (but who was inexplicably maligned
during his lifetime), Sylvan is necessarily defensive.
"I grew up in New York," Sylvan
explains, "and during the early ’70s, Barber was vilified
by a cowardly music press that was afraid of listening for real."
That may have been because Barber was a
Romantic in a non-romantic age. His music was all about melody
– like his most famous work, the haunting "Adagio for Strings,"
heard to shattering effect in the movie "Platoon" but
originally written as a movement of his Third String Quartet
– which flew square in the face of the atonality and serialism
favored by so many trendy composers and critics at that time.
Sylvan, for one, believes that Barber’s
innate lyricism will stand the test of time. "I think that
his music will last, while a lot of the stuff that was trumpeted
in those days will never be heard again," he predicts. "Barber
died [in 1981] in a certain amount of disgrace, and the press
must bear a big part of the responsibility for that."
About "Dover Beach," one of Barber’s
most celebrated songs – composed at age 21 to a lyric by the
Victorian-era poet Matthew Arnold – Sylvan waxes enthusiastic
about its multifaceted quality: "There’s a real art to taking
this poem and using the medium of the string quartet and baritone
to bring out its beauty."
Sylvan is also unafraid of any comparisons
his reading of "Dover Beach" may receive: "There’s
a recording of Barber singing it himself [the composer was also
quite a good singer], which is simply fantastic to hear."
American composers have featured prominently
in Sylvan’s career. One of his earliest roles was in John Adams’
opera, "Nixon in China," in which Sylvan sang the role
of the Chinese premier Chou En-Lai during its premiere performances
in 1987, one of which was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But
Sylvan didn’t participate in the work’s revival last season by
the Brooklyn Philharmonic. "That part is too high for me
now," he admits.
And, although Igor Stravinsky wasn’t American,
he lived much of his long life in this country (first Los Angeles,
then New York, where he died in 1971 at age 88). Just last weekend,
Sylvan sang one of his most demanding roles in Stravinsky’s late
(1962) work of genius, the 12-tone "Abraham and Isaac,"
which Sylvan calls a "sacred ballad for baritone and chamber
He also performed at Alice Tully Hall with
the Los Angeles Philharmonic in another rarity: a full concert
program filled with several infrequently programmed Stravinsky
works. For Sylvan, it was an extraordinarily rewarding experience.
"’Abraham and Isaac’ is a very difficult
piece, but I’ve done it a lot," he explains. "It’s
actually quite terrifying for the performers beforehand, since
it’s sung in Hebrew. But now that I’ve memorized it, it’s quite
fulfilling to be able to transmit the beauty of the piece to
And at Bargemusic this weekend, audiences
will be able to hear Sanford Sylvan do just that.
Bargemusic [Fulton Ferry Landing, (718)
624-2083] will present a program featuring baritone Sanford Sylvan
and pianist Cynthia Raim on March 24 at 7:30 pm and March 25
at 4 pm. Tickets are $27, $25 seniors and $15 students. For more
information go to www.bargemusic.org.