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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the February 5, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Intimacies of the Art Song
Jon Magnussen, composer-in-residence at the Institute
for Advanced Study, turns out compositions. But that’s not all he
does. He also acts as an impresario, organizing concert programs for
Wolfensohn Auditorium, the institute’s intimate 200-seat concert hall.
In theory, each of the concert programs includes music he has written.
The next event in the series features baritone Sanford Sylvan and
takes place Wednesday, February 12 at 8 p.m., and Friday, February
14 at 8 p.m. Collaborating with David Breitman, his long-term pianist,
Sylvan sings "My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken me?" from
Magnussen’s "Psalm," and pieces by Hugo Wolf, who was born
150 years ago; Gabriel Faure; and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Sylvan,
Breitman, and Magnussen discuss the works on the program and perform
musical examples Thursday, February 13 at 4: 30 p.m. in the Dilworth
Room on the Institute campus.
Magnussen wrote "Psalm" as a commission to accompany a pre-existing
Jose Limon ballet choreographed in 1967. The ballet is based on Andre
Schwarz-Bart’s novel, "The Last of the Just," which recounts
the struggle of an Auschwitz victim. Written during his residency
at the Institute, Magnussen’s score also incorporates musical material
inspired by the World Trade Center disaster and other recent horrors
(U.S. 1, October 10, 2001).
Sylvan’s performance of the "Psalm" excerpt
was originally scheduled for a concert at the Institute almost a year
ago. Interviewed by telephone during an Ohio stopover on his way to
a Kansas City concert, Sylvan explains that the Magnussen piece is
not at all related to the rest of the program. "It’s a holdover
from last year’s concert," he says. "I had a cold and John
was gracious enough to withhold his piece and save it for this year.
Singing is like sports. You can last just so long with a cold."
"It’s a potent text beautifully set," Sylvan says of the three-minute
Magnussen excerpt. "It’s rhythmically difficult. My pianist and
I have done a lot of contemporary music, but we had to work at this.
The meter changes every three bars. The nine-beat measures are organized
3-2-2-2. It’s harder than it sounds."
I commiserate with him, telling him of my constant quest for piano
pieces that sound more difficult than they are, and Sylvan makes his
elevated standards known. "Our job," he says without rancor,
"is to make hard music sound easy."
Aside from the Magnussen song, Sylvan and Breitman’s program coheres
tightly. "There’s a connecting thread," Sylvan says. "I’m
interested in composers contemporary with each other. The program
covers the decade 1880 to 1890 and has works by three extremely different
composers who very much represented their musical identities. Because
of communication today, composers in Denver and Moscow sound alike.
It’s hard for us to understand, given our global outlook, that composers
from France, Germany, and Russia sound so different."
"The word used for art song varies in the three cultures,"
he says. "The French word is `melodie;’ the German is `Lied;’
and the Russian uses the French word `romance’ spelled in Cyrillic.
Perhaps the individuality is retained because of the poetry."
Still, Sylvan notes certain similarities. "All three composers
were urban men, but the influence of nature in their lives was enormous.
There are birch trees in songs by all three. The birch is the Russian
national tree. In any case, in the 19th century people everywhere
were closer to nature than they are now."
Sylvan points out additional connections between the composers. "Tchaikovsky
and Faure knew each other, and were fans of each other’s music,"
he says. "Faure dedicated his G minor quartet to Tchaikovsky.
But they retained their individuality. Just because I go to Florence
and look at the art doesn’t mean I’m going to become Italian."
Sylvan is conscious of the personal situation of each man and sensitive
to their individual problems. "When we go to a concert and hear
art music, it seems to be from somewhere else. People forget that
these folks had difficult lives. Faure was begging for a job at the
Conservatoire, and begging people to write references for him. But
the job went to a third-rate hack. Eventually, at the turn of the
century, he got a job in composition at the Conservatoire. Then he
became deaf. That’s a terrible thing for a composer."
"Wolf was the prototype of the unrecognized genius. In his lifetime
only a few knew that he was a genius. He had bipolar disorder and
died in an asylum. He wrote the 40 Morike songs in a period of three
months, and then nothing more for five years. For some of the songs
— ones we’re not doing from the `Italienishes Liederbuch’ —
he recorded the time of day when he finished writing: 11:20, 2:15,
4:30. He worked in a fever. Then he was blocked."
Sylvan, 49, grew up in Syosset, Long Island. His mother, now retired,
taught elementary school, and his father worked in trucking. He is
the second of four in siblings in what he labels a non-musical family.
"We’re all very close," he says. The family lives in the New
York area and will attend the concert at the Institute for Advanced
As a high school student Sylvan attended the Juilliard
Preparatory School, a Saturday offering of Juilliard. During the week
he attended Juilliard’s regular master classes, noting the various
styles of master teachers. "Maria Callas was extremely supportive,"
he says. "She was collegial, treating singers as equals, and trying
hard to help. The most wonderful classes were given by Peter Pears.
He was a better teacher than Callas, extremely insightful. We came
away with phenomenally interesting ideas. The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf-John
Legge classes were a style that, thank God, most people don’t aspire
to. The word `critical’ takes on a new meaning with Legge [Schwarzkopf’s
husband]. Schwarzkopf was more generous than he was. If someone is
attacking you, you can’t express yourself. The only thing you learn
to handle is fear."
Sylvan’s conservatory training was at the Manhattan School of Music.
As a 20-year-old he began studying at Tanglewood with Phyllis Curtin,
whom he refers to as "my great mentor." Curtin sang standard
repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera House and also performed contemporary
music. "She insisted that we sing the music of our own time,"
Sylvan says. "`It behooves us,’ she used to say — she was
the only person who could use the word `behooves’ and make it sound
idiomatic. She forced us to think about the entire singer-being. Her
real quest was for honesty in performance. She created an atmosphere
supportive enough so we could do artistically dangerous things and
try things that we didn’t know we were brave enough to try. She taught
me how to teach."
Sylvan is now in his first year as artist-in-residence at the Boston
Conservatory where he regularly gives master classes for his students.
"I’m a teacher of the loving, supportive kind. There’s nothing
to be learned in fear," he says.
Sylvan moved to Boston in 1977. "It was the best move I ever made.
In Boston I got to sing every piece for baritone. They were doing
the kind of music I wanted to do — Bach, Mozart, and Handel. It
was an extraordinary scene with a great number of high-level choral
societies. Boston was different from New York because there was an
indigenous music scene. In New York it was a lot of people moving
through." Sylvan remains a Boston resident.
Soon after arriving in Boston, Sylvan began collaborating with David
Breitman. He calls the long-term relationship "one of the greatest
gifts of my life."
"A freelance musician," he says, "is always on the go,
always meeting people with wonderful musical ideas. It’s very refreshing.
But a real relationship takes time. Next year is the 25th anniversary
of my collaboration with David. When we look together at a score,
we know what each other is capable of and interested in. So those
getting-to-know-you questions are not in the room."
"Also," Sylvan adds, "long-term collaborators can watch
each other’s growth because we get to do the same piece repeatedly.
We’ve done 60 or 70 `Winterreise’ and over 100 `Schone Mullerin.’"
"The art song is the most intimate form of chamber music,"
Sylvan says. "How I color a word, how he colors a phrase —
we are attuned to that."
In addition to his recital performances, Sylvan is active as an opera
performer. His portrayals of Mozartean roles have been heard at New
York City Opera, Glyndebourne, and on PBS "Great Performances."
His contemporary operatic roles include Chou En-Lai in John Adams’
"Nixon in China" and the title role in Adams’ "The Death
of Klinghoffer," both of which were written for him.
After I ask Sylvan what he might have done if he did not become a
musician there is a long silence. Finally, he says, "I’d probably
be a monk. I don’t wish to do something other than singing. Singing
is hard, but I love it."
Sylvan is an avid reader. At the moment his favorite is the Irish
20th century author William Trevor. "He writes about life and
about religion," says Sylvan, explaining the appeal. Another subject
Sylvan pursues is Judaic studies; he also reads about the composers
whose music he sings.
"I’ll be reading letters at the concert to help the audience experience
these people as living, breathing, struggling human beings," Sylvan
says, eager to share his gleanings. In an aside, he comments, "Struggle
is bled out of images by the media. Everyone is struggling economically,
but you wouldn’t know it from what Bush says. Public statements are
sanitized and hard questions are not asked. In the past, public events
impacted immediately. If there was a riot in a city, people would
know those who were involved. It wasn’t compartmentalized."
Sylvan doesn’t allow his misgivings about the state of the nation
to deflect his joy in musical performance. "Wolfensohn Hall is
gorgeous," he says. "It’s the hall for which this art music
was intended. It’s an extended living room."
— Elaine Strauss
Hall, Einstein Drive, 609-734-8228. Recital with pianist David Breitman.
Free with ticket request. Wednesday, February 12, 8 p.m. and
Friday, February 14, 8 p.m.
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