Sanford Sylvan 1953-2019 | In Memoriam

Thursday, Jan 31, 2019
by Joshua Simka
Juilliard Journal
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Sanford Sylvan
Photo: William Clift; courtesy of Nonesuch Records

Juilliard's voice faculty chair Sanford Sylvan, "a brilliant artist, exceptional teacher, and generous friend," died suddenly on January 29.

Renowned baritone and beloved voice teacher Sanford Sylvan died suddenly at his Manhattan home on January 29. In addition to Juilliard, where he began teaching in 2012 and became chair of the voice faculty last year, Sylvan was also on the faculties of Bard Conservatory and the Tanglewood Music Center and had previously been on the faculty of McGill University in Montreal.

“Our immediate thoughts are with his students, Vocal Arts colleagues, family, and friends,” Juilliard’s president, Damian Woetzel, said in an email to the community. “Sanford was a brilliant artist, an exceptional teacher, and a generous friend. He will be deeply missed.”

As a singer, Sylvan was particularly known for his work with new music generally and John Adams in particular; his repertoire also included American art song; opera roles from works by Britten, Handel, and Mozart; Schubert lieder, and the Passions of J.S. Bach. As a teacher and mentor, Sandy, as he was also known, lavished profound words of advice and affirmation even upon those who were not among his personal students, of whom there were 16 in his Juilliard studio. He will be remembered for his warm, nurturing disposition, generous encouragement, and attention to the development of not only a singer’s voice but also their personhood. He kept a notebook in which he tracked his students’ progress, making entries when singers would respond particularly well to a specific cue or vocal instruction, or verbalize some concept they had been working on.

Sylvan’s long and storied association with Adams included his creating the role of Chou-En Lai in Adams’ Nixon in China (1987); premiering in The Wound-Dresser (1989), which was written for him; recording the title role in Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer—he received one of his five Grammy nominations for the soundtrack of the 2003 film version of the opera; and performing the New York premiere of Adams’ The Flowering Tree as part of the 2009 Mostly Mozart Festival. And last semester, in a full-circle moment, two of his students sang The Wound Dresser in a Juilliard Lab Orchestra session with John Adams. Sylvan worked with an array of contemporary composers, among them Philip Glass (Diploma ’60, MS ’62, composition), Peter Maxwell Davies, John Harbison, Charles Fussell, and fellow Juilliard faculty member Christopher Rouse. He also starred in three of pioneering director Peter Sellars’ modern-dress Mozart opera productions. In 1991 the New York Times described Sylvan as “one of America’s most admired young baritones,” and the accolades continued throughout his career. He performed under the baton of conductors including Pierre Boulez, Herbert Blomstedt, Christopher Hogwood, James Levine (Diploma ’63, orchestral conducting), and Esa-Pekka Salonen with the world’s leading orchestras and opera companies, and recorded extensively.

Born in New York City on December 19, 1953, Sylvan began studying at Juilliard Prep at 13 years old (his primary voice teacher was alumnus William Toole) having been inspired to be a singer by a clip he saw of the prima donna Leontyne Price (’52, voice) starring in Verdi’s Aida. He studied at the Tanglewood Music Center for four summers, graduated from the Manhattan School of Music, and, in the late 1970s, he relocated to Boston, enticed by a music scene comprising choral groups, chamber orchestras, and new music collectives. His move cut against the grain of conventional wisdom, which at the time dictated that a singer would do best to establish a career in New York. Sylvan carved the path of his solo career in a similar vein, preferring regular breaks from singing over a congested schedule and striving for the highest quality, most artistically rewarding engagements. “I just did what I wanted. I didn’t live like a prince,” he told the Observer in 2011. “To sing the St. Matthew Passion with a great conductor, that’s the bottom line for me. You don’t get rich singing the St. Matthew Passion, you just get happy.”

For the past five summers, Sylvan taught at Tanglewood Music Center. The position was particularly meaningful to him given his formative studies there with soprano Phyllis Curtin, to whom he dedicated his first solo album, Beloved That Pilgrimage. Music critic Michael Steinberg wrote in his liner notes, “Intelligence and musicality cannot be passed on, and in this instance they did not need to be. [Curtin] did pass to Sandy her own highly developed sense of artistic probity, her devotion to and love of the music of her country, her passion for clarity of text, and her belief that a singer’s task, first and last, is to communicate, to connect.”

Joshua Simka (BM ’14, voice) is the assistant editor of the Journal