A Singer for Whom Words Always Came First | Modern Society of USA

A Singer for Whom Words Always Came First

A Singer for Whom Words Always Came First

On a late summer afternoon in 1993 at my house in Cambridge, Mass., the baritone Sanford Sylvan and I spent hours rehearsing a short piece: Virgil Thomson’s “Pigeons on the Grass Alas,” with words by Gertrude Stein.

The final section of this “recitative and air,” as Thomson called it, is like a nonsensical yet glorious religious proclamation: “Foundationally marvelously aboundingly illimitably with it as a circumstance.”

Sandy — everyone who worked with him knew this most principled, compelling and collegial singer, who died last week at 65, as Sandy — sang it just that way, lifting the words with robust sound and elation. After one run-through, during the final phrase, “Fundamentally and saints,” Sandy plunged down the scale to end on a sustained, hearty low C.

For a moment he was quiet. Then he said something curious: “And people say I don’t have low notes,” speaking as much to himself as to me. Perhaps Sandy had gotten tired of hearing his eloquent lightness and clarity in the upper range praised. He was also commanding, both in voice and stage presence, and could summon bass power when called for, as he did that afternoon.

We were preparing “Pigeons,” for baritone and piano, for an album of Thomson vocal works, most of them little-known, that I was making for Northeastern Records with an excellent group of Boston-area singers.

I listened to it again last week following the news of his death. I didn’t know Sandy that well. We’d fallen out of touch in recent years. Yet making music together fosters a lasting intimacy between people.

My first strong impression of him was in the title role of Handel’s “Orlando” at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in 1982, a pioneering Peter Sellars production that turned the knight Orlando into an astronaut.

I’ll never forget his chillingly clear performance of the scene when romantic frustration drives Orlando to a harrowing mental breakdown. And I saw him in other landmark Sellars stagings: Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” set in Trump Tower in New York, and “Così Fan Tutte,” moved to a roadside diner.

Sandy once told me that he felt “born to do” this kind of opera, to take part in productions that looked deep into standard works to find contemporary resonances. If he never performed at the Metropolitan Opera, he said, so be it. And he never did. What he was doing took courage and mattered just as much as the Met, if not more.

Before working together, we had mingled in Boston’s close-knit musical community. He had heard me perform in concerts. Still, I was a little surprised that he jumped at my offer to participate in the Thomson project.

One of his assignments was “Capital Capitals,” another Gertrude Stein setting, for four male singers and piano. With some 3,000 words, the text vaguely evokes the French region of Provence — its landscape, food, and customs — in the form of a conversation between four cities: Aix, Arles, Avignon and Les Baux.

What drew him to our project? Words. It was always words with Sandy. Whether the texts were somber or fanciful, poignant or impish, words came first. This was clear when he spoke about John Adams’s “The Wound-Dresser,” written for him in 1989. The text is a Walt Whitman poem, a reflection on tending sick and wounded soldiers during the Civil War.

“It’s such a privilege to sing those words,” Sandy told me. It seemed revealing that he didn’t say it was a privilege to sing “that piece” or “that music.” He said “those words.”

Of course, he meant it was a privilege to sing Whitman’s words as set to music by Mr. Adams, perhaps his most important collaborator; Sandy created the roles of Chou En-lai in “Nixon in China” and the title role in “The Death of Klinghoffer.” But it was communicating the words that came first; after his death, Mr. Adams tellingly paid tribute to the way Sandy “made our American language a thing of beauty whenever he sang it.”

As a deeply spiritual person who took periodic sabbaticals to study Judaism and Buddhism, Sandy was touched by the hints of Christian mysticism that seem to run through “Pigeons on the Grass Alas.”

Thomson fashioned this concert piece from passages of his opera “Four Saints in Three Acts.” The opera vaguely suggests the life of a group of 16th-century Spanish saints, and all the words for “Pigeons” come from lines that St. Ignatius sings.

It begins with a solemn invocation. Over a low, soft D octave in the piano, the baritone sings a long melodic line that keeps leaping up and then descending on the notes of a D major scale, with what might seem baffling words: “A scene and withers,” “Why when in lean fairly rejoin place dismiss calls.” Come again? But Sandy sang it as if it were a truth imparted to him directly from God.

After a transitional moment in the piano with soft, hymnlike chords, the lilting main section, almost a gentle dance, begins with a slightly clipped yet tender melody on the words “Pigeons on the grass alas.” Sandy and I had a long discussion about the meaning of the word “alas.”

This episode in the opera is Ignatius’s vision of the Holy Ghost. So “alas” doesn’t mean “oh, no” or anything like that, Sandy thought. It’s closer to: “Isn’t that something?” It was that sense of openness and wonder that I’ll always hold dear about him.

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