In Memoriam: Sanford Sylvan


Published: 6Feb2019

To honour Sanford’s devotion to his students and his love of music, the Sanford Sylvan Fund has been established at McGill University to provide financial support to talented voice students at the Schulich School of Music. Donations can be made here.

Both the Schulich community and music world at large are mourning the loss of beloved baritone Sanford Sylvan (1953-2019). Known for his incredible onstage presence as well as his personable teaching skills, Sylvan will be missed by the many students, colleagues, and audiences that he touched with his music and passion for education.

From childhood, Sylvan showed a love of music and singing, having first been inspired by a recording of Leontyne Price’s performance in Verdi’s opera Aida. Managing to circumvent the minimum age requirement for the Juilliard School’s pre-college division, Sylvan began his musical studies at the age of 13 under William Toole. Later, he went on to attend the Manhattan School of Music, before studying with soprano Phyllis Curtin at the Tanglewood Music Center, to whom he dedicated his first solo album Beloved That Pilgrimage.

As a singer, Sylvan was well versed in a large variety of repertoire ranging from full operatic works to chamber music. He first received international attention through his 1987 portrayal of Chou En-Lai in John Adams’ opera Nixon in China and later premiered Adams’ The Wound Dresser, singing a role specifically written for him. Also adept in the performance of Mozart’s repertoire, Sylvan’s performances as Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro and Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte were featured on PBS’ “Great Performances” series in the 1980s.

Equally remarkable as a soloist in other settings, Sylvan appeared across North America and Europe in venues such as Carnegie Hall and Wigmore Hall. While he often performed with pianist David Breitman, Sylvan also appeared in concert with groups such as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre, and the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. Throughout his career, he also performed with many of the world’s premiere orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony.

Over the past few years, Sylvan had put his focus on teaching. As an associate professor, he taught at Schulich from 2007 to 2016, and had been on faculty at the Juilliard School since 2012. In addition, he was also on faculty at the Bard College Conservatory and was the master teacher in residence at the Tanglewood Music Center.

Several members of the Schulich community provided touching tributes about Sylvan. “Sanford was my neighbour, he was also a very dear friend,” said Jennifer Stephenson, Schulich’s timetable and scheduling administrator. “He was funny, kind, generous, intelligent, quirky, self-deprecating. He was also very private. It was a privilege to be allowed into any small part of his life – and I understood and appreciated that. We shared a love of Scotland. He would travel there regularly to decompress and reflect – it was his haven.”

“We often had long discussions over a meal, and had many a laugh (and a few tears) as we would regale each other with stories of our experiences there. What I loved about him was his simplicity and his openness, there was nothing manufactured or contrived. He said he had had a successful career, and he had nothing left to prove in that area. His focus in the latter part of his life was on his teaching. He was passionate about that, and he was invested in every one of his students. There was no ego – it was about their successes, not his. The world has lost a great teacher, and an exceptional human being.”

Valerie Kinslow, who was the Area Chair of the Voice during the time Sylvan was at Schulich, described his successes both on- and off-stage as “legendary.” “Sanford was an intensely spiritual man who showed a genuine interest in the lives and ideas of those around him. A bibliophile, his intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm sparked many stimulating discussions which often went far beyond the topic of music though it was the latter that so obviously fed his soul.”

Finally, Tracy Smith Bessette (DMus ’16, voice instructor) shared some insight on what it was like to study with Sylvan and be part of his studio at Schulich. “[He] said, ‘The willingness of the student to go on this journey of self-discovery can only lead them to finding some kind of success, whether it’s in singing or not.’ Sanford wanted his students to become bigger, better versions of themselves. He helped us achieve that goal by going on a unique and co-created journey with each and every one of us. Dozens of his students have reached out to me in the past few days and shared their stories of transformation under his tutelage. They not only speak of their growth as singers and artists, but all of them speak of how he guided them to embrace their full potential as human beings. He did that by making each of us feel truly seen, heard and loved. As Laura Pinto (MMus ’11) put it ‘He may have been one of the top technique teachers in the world, but he cared about his students as whole people more than he cared about how conventionally “successful” they were.’”

“The atmosphere that his attitude created in his studio of students at McGill was unique and we all felt like a family. As Estelí Gomez (MMus ’11) wrote last week, ‘I have never known a more varied studio, of voices or experience. He didn’t just take “the good ones,” or the voices who sounded like his. Whether you watched him work with a 35-year-old soprano or a 19-year-old tenor, you felt privy to the most special, individualized, trust-filled bond. We worked hard, and differently, and celebrated both, in a culture he created and insisted upon. We took care of each other. When someone you love believes in you, it changes you. If that happens at the right time in your life, they save you.’ Estelí may have been speaking of how Sanford changed and saved her, but she could have been speaking about any one of us. Sanford and I used to speak almost weekly on the phone about life, love and pedagogical ideas and in my grief, I have wondered how I will live without having any more conversations with that brilliant, loving man. But I found some solace this past week as I realized he is always and forever flowing through me in my teaching.”

“He lives on in all of us, his artistic progeny, and you will hear him in our singing and in our teaching. We were so blessed to have had our lives collide with his. We have all been forever changed.”