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Sanford Sylvan uproots himself

The baritone turned teacher reflects on his Boston years as he prepares to depart

In an age of globe-trotting opera stars, it's rare for a city to grow attached to an individual vocalist, but Boston is about to lose one of its own luminaries-in-residence, as the baritone Sanford Sylvan leaves town shortly to take up a teaching post at McGill University in Montreal.

He arrived as an unknown young singer in the late 1970s, working at Barnes and Noble, and eventually joining the choir of Emmanuel Music. He quickly established a reputation as an eloquent and versatile performer who could sing everything from Bach to John Adams. Early on, he also collaborated with a brilliant young director named Peter Sellars in some of his first barricade-storming opera productions. And though Sylvan's busy career in the 1990s kept him away from the city for long stretches, he has directed the opera program at the Boston Conservatory since 2005 , and has more generally kept tabs on the music scene for almost 30 years.

This week, he took a break from packing his bags to meet with the Globe, share memories, and discuss his experiences of music in Boston, then and now.

Q You grew up and went to school in New York City. How did you first choose to settle in Boston?

A I did four summers at the Tanglewood Music Center. In those days you weren't supposed to leave New York to have a career but I just wanted to go where I wanted to make music. I kept hearing people from Boston talking about music -- about music -- whereas in New York people tended to talk about singing. I was also hearing a lot about Craig Smith [of Emmanuel Music] and this Bach Cantata thing he was doing. . . . You know in America, every major city has an orchestra, a ballet company, and an opera company of some variety, but the question is what happens after that. And that's where Boston was just unbelievably fertile. I mean the amount of choral societies, chamber orchestras, and new music groups -- it was overwhelming . . . . New York is great and I love singing there, but you go through it -- you don't stop there. In Boston, I remember thinking, I'm doing my job. There are doctors for the city, and there are writers for the city. I'm a musician for the city.

Q How did you get your start in town?

A It all goes back to the person who I think is the greatest musician in Boston, and that's Patricia Zander. She was [pianist] David Breitman's teacher, and she's certainly the greatest musical influence on my life. In the late 1970s, David and I brought everything that we did to her, and she coached us hour after hour. It was extraordinary. The thing she gave me more than anything was a sense of the rhythmic life inherent in any moment of music-making. She also did the most generous thing imaginable. She hoodwinked all her friends into coming to her house for a cocktail party. David and I were in this big American music competition in Washington, D.C., at the Kennedy Center and the finals were an entire recital broadcast on the radio live all over the country. I was 25 years old, scared out of my mind. Three days before, Patricia called all of her friends and didn't tell them, but just said, you have to come to my house at 5 o'clock on Saturday. So Craig Smith, [composers] John Harbison, Donald Sur, and everyone from the city, they all came. And when my recital started at 5:30, she said, everyone has to go into the living room now and listen to this singer! And that's how my life got started here.

Q What have you found distinctive about the music scene in Boston?

A People in Boston treat the musical organizations that are not the symphony and not the ballet with much more respect than they do in New York. So the collaborations have more lasting power and a depth of dialogue with the audience. Also, I think that composers rule in Boston, as opposed to performers, which is as it should be. The one area in which Boston is not as fertile as other things is Romantic opera.

Q Why do you think that's the case?

A I think it goes back to the city's history. It's an uptight Brahmin attitude--we don't involve ourselves in theatrical things. It's a city of the mind, and the mind is about the word, and not about Daaaah [gives a showbiz gesture]. It's a very northern city in that way. People want to come in out of the cold and think seriously about what's going on.

Q What's the best way to get people excited about opera?

A I think we need to get back to opera in English, whatever it is. Until people experience the noise -- the sound of the voice -- the word, and the emotion coming out of that body at that particular moment, and connect with that, we're lost. And I don't think supertitles do it. When we hear Frank Sinatra, we don't read the program, we just listen to Frank Sinatra, happily, with great gratitude.

Q What else could make the local music scene stronger?

A It's interesting. We've had a lot of artist-driven innovation, with Craig Smith, Gil Rose, Mark Morris, Peter Sellars. But it's almost always artist-driven. And I would say that in a place like New York, in my experience at Lincoln Center, or the 92 d Street Y, or Carnegie Hall, they have artistic administrators who are looking to actively push the edges. Certainly there is [here] what I would call, administratively, a shyness of vision. I don't know why that is.

Q What's pulling you to Montreal?

A At first it seemed unthinkable, but I'm 53 and it seemed like a good time for a change. For me it came down to one thing, which is that the level of students I get to work with there is extraordinary because McGill is like Harvard and Juilliard smashed together, for Canadian kids. . . . I started young and I've done a lot, and it's nice to do a little bit less now and to focus on teaching. I've been blessed. There's nothing I haven't done that I wanted to do, and that's a nice thought. I may come back to sing in the chorus of Emmanuel Church, because it's such a gift, just to slip in there and be part of it. Singing a Schütz motet, there's nothing like it -- nothing. It's just the best thing ever.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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