In plain English, simply glorious

Music: Jubilant Sykes finds Copland and spirituals heavenly.

April 28, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In popular music, English is the world's lingua franca, the language every singer needs to know.

Not so in classical music. In this world, Italian, French, German, and even Latin -- a dead language! -- are more likely to be heard than English. Some singers even complain that English should be avoided altogether, because it doesn't sing as well as Italian, French or German.

"There is some truth to that," admits baritone Jubilant Sykes. Even so, he isn't worried that everything he's singing with the Baltimore Symphony this weekend is in English, because the pieces are so approachable.

First, he'll sing four selections from Aaron Copland's "Old American Songs." Then, he'll offer orchestral versions of two spirituals, "City Called Heaven" and "Were You There?"

Between them, Sykes and the BSO will present a rich slice of American. The Copland selections -- "Simple Gifts," "At the River," "Long Time Ago" and "I Bought Me a Cat" -- hark back to the early days of our nation, painting a picture of 19th-century America that's as vivid as any Currier and Ives print. Even better, says Sykes, the pieces are a dream to sing.

"These are not bravura pieces," he says. "They're just simple tunes, with simple melodies, and those wonderful Copland sonorities."

But that doesn't necessarily make the Copland pieces easy. If anything, the simplicity of the melodies can fool vocalists into overstating the music. "That's the difficulty -- to not make too much of them," he says. "They should be displayed honorably, but not made into museum pieces."

So how does Sykes rise to that challenge? "I think about what I'm singing, what the message is in the tunes," he says. "I mean, I use a lot of color in the voice, I think that's important. But for me, the text is my motivation. Stick to the text, and it sort of sings itself."

The spirituals pose a different challenge. Although Sykes is no stranger to religious music -- the California native has recorded several albums of spirituals, and was "Sacred Music USA's 1996 Vocalist of the Year" -- these pieces aren't exactly standard repertory for a classical baritone. After all, you wouldn't have expected the legendary baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to record the likes of "City Called Heaven."

"No, but in a way he did," says Sykes, laughing. "He did those wonderful Brahms folk songs that were indicative of his culture and background. Spirituals are pretty much the same for me. They're very American, in every sense of the word. And I see them as just as valuable, really, as Schubert or Brahms."

Like the Copland, the spirituals are very singable. But because the arrangements Sykes employs were originally commissioned for a recording -- "Jubilant Sykes Sings Copland," with conductor Andrew Litton and the London Symphony Orchestra -- performing them in concert can be a challenge.

For example, consider the arrangement for "Were You There?" which never was intended to be performed live. "We did it to honor the London Symphony, so we used every brass player available," Sykes says. "I was singing in [an isolation] booth, and they were screaming in the studio." He laughs. "It seemed to work out."

Although Sykes has been singing "Old American Songs" a lot lately -- this year marks the Copland centenary, after all -- his concert repertory tends more toward classical vocal fare. Earlier this week, he sang a recital in Dallas with Litton accompanying him on piano, and one of his upcoming recordings will feature works by Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams.

But he's also working on an album he can only describe as being "very different."

"It's kind of a hybrid," he says. "We're doing American songs, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Bob Dylan, if you can figure that out. But the arrangements are going to be the key thing. It's not quite jazz, it's just very different."

Sykes expects the album to be out later this year and hopes it will fit in with the Americana-style crossover recordings by Yo-Yo Ma, Kathleen Battle, Joshua Bell and others. "We're trying to reach a new audience without losing the old," he says. "It's a way to keep classical music alive and breathing and real, and not making it into a museum piece -- something you look at, but don't touch or really feel."

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