Death of a major American baritone, 65

Death of a major American baritone, 65


norman lebrecht

January 30, 2019

The death is being reported tonight of Sanford Sylvan, a go-to US baritone who sang the first Chou En-Lai in John Adams’s Nixon in China, receiving both a Grammy and an Emmy.

He performed and recorded around the world with such diverse conductors as Pierre Boulez, Herbert Blomstedt, Christopher Hogwood, James Levine and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Latterly he taught at McGill University and Juilliard.

Cause of death has not been confirmed.

UPDATE: We hear he was suffering from a respiratory infection and was found lifeless at home.

The c0mposer Christopher Rouse writes: ‘I am devastated by the news of Sanford (Sandy) Sylvan’s sudden death. Beyond his great musical artistry – he was the magnificent baritone soloist in the world premiere of my Requiem – were his personal warmth and humanity. This is an enormous loss to the world of music.’


  • Caravaggio says:

    Very sad news. Rest in peace.

  • Marilyn Quinn says:


  • Jeffrey Bernstein says:

    Sandy was a wonderful singer and a warm and gracious man. He made full use of his considerable instrument by singing with sensitivity and poise, and his passing is a profound loss.

  • Sharon says:

    May his family find peace

  • MusicBear88 says:

    Glorious voice, wonderful interpreter, and a genuinely nice guy. I went to see him do Schubert’s “Der Taucher” which was captivating. Afterwards he said “I can’t do this song until I get either better glasses or longer arms; I can’t see the words anymore!”

  • So sad to lose a magnificent voice, musician, and man. Rest in peace, Sandy.

  • Bruce says:

    How awful. A wonderful artist. RIP.

  • Dan P. says:

    I’m very saddened to hear of Sandy’s death here. Although we hadn’t been in touch recently, Sandy and I go back to the early 1970s when we were both students at different institutions but roommates in the same Upper West Side apartment. After the arrival of a piano at our place, we must have gone through the entire lieder repertoire together and from Mozart to Webern on the nights he was not working as an usher at the Met. Even back then, both his voice and his musicianship were impeccable and working with him was a different (and much more enjoyable) experience than any other singer I had accompanied to that point. Just a few years later, when Boulez asked me to perform a work of mine with the NY Philharmonic and suggested a well known “new music specialist” of the time to sing the solo baritone part, I immediately countered by suggesting Sandy, who was 24 at the time. Boulez auditioned him and we got the ok. Without his voice – I had written the work with his voice in mind – I’m not sure what I could have expected. And, as expected, he sang it beautifully and perfectly. No composer could have asked for anything better. I only regret that more of his performances had not been recorded. Sandy could sing anything. As teenagers, we frequently talked about his singing Pelleas, and, while that never happened, in real life he sang just about everything else from his favorite John Adams to Stravinsky’s Abraham and Isaac and several of my own works, which I’ll always be grateful for. Working with Sandy was a rare pleasure and listening to him was a wonderful experience. He will be sorely missed.

    • Kimball Wheeler says:

      Thank you for your beautiful tribute.
      Kimball Wheeler

      • Larrimore Crockett says:

        You were the Mezzo-soprano in a wonderful New England Bach Festival performance of Bach’s St. John Passion in October, 1985, when Sandy was the baritone, (and Arlene Auger the soprano!) at Symphony Space., NYC, under the direction of Blanche Moyse. I was a chorister in the Blanche Moyse Chorale for over 50 performances in which Sandy Sylvan was the baritone. He sang with a depth of emotion as no one else. I am so saddened by his untimely death, but so grateful to have had so many opportunities to hear him.

  • Cape Cod says:

    A great loss, particularly to Boston-area classical music and opera lovers & students. RIP.

  • 23 years ago or so, I heard Sanford Sylvan sing “Die Schöne Müllerin” at Spivey Hall, at a free recital sponsored by Atlanta’s Goethe Institute. It was the greatest evening of chamber music I ever heard in my life. And it was the most affecting of all the performances I have ever seen or heard of this great work by Schubert. That Mr. Sylvan is now gone is a very sad thing indeed.

  • Don Osborne says:

    So sad to lose a great artist and dear friend – way too young at 65.

  • Grace says:

    I had the privilege of performing with him way back in … 1980? or thereabouts. Five College Early Music ensemble in Amherst, MA. Bach, St John Passion, 16 singers, one on a stand orchestra, Jon Humphrey as Evangelist, Sanford Sylvan was the baritone soloist. On Maundy Thursday. I don’t remember the other soloists… but his stirring performance has remained vivid in my memory. I was enthralled. Such beautiful sounds, such a gracious person.

  • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

    I know people here hate Peter Sellars, but Sanford Sylvan was fantastic in Sellars’ production of Cosi fan tutte, as Don Alfonzo.

  • Fritz Casselman says:

    I was with the Back Bay Chorale (with Larry Hill) in its early years. Sandy was a fantastic soloist on stage, and was patient and encouraging to a chorus still finding its way. We knew we were blessed when he sang with us! Very sorry to lose him.