'Spiritual' baritone takes a jubilant leap to pop

On his latest CD, Sykes ventures into new territory

Young African-American baritone Jubilant Sykes has plenty to be jubilant about - a new recording.

"Wait For Me" (Sony) is a folksy pop medley that follows his much-praised debut album, "Jubilant" (Sony), an innovative reading of spirituals in duets with the noted jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard.

Mr. Sykes, who performs constantly in pops concerts, singing songs from Gershwin to Brian Wilson, is also a trained classical singer. Sykes has sung at the Metropolitan Opera (in "Porgy and Bess"), the Deutsche Opera Berlin, and the Houston Grand Opera, in repertory ranging from the Italian baroque composer Francesco Cavalli's "La Calisto" to Bizet's "Carmen."

Yet when Sony Classics president Peter Gelb approached Sykes with a recording contract a few years ago, the baritone's initial idea of classical songs by American composers Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland was put aside for crossover and outright pop repertory.

Did the economics of today's record industry - or true musical interest - cause him to jump into pop music?

In America, Sykes explains, an operatic career for African-American men is still problematic. "It is easier to be rejected in opera because of one's color. The reason, I think, is because it is difficult for us in America to see an African-American male as a heroic lead."

Of course, the bottom line is economics. George Shirley, distinguished tenor and University of Michigan professor of music, observes that Sykes is a tremendous performer.

"Since Jubilant is, I believe, better known to the record-buying public for his spirituals, and since he has recorded only two discs, I imagine his record company wants to continue to capitalize on his popularity in this musical vein.... They probably want Jubilant to establish a stronger profile with the public before allowing him to cross over to classical rep."

That said, Sykes has affinities with pop as well as classical music: "The preparation ... [is] pretty much the same. Sitting down at the piano and really knowing the score is my first goal. The ultimate goal for me is to honor the composer and allow the music to move me to communicate his thought.

"As for spirituals and jazz settings, knowing the score is again my first task. Yet the challenge of communication for spirituals and jazz is 'freedom.' With this freedom comes the responsibility to communicate my heart, yet not to the point of complete self-indulgence."

Recording with jazzman Blanchard further advanced this unified view of performance: "Working with Terence Blanchard, I learned how similar spirituals and jazz are. Improvisation is their common thread.

"During the process of recording the 'Jubilant' CD, we were both moved by the emotional power that both jazz and spirituals create."

These genuine roots in popular and folk musics make Sykes different from classically trained artists, such as the Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel or Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, who, to please their record companies, leap into musical comedy or operetta with elephantine results.

Sykes has an intimate, highly personalized approach that gives special emotion to Brian Wilson songs like "God Only Knows" (on "Wait For Me"), or "Good Vibrations," performed last month in a televised tribute to Wilson.

Anyone who saw Sykes in the tribute to Wilson cavorting onstage with such pop stars as Nancy Wilson, Elton John, Billy Joel, and Paul Simon understands how genuinely comfortable this young singer is with crossover.

Still, Sykes clearly has special feelings for classical music, and for his encounters with conductors like the Philadelphia Orchestra's recently appointed maestro, Christoph Eschenbach.

"I have had the privilege to work with extraordinary conductors," Sykes says. "I think the common ground here is their generosity. Christoph Eschenbach was one of the first major conductors to give me an opportunity of singing Mozart and Beethoven. For that, I will always be grateful. His approach to music was allowing the singer to sing from the heart...."

Unfortunately for Sykes's fans, another, more classical, recording of songs is languishing in Sony's vaults. "There is a recording of Bach, Vaughan Williams, Handel, and Mendelssohn that may be released sometime in the future," he says.

Sykes recently electrified an audience at his debut with the San Francisco Orchestra in Davies Hall, where even the instrumentalists listened with acute attention to his renditions of spirituals, Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers. While holding their breath for a classical recital to appear on CD, eager listeners will likely flock to Sykes's coming series of concerts.

Jubilant Sykes will perform with the San Diego Chamber Orchestra, Aug 25; at Chicago's Ravinia Festival, Sept. 2; Arizona's Grand Canyon Music Festival, Sept. 12; and with the Colorado Springs Symphony, Sept. 28 and 29. For more tour dates, visit jubilantsykes.com.

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