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[whitespace] Intimate Kaleidoscope

Baritone Jubilant Sykes offers a rainbow of talent

By Hanne Blank

THE RUSSIAN COMPOSER Scriabin was a synaesthete, a person whose mental wiring made one sense automatically trigger another. In Scriabin's case, as with numerous other composers, sounds corresponded to colors: a flute might be robin's-egg blue, the violin grass-green, a kettledrum's boom the gray of low-hanging clouds. Each timbre or tone color was associated with an actual color, and as a result, Scriabin literally saw everything he heard or composed.

Had Scriabin lived to hear the voice of rising young baritone Jubilant Sykes, however, he wouldn't have seen just one color. In the exultant rainbow of Sykes' broad, generous voice, he would've found an entire kaleidoscope within one instrument, a stained-glass window of spinning sound.

A rare vocal find, this versatile voice effortlessly spans the coloristic gamut from the cellolike, woody timbres of Mahler and Brahms to the most elegant and unpretentious of floaty tenor falsetto.

Unlike many of his opera-singing kin, Sykes does not appear to suffer the tendency to become hidebound with a perfectly homogenized sound that varies only slightly from piece to piece. Rather, he knows that the infinite variety of his vocal color is a source of enormous beauty, and he wields his vocal palette with a Monet-like sensitivity to transparency, intensity, and contrast, conjuring Impressionist gestures of feeling and emotion within deftly shaped phrases.

Masterful though it is, Sykes' singing is anything but intimidating. As a musician, he offers performances that are communicative, charismatic, and inviting. The emotional immediacy of his style owes an obvious but not obtrusive debt to gospel and jazz, combined with classical technique in a resonant American hybrid.

Likewise delightfully American are the clean translucence of Sykes' tone and his delightfully clear but never prissy diction, which let the listener hear not just the undeniable beauty of his sound, but the full import of every word he sings.

IN HIS RENDITIONS of Aaron Copland's Old American Songs, which include such gems as the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" and the humorous "Bought Me a Cat," Sykes has won acclaim for his clarity of presentation and his good-humored, deeply felt, approachably human partnership with the composer, the settings, and the melodies themselves. Selections from this group of Copland songs, along with works by Mozart and Mahler, are slated for the program during the October recitals Sykes performs with the Santa Rosa Symphony, promising rewards for the newcomer to the world of concert song as well as for seasoned fans.

Also on the roster for Sykes' West Coast recitals are spirituals, hearkening not only to Sykes' own family heritage of song and spirituality but to the 1998 Sony Classical release Jubilant, a collaboration with legendary jazz trumpeter and arranger Terence Blanchard that presents classic spirituals in reverent, New Orleans-tinged arrangements. A quick perusal of Jubilant's 14 tracks--"Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" is stunning--gives ample insight into the reasons Sykes was named Sacred Music USA's Vocalist of the Year in 1996, as well as the reasons he continues to perform to rave reviews with the world's leading symphonies and opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Boston Pops, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

FROM BRILLIANT, easy top notes to a powerful, velvety bottom, Sykes' first solo recording proves that he is in strong command of his versatile instrument. What is perhaps more impressive about Jubilant, and about Jubilant the singer, is that while one never loses sight of the fact that this is an extraordinary voice, one is always aware that this is an intelligent and insightful musician.

The running joke other musicians make about singers is that they've got resonance where their brains should be: not so Jubilant Sykes. When he sings, the words matter. Some of Sykes' operatic colleagues may use words as mere clotheslines on which to hang sheets of sound, but Sykes uses the words as a way to penetrate the music.

Sykes draws, without apology and with great musical wisdom, on all of the musical influences that are important in his life. The result is stylish but kitsch-free, intimate, virtuosic, richly colorful singing, a musical treat as delectable as they come.


Jubilant Sykes performs Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, Oct. 16-18, at the opening concerts of the Santa Rosa Symphony's 1999-2000 season at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $12-$36. For details, call 546-8742.

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From the October 7-13, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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