The Grammy-winning tenor Karim Sulayman is thrilled to make his Quad City Symphony Orchestra debut this weekend, soloing in an atmospheric 78-year-old piece he loves that’s also making its QC premiere.
Sulayman and QCSO principal horn Marc Zyla will perform the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), which premiered in October 1943, with tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986).
“Britten, he wrote great stuff for the voice. Not just the tenor voice, all the voices,” Sulayman (a Lebanese-American) said Tuesday. “He had a real clear group of real thinking artists in the singers that he had around him, and they were able to clearly just express so much with their voice, and he created these characters that are so vocally rich and challenging.”
“It’s wild text, some of it’s really freaky,” Sulayman said. “It’s very moody. You really feel like you’re in a foggy English night. As dark as the music can be, a lot of poetry talks about streaks of light, and the shimmer of light on the lake and you hear all of that. Britten was so careful with text and he really paints beautiful pictures with sound, according to the text he’s setting. It’s really cool.”
With Zyla as horn soloist, the Serenade creates an enthralling duet – with equal parts voice and horn, the tenor said.
“Singers always have the onus of communicating text, but the horn and the voice in this are definitely in duet and they’re both equally prominent,” Sulayman said. “That’s often why horn players really gravitate toward the piece. It’s a real milestone in their repertoire as solo horn players. It realty feels like a double concerto in a way, for voice and horn.”
Among composers, “Britten possessed an unmatched understanding of the English language as it had been used over the centuries, and unparalleled skill in setting it to music,” according to QCSO program notes, which say the texts “comprise a veritable anthology of British poetry, exploring the vast web of English culture that compelled his turn homeward.”
The Serenade was written to be sung by Peter Pears, Britten’s life partner and constant collaborator, and the 22-year-old horn virtuoso Dennis Brain. The last time Sulayman sang it was as a master’s student in 2002 at Rice University.
“It’s nice to revisit it as a professional and to make an introduction in the Quad Cities with it,” he said Tuesday. “It’s pretty esoteric, but pretty accessible at the same time. How’s that for an oxymoron?”
“Sometimes people shy away from 20th-century stuff, because they’re worried about audiences quote-unquote getting it, but I think music is music, and I find the language of music pretty accessible universally,” he said. “It should be fun, a really good concert.”
Starting as a boy alto with big names
A 45-year-old native of Chicago, Sulayman sang with the Chicago Children’s Choir from age 7 to 17, as an alto until about age 16. It wasn’t intimidating to sing solo with such legendary conductors as Sir Georg Solti (Chicago Symphony) and Leonard Slatkin (St. Louis Symphony), he said.
“They were really kind and they liked me a lot, and I think when you’re a kid, the intimidation stuff only comes later when you realize what big deals they are,” Sulayman said. “When you’re a kid, it all just feels like learning. Maybe it would have been intimidating to somebody else, and now like singing for somebody like that – like Georg Solti now would probably make me super nervous, but back then I was like a fearless kid. Both of them were so lovely.”
He graduated with highest honors from the Eastman School of Music, where he worked in the Collegium Musicum under the tutelage of Paul O’Dette, and earned a master’s from Rice University. He later moved to Paris, France, where he studied with renowned tenor Howard Crook. He also studied improvisation at the Second City Training Center in Chicago.
Sulayman has appeared with New York City Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, and Chicago Opera Theater, as well as with the Chicago, Pittsburgh, and National Symphony Orchestras. He’s been presented by Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Ravinia Festival, International Bach Festival, Aldeburgh Festival, Casals Festival and the Aspen Music Festival, collaborating with conductors like Harry Bicket, Marin Alsop, Jane Glover, Yves Abel and Robert Spano.
His discography includes his debut solo album, Songs of Orpheus, which was released to international acclaim on the AVIE label. Named “Critic’s Choice” by Opera News, and praised for his “lucid, velvety tenor and pop-star charisma” by BBC Music Magazine, Sulayman won the 2019 Grammy for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album.
“I certainly wasn’t expecting a nomination or a win,” he said Tuesday. “I was nominated with four other very wonderful artists and a couple of them very well-known, all great albums. You never know with stuff like that. It’s sometimes it seems the stars align and it all just happens or, who the hell knows how any of that stuff works?”
“That whole project was a real labor of love on my part,” Sulayman said. “I wanted to create this program of 17th-century Italian music that I loved a lot and I produced the whole thing. I raised most of the money myself and programmed it all myself. The whole thing just felt like The Little Engine That Could. I didn’t go in with this huge ambition of winning all the awards. Usually, that’s the best way to go about. You do it because you love to do it and then see what happens.”
His second solo album, Where Only Stars Can Hear Us, of Schubert songs with fortepianist Yi-heng Yang, was released in March 2020 and debuted at #1 on the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart and has received widespread acclaim, including named once again as “Critic’s Choice” by Opera News, and included on the New York Times’ “Best Classical Music of 2020.”
Before and after COVID times
Sulayman’s last live performance before the pandemic was in early March 2020 (at Hudson Yards in New York City) to celebrate his new CD of Schubert. Five days later, everything shut down and many planned concerts were canceled.
He resumed live performances in June 2021 with Britten-Pears Arts at Snape Maltings in the UK in chamber music with the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective. In July 2021, he reprised his performances of Frank London’s Ghetto Songs on tour in Germany.
Sulayman said his return this past June was very emotional.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful hall to sing in. And Britten knew what he was doing for the tenor voice,” he said. “He had an incredible muse in Peter Pears, so all of that music really is – Britten was a very singer-friendly composer.”
“It was a chamber concert with people that I work with a lot and they’re very close friends of mine as well,” Sulayman said. “So it was like kind of a beautiful reunion in that way as well. I don’t think I’ve been that kind of nervous since I was a student. I felt like I was shaking and I didn’t know what was going to come out of my body at that point because I was just like, I’m back like in front of an audience and it just felt like, we get nervous when we really care about things, right? And I’m always super nervous right before I go on stage, and then it just kind of dissipates.
“But I remember just kind of feeling so lucky and very sort of overwhelmed with the emotion of it, and that made me very trepidatious on stage,” he said. “And also, I never want to complain about being busy ever again. I felt very fortunate in a way and the pandemic really put things into perspective of like how lucky we are to be able to do what we do and how people have missed it.”
Sulayman is looking forward to doing his Carnegie Hall solo concert debut next May, which will be all Schubert. He also recently sang in Britten’s opera “Turn of the Screw” in Miami.
In November 2016, he created a social experiment/performance art piece called I Trust You, designed to build bridges in a divided political climate. A video version of this experiment went viral online, and was honored as a prize winner in the My Hero Film Festival. Sulayman has been invited to give talks and hold open forums with student and adult groups about inclusion, empathy, healing from racism, and activism through the arts.
In other visual media, he is featured in the ARTE documentary Leonard Bernstein – A Genius Divided, which premiered throughout Europe in the summer of 2018 and was subsequently released on DVD. His performance of Bernstein’s Mass with the CSO was broadcast on PBS Great Performances in the spring of 2020 and in the fall of 2020, Sulayman appeared on the second season of the acclaimed series Dickinson on Apple TV+.
Zyla solos with new beer to celebrate
Principal horn and director of education and community engagement for the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, Marc Zyla worked with Stompbox Brewing in downtown Davenport to create a new brew — Zylaphone English Ale, to celebrate the December QCSO Masterworks program, “English Serenade.” At the Dec. 4-5 concerts, Zyla also will make his solo debut with the orchestra, playing Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 1 (1885), another QCSO premiere.
“It’s a nice beer that will warm you up as we turn to the cold winter months,” Zyla said in October of the strong English-style ale, made with winter flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg. He has long been a fan of the Quad Cities craft breweries, particularly Wake in Rock Island and Stompbox, 210 E. River Drive, Davenport, near the QCSO’s Saturday night home, the Adler Theatre (136 E. 3rd St.).
“It has a really great outdoor space,” Zyla said of Stompbox, which opened in July 2020 next to Front Street Brewery. “Kitchen Brigade is doing really great stuff on the kitchen end of the building. The Stompbox guys are always super friendly.”
A riff off “xylophone,” he said “Zylaphone” is a name people have called him since childhood, usually with a tone of scorn. Naming a new beer that is Zyla’s small, satisfying act of revenge, he said. He’s been a QCSO member since 2010.
Jamie Prickett, co-owner of Stompbox, appreciates the joint effort, which has been in the works a few months. It’s not a fundraiser for the QCSO.
“It’s more of a way to raise awareness of the Symphony. If you think of the demographic, people that normally go see the Symphony, by connecting with a local craft brewery, it’s potentially exposing what they do to a different crowd,” he said this week. “People that spend time drinking craft beer at a brewery may not be the same people you see at the Symphony.”
This weekend’s concerts (including Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and W.A. Mozart’s Symphony No. 36, the “Linz”) are Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Adler Theatre, Davenport, and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Centennial Hall, Rock Island. For tickets and more information, visit www.qcso.org, or call 563-322-7276.