Two-time Grammy-winning and globetrotting vocalist Sylvia McNair claims she performed as “a little nobody” violinist in then-student conductor David Bowden’s orchestra recitals more than 30 years ago at Wheaton (Illinois) College. Bowden, now music director of the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic, dismisses such humility with a figurative wave of his conductor’s baton.
“The Wheaton Conservatory always has had very high standards,” Bowden said. “And she was my concertmaster, which should tell you a lot about her ability. She was terrific.”
The 59-year-old Ohio native traded in her violin for vocal work beginning at age 20 and rose to worldwide opera stardom before shifting to musical theater music in 2002. She returns to Columbus on Sept. 19 to sing with the Philharmonic for the first time in five years.
On her most recent visit, she surprised nearly everyone except Bowden and a handful of accompanying orchestra musicians by pulling out her violin for a rip-roaring version of the Charlie Daniels’ classic hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” She’s hoping for some other surprise this visit.
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But she politely declined to publicly divulge her idea during a recent phone chat from her home in Bloomington, where she teaches at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. But her focus will be on classic George Gershwin tunes — material that the soprano has made much her own in the past few years with a variety of ensembles.
“Gershwin just feels very much like my own skin,” she said. “I feel like that’s what I was built to sing.”
She will croon “Summertime,” “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “’S Wonderful,” “But Not For Me,” “Embraceable You” and others.
Bowden, a friend of McNair’s since their shared, musical college days, talks glowingly of her stage presence and charisma, plus her all-encompassing vocal gift.
“When Sylvia sings Gershwin, you can’t imagine anyone else doing it any better,” Bowden said.
A few months ago, she took even the one-time campfire song, “This Little Light of Mine,” and offered a slow, grand and glorious version of it with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City. The result became such a hit with the audience that she will return to perform again with the famed group next month.
“They are some of the kindest people I have ever met,” she said, adding that she equally impressed with their unbridled enthusiasm for music — some drive two hours to rehearsals — in what are volunteer roles.
In interviews in recent years, McNair has talked frequently in those human terms.
She recovered from late-term breast cancer nearly a decade ago and sometimes volunteers to serve the less fortunate at a soup kitchen. Every summer, for a few weeks, she visits some part of Africa, partly to keep herself grounded in gratitude.
“It’s always important to have perspective,” she said. “And there’s nothing like a month in a place like Kenya to get that perspective on how good our lives really are in the United States.”
The daughter of a teacher-mother still passionately speaks about music and other arts education, just as she did at last year’s Philharmonic annual meeting.
“We ignore arts education at our peril,” she said, touting its value as a creative problem-solving tool and more. “And arts education is what the Philharmonic is doing in spades.”
When it comes to her own vocal teaching, the woman who went from violin to opera to the Great American Songbook demands that her students major in flexibility.
“When they tell me, for example, that they want to sing only Broadway, I make sure they also sing classical,” she said. “In this day and age, you must learn early on to do many different things.”
That explains one of her Facebook posts.
“Blessed are the flexible,” she typed. “For they can remain sane.”
Who: Two-time Grammy-winning vocalist Sylvia McNair singing a variety of George Gershwin tunes with the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 19.
Musically speaking: With music director David Bowden and McNair discussing the evening’s works, 6:40 p.m.
Where: Columbus’ Judson Erne Auditorium, 1400 25th St.
Tickets: $15 to $50, available at thecip.org.
Information: 812-376-2638 or thecip.org.
Oct. 17: Time For Three trio.
Nov. 15: The Philharmonic Chorus performing the Verdi Requim.
Dec. 13: The Columbus Indiana Children’s Choir offering two Christmas concerts.
Feb. 6: Pianist Tianshu Wang celebrating the Chinese New Year.
April 2: The Columbus Indiana Children’s Choir marking the 20th anniversary of its artistic director, Ruth Dwyer.
April 30: Violinist and Philharmonic concertmaster Benjamin Hoffman performing a Beethoven concerto.
May 27: SALUTE! to veterans.
Tickets: $10 to $50, depending upon the concert.
Information: 812-376-2638 or thecip.org.