Two-time Grammy winning vocalist Sylvia McNair listens to only one kind of music when she relaxes on the back deck hammock of her Bloomington home: Mother Nature.
That was evident as she recently spoke by phone with birds chirping loudly in the background.
“When the breeze starts moving through these big, old, tall trees, and the birds are singing — I tell you, I don’t know any music more beautiful,” she said.
McNair’s followers and fans, including Columbus residents, would beg to differ. The woman who has performed with ensembles worldwide has appeared frequently in the past few years with the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic, with another appearance slated at the 7 p.m. Friday free Salute! patriotic concert at the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans downtown.
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She will croon flag-waving standards, a couple of George Gershwin tunes that have become something of her trademark, and “I’ll be Seeing You,” an emotional Broadway tune that became an anthem for soldiers and their families during World War II.
And who better to sing it than the 60-year-old performer who has become known among music critics for her masterful stylings with the “Great American Songbook”? Mark the words of Philharmonic Music Director David Bowden a couple of years ago.
“When Sylvia sings Gershwin, you can’t imagine anyone else doing it any better,” Bowden said.
The strong friendship between McNair and Bowden stretches to about 40 years ago when they both were students in the orchestra at the Wheaton College Conservatory.
“I want to go on record big-time to say that David Bowden is one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever known,” she said. “For starters, he has a work ethic greater than nearly anyone, and he is a true Indiana legend. He deserves credit for what he has done musically beyond what my words can describe.”
McNair obviously believes service members deserve ample credit for their work and sacrifice through the years. She recalled that her own father was dejected over having to accept an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army during World War II because of a heart defect.
“He always was very sad about that,” she said.
These days, she wants to find new ways to serve others far beyond her music, and even her music instruction, since she retired in December from her senior lecturer post in voice at the prestigious Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.
“When I turned 60, I decided that this next decade of my life would be dedicated to service of others and in giving back,” she said. “For about the past 35 years, I have been running and using every chance I got to continue to be a successful singer, which almost uniformly requires you to be at least a little self-absorbed.”
So she is devoted to causes such as Songs By Heart, connecting people with memory loss to the joy of music. She and singer Nancy Gustafson co-founded the organization with the goal of bringing vocalists and song into as many nursing homes and related facilities as possible. The effort has helped some people with dementia suddenly remember favorite songs while rediscovering joy.
She herself rediscovered joy when she beat breast cancer after a diagnosis in 2006, and experiences a measure of that rediscovery every time she visits the less fortunate at Bloomington’s Shalom Community Center, where she sometimes serves meals and visits residents.
“I wake up every day with a smile on my face,” she said. “Life is good. Everybody wants to be me.”
She laughed easily. Because of her work, the only actual songs she ever listens to these days are some energetic tunes by which she and friends can salsa.
“I don’t host even one lunch or dinner party where people do not have to stand and do the salsa,” she said.
Yet, she acknowledged that “Dancing With the Stars” hardly will notice them anytime soon.
“Mostly, we’re terrible,” she said, laughing.
McNair was once an accomplished violinist, as she has proven in one concert with the Philharmonic. Then a star in opera. Now a topic performer of Broadway and related tunes who has done cabaret and more.
So she reasonably can afford to be rotten at salsa. But she is wonderful at exuberance, and even has presented a TED Talk on perspective.
“I am willing to lead and teach (salsa) as though I am very good at it,” she said. “You learn to make your hips move in sexy, gorgeous ways, and you’re a salsa dancer.”
With that much energy in her life, her deck hammock time seems fairly well earned.
What: Columbus Indiana Philharmonic’s annual Salute! concert honoring veterans and military members with patriotic tunes and other numbers. Featured soloist is two-time Grammy winner Sylvia McNair.
When: 7 p.m. Friday.
Where: Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans, Second and Jackson streets in downtown Columbus.
Notable: Bring your own lawn chairs for seating.
Information: 812-376-2638 or thecip.org.