Pursuing dual passions for environmental law — and Bach


Lutenist Howard Bass (left), Barbara Hollinshead, and tenor Jason Rylander perform music by John Dowland (1563-1626) for an intimate audience at St. George's Episcopal Church in Arlington. The performance last October was to mark the 450th anniversary of Dowland's birth. Dowland is considered to be England's greatest lutenist. (Liz Vance/Liz Vance)
March 27

It’s a typical Sunday morning at the bustling home of environmental lawyer Jason Rylander. Rylander is catching his breath after several weeks of travel as an attorney on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife. Wife Elizabeth Rylander, a lawyer for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is readying 8-year-old Lauren and 6-year-old Patrick for a weekend morning whirl of sports, shopping and errands.

But tonight, after the weekend chaos has died down and the kids are tucked into bed, Jason Rylander will spend one to three hours in his basement studio practicing for one of his upcoming concerts: performing the Saint John Passion with the Washington Bach Consort, followed by a stint as a guest soloist with the Washington Men’s Camerata at the Church of the Epiphany. In addition to his full-time job as a litigator and parent, as well as community involvement, Rylander is also a professional opera singer.

“It’s probably in my nature to do too much,” the mild-mannered Rylander says.

Rylander, who lives in Arlington County, is active in county politics and serves on the facilities advisory council to Arlington’s public schools. This afternoon he’s preparing to host an afternoon coffee for Arlington School Board candidate Greg Greeley. “I could probably go to a meeting every night,” he says.

At his Washington day job as senior staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, Rylander litigates on behalf of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act around the country, including polar bears and gray and red wolves. His latest case involves trying to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard native to New Mexico and Texas, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently agreed not to list as endangered as part of a compromise with oil and gas interests seeking to drill within the lizard’s native habitat.

In his dual life as an opera singer, Rylander has multiple concerts on the docket. Nearly every weekend over the next two months is booked with performances, including the role of lead tenor in Henry Purcell’s “The Fairy-Queen,” as part of a production at Rutgers University under the direction of celebrated baroque expert Julianne Baird. Rylander has developed a specialty in baroque music, particularly that of Johann Sebastian Bach. “Bach’s music speaks to me,” Rylander says.

Rylander’s pursuit of vocal music began as something of a fluke at Cornell University, where every freshman is assigned a faculty mentor, regardless of major. Rylander, already committed to a career in environmental law, was paired with a professor from the school’s theater arts department. This led him to try out for the school’s prestigious glee club and perform in its choir, and to take advantage of the school’s subsidized voice lessons. “I started to get the bug but still thought of it as a fun avocation,” Rylander said.

After finishing law school at William and Mary, Rylander moved to Washington, where he took voice lessons and began to perform. He cites his former Levine School of Music voice teacher Thomas Beveridge, now artistic director of the New Dominion Chorale and the National Men’s Chorus, as a mentor, as well as J. Reilly Lewis, conductor of the Washington Bach Consort.

Beveridge says the area’s many singers, amateur and professional, nearly always have day jobs. “Most singers can’t possibly earn enough money to make a living,” he says. “Jason’s one of the smarter ones. He’s figured out a way to follow his passion without starving to death . . . he works very hard, he’s very conscientious about practicing, and he gets a lot of interesting professional engagements. He has the enthusiasm of an amateur, but he’s a professional singer.”

Although Rylander is committed to making a difference in environmental protection, he doesn’t rule out some day focusing on music alone.

“It’s always a challenge,” he says. “To be really great at any one thing, you need to make it your sole focus. There’s that constant dichotomy: What would it be like if I were able to do music full-time?”

Rylander feels fortunate to be able to pursue both his passions concurrently while raising a family and remaining active in the community. “It’s great to have two very different outlets I’m able to pursue at a high level. Basically, all musicians have day jobs, but they’re usually teaching in schools, or teaching voice privately, or they have staff positions at various churches or synagogues. I have a different day job. People know what I do, but I don’t dwell on it too much. And similarly, I keep the other side of my world separate as well,” Rylander says.

“It’s all in the balance.”

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