Brownlee brings high notes and top artistry to Celebrity Series recital

Aaron Keebaugh

It was like taking a victory lap after running a marathon.

Before his final encore at Jordan Hall Saturday night, tenor Lawrence Brownlee crossed himself. “Ready?” asked pianist Myra Huang before she launched into the chorus from “Ah! Mes Amis,” the blazing aria from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment. Though his gesture was tough-in-cheek, the musical gods must have smiled, for he delivered the punishing string of high C’s in the “Pour mon âme” section with the same smooth control and biting intensity that had characterized his performance throughout the evening. 

Indeed, there may be no better or more agile bel canto tenor on the scene today than Brownlee. His portrayals of Almaviva in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere have earned him critical acclaim. It’s easy to hear why, for the singer commands a stellar technique and honeyed tone that makes his high notes ring with characteristic warmth.

In his Celebrity Series recital on Saturday night— originally billed as a duo performance with bass-baritone Eric Owens before Owens canceled due to illness—the tenor offered a selection of Italian and French songs and arias that fit his voice like a glove.

But Brownlee is not merely a singer capable of jaw-dropping technical feats. He is a sensitive musician who shades the music with vibrant colors to drive home the arias’ wide emotional range. Torelli’s “Tu lo sai,” heard Saturday night, sounded with a hint of sadness, while Scarlatti’s “Già il sole dal Gange” bounced with a delicate and nimble rhythmic vitality.

Brownlee was at his finest in Donizetti’s “Me voglio fa’na casa,” an animated song that took on the quality of a dance. And for the actual dance music in Rossini’s “La Danza,” Brownlee delivered lines of dynamic force.

The evening’s most poignant singing came in Brownlee’s performance of “Je crois entendre encore” from Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles. In this most beautiful of Bizet’s melodies, Brownlee’s singing took on a dark, sumptuous quality, the lines flowing in soft, elegant phrases. His performance of the full “Ah! Mes Amis,” which came in the middle of the concert’s second half, drew a standing ovation.

Popular as Brownlee is on stage, he is a relative newcomer to art song literature, and Saturday night he offered his first performance of Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Completed in 1840 and based upon sixteen poems from Heinrich Heine’s Lyriches Intermezzo, Schumann’s cycle traverses emotions of wistful romantic memory to outright dejection. In the end, the poet longs to pour  his feelings into a coffin and have the vessel cast away at sea.

Singing with the score, Brownlee delivered a reading that reveled in anguish more than in the thinly veiled anger that one often encounters in performances of the cycle. “Ich grolle nicht” had more of a touch of sorrow than requisite jealousy. And the sadness was sweetened in “Hor’ ich das Liedchen klingen,” where Brownlee shaped the song with a hint of breath to his tone. “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” sounded with a sense of deep longing as pianist Huang and Brownlee’s rubato phrasing tilted the music towards darkness.

In the Schumann, and throughout the evening, Brownlee had a sensitive partner in Huang. With pearly tone she found the searching lyricism of “Und wüßten’s die Blumen” and the ephemeral grace of “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet.” In the Rossini and Donizetti items her playing took on blazing energy to match Brownlee’s radiant singing, and her playing in Bizet’s aria seemed to chime with a beckoning glow.

To conclude the evening, the two musicians offered a series of songs from Brownlee’s album Spiritual Sketches. Damien Sneed’s arrangements of these works were a springboard for Brownlee’s soulful performance. “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” was set to an off-kilter boogie-woogie rhythm. “Deep River” had an almost Gershwinesque quality, and “Come By Here, Good Lord” moved with a down-home gospel swing. But the most affecting of these songs was “Angels Watching Over Me,” which Brownlee dubbed “Caleb’s song” in recognition of his seven-year-old autistic son. In each, Brownlee sang with the conviction of a country preacher’s Sunday sermon.

In addition to an encore performance of the stratospheric “Pour mon âme” one last time, Brownlee and Huang offered a tender and soul-soothing arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” as an encore.

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