March 2, 2023

Lawrence Brownlee announces Rising, a new commissioning project

Lawrence Brownlee is proud to announce Rising, a new project for which he has commissioned six of today’s leading African-American composers to set poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to song. The program will be toured throughout the United States with pianist Kevin J. Miller, and recorded for release on Warner Classics this June in celebration of Black Music Month.

Rising will showcase new works from African-American composers, Damien Sneed, Brandon Spencer, Jasmine Barnes, Joel Thompson, and Shawn E. Okpebholo. Inspired by poetry of the great African-American writers of the Harlem Renaissance like Alice Dunbar Nelson, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson, the compositions will revolve around themes of joy, empowerment, faith, love, and strength in the face of challenge. Brownlee has also collaborated closely with Dr. Louise Toppin, soprano and vocal professor at the University of Michigan, to revive select works from famed composers Margaret Bonds and Robert Owen; in addition to including works from composer Jeremiah Evans. The project will feature accompaniment from American pianist and collaborator Kevin J. Miller.  

Of the project, Lawrence Brownlee said: “These past years have been a trial, both for humanity as a whole, and the African-American population here in the United States. But through all these many challenges we have faced, I have also seen moments of strength, inspiration, hope, and great beauty. It is those themes of uplift, elevation, and rebirth that we have tried to focus on with this new project Rising, taking poems from the giants of the Harlem Renaissance, and working with some of today’s most talented African-American composers, to create something that speaks not just to our struggles, but to our triumphs.”

Brownlee and pianist Kevin J. Miller will tour the Rising program throughout the United States in March and April, with tour stops scheduled in major markets including the Celebrity Series in Boston, Carnegie Hall in New York City, the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, among others. 

Dr. Louise Toppin of University of Michigan noted of the project:

Larry Brownlee is arguably one of the great voices of our generation in his presentation of tenor heroes of the bel canto repertoire as well as composers of the standard vocal canon.  What is less well-known about his output is his commitment as an interpreter of music from the African American vocal canon – spirituals and art songs.   In 2017 I had an opportunity to hear him present a joint recital with Eric Owens that included spirituals and contemporary gospel.  He brought the same depth of interpretation coupled with an understanding of the stylistic performance practice that brought these songs to life in a way that I found equally thrilling to his bel canto repertoire which has solidified his reputation as an artist. 

In 2021, Thomas Hampson and I curated a festival of African American art song in Hamburg, Germany which gave me another opportunity to hear him delve into African American art song.  He of course brought stellar vocalism but he also amplified these important stories from the African American community with dignity and grace.  In conversation with him he clearly understood the vocal and aesthetic performance practices to present captivating performances and he exhibited a love for this repertoire as an added dimension to his work as an artist.

These songs that he loves are cultural markers embodied not only by African musicians but shared by those who identify as African American or belonging to the African Diaspora.  His project bring together texts that are firmly rooted in the African American experiences of the Harlem Renaissance yet in the hands of contemporary composers they present the struggles of today and the resurgent Black Pride that is being expressed.  The texts to the songs are by the greatest poets of our past:  James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Georgia Douglas who each used their words to fight for freedom and dignity for all Black citizens.  They also document the human condition of Blacks in the early part of the 20th century.  Blended with the musical language of the established voice of Robert Owens and the contemporary voice of composers Jasmine Barnes, Shawn Okpebholo, Joel Thompson, Jeremiah Evans, Damien Sneed, and Brandon Spencer ( both up and coming and mid-career African American composers) these songs make a powerful statement for our time.  This beautiful pairing allows us to reflect on the past, the present and imagine the future.

I hope this project inspires other performers, scholars and students to give African American art song full consideration for concerts and recording as there is much variety, breadth and depth found within this body of work and yet to be explored. I am honored to have been asked by Larry to suggest some of the composers that now appear on this album and it is thrilling to hear the work of our modern day concert hall “griots” who continue to carry forward stories from the Black experience for years to come.  Bravo to Larry, the composers and the poets for such a wonderful project.

‍Dr. Louise Toppin
Professor of Voice
The University of Michigan