Youngstown-born tenor Lawrence Brownlee returns to Northeast Ohio in triumph

From The Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 09 2012

The final concert of the Cleveland Chamber Music Society’s 62nd season Tuesday at Plymouth Church in Shaker Heights could hardly have been more elating.

One of the reasons was tenor Lawrence Brownlee, a Youngstown native and star at the Metropolitan Opera, who gave a recital with the most illustrious collaborative pianist of them all, Martin Katz.

But general rejoicing also ensued at the announcement that the society next season will move its entire concert series from Beachwood’s Fairmount Temple, where everyone put up with arid acoustics for decades, to the welcoming environment of Plymouth Church.

No longer will musicians struggle to send their artistry to concert-goers’ ears. Plymouth’s sanctuary is an intimate space that places listeners in close proximity to the performers.

Brownlee and Katz took some time to scale down to the crystalline acoustics. The genial tenor even quipped about making the adjustment from opera to recital, having just arrived here from Amsterdam, where he sang Narciso in Rossini’s “Il Turco in Italia.”

In songs by Verdi and Poulenc, Brownlee tended to fire his light lyric tenor on all cylinders, which reduced the charm and character in these pieces. He was more nuanced in “Un aura amorosa” from Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” and he brought endearing personality (and crisp English enunciation) to the winsome lines in “Lonely House” from Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene.”

But it was in the second half of the program, and mostly toward the recital’s end, that Brownlee put his gifts to most thrilling use. He ended the first song in Ginastera’s cycle “Cinco canciones populares argentinas” on a high note that reverberated through the sanctuary.

Expressive in two songs by Paul Bowles and in Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” Brownlee exploded with ardor in Marc Blitzstein’s “Stay in My Arms,” which ended in the stratosphere with a lovingly shaded decrescendo.

The audience became especially pumped when the tenor turned to operatic fare. Brownlee gave an impassioned account of “Pour me rapprocher de Marie” from Donizetti’s “La fille du regiment” before thrusting himself into a bel canto specialty, Narciso’s aria “Tu seconda il mio disegno” from “Il Turco in Italia.”

His combination of tonal sweetness and coloratura fire made this the performance of the night, though he continued to seize ears with encores of the spiritual “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” and a melting rendition of “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore.”

Katz didn’t sit deferentially in the background. His pianism was rich and varied, whether the music called for orchestra-like textures or the sparest of gestures.

More good news: Brownlee returns to his hometown’s Stambaugh Auditorium Friday, Nov. 30 to sing Almaviva in the Opera Western Reserve production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.”

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