Gospel Without Hallelujahs: Lawrence Brownlee Elevates the Spiritual
From New York Times, January 30 2014
Anyone unfamiliar with the traditional African-American spirituals that the great operatic tenor Lawrence Brownlee performed on Wednesday at the Allen Room can be forgiven for mistaking them for concert art songs. If Mr. Brownlee and his accompanist and arranger Damien Sneed didn’t tell you, you might not realize that beloved spirituals like “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Down by the Riverside” belong to an oral tradition of gospel music distinct from carefully notated classical art songs.
As Mr. Brownlee explained, there is no definitive version of these songs, which mostly date from the 19th century and were passed down through generations to became concert showpieces associated with Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Jessye Norman and countless others.
Mr. Brownlee, who was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and had scant exposure to classical music as a child, is now one of the world’s foremost bel canto tenors, known for singing the music of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini. His program, part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, concentrated on selections from his 2013 album, “Spiritual Sketches” (LeChateau Earl Records), recorded with Mr. Sneed on piano.
Although both Mr. Brownlee and Mr. Sneed hastened to point out that even their austere approach allowed them considerable flexibility from performance to performance, Wednesday’s concert had the formal air of a recital that mostly eschewed the kind of liberties taken by gospel singers. There were no rolling piano chords, no shouts of hallelujah, despite echoes of ragtime in “Down by the Riverside,” a samba pulse under “Soon I Will Be Done,” and the springing energy of “Come by Here, Good Lord.”
The team focused on the grandeur and power of melodies, which Mr. Brownlee embellished with melismas that tilted more toward the opera house than the church. The moaning and sighing of spirituals were all but absent in Mr. Brownlee’s approach, which relied on volume and pitch rather than ornamentation to convey fervor.
With Mr. Sneed’s modernist piano arrangements creating an elevated platform, Mr. Brownlee pushed his voice to its upper limits, slipping in and out of a countertenor, with minimal flamboyance and maximum devotion.