Lawrence Brownlee delivers committed reading of new song cycle about being black and male in America
Rare are the classical singers who use their celebrity cachet to help generate new repertory. One shining example is Lawrence Brownlee, who regards the commissioning of music by living composers and sharing it with audiences around the world an essential part of who he is as a performing artist.
Even so, his involvement with “Cycles of My Being,” the new song cycle he included in his recital Thursday night at the DuSable Museum of African American History, was motivated by something much deeper, something much more personal: Brownlee and his collaborators, composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes, wanted to express their feelings, and, crucially, how they are perceived, as African-American men living in a racially divided America.
There can be no denying the worth or pertinence of such an undertaking at a time when black men face acts of violence, incarceration and death on a seemingly day-to-day basis. Classical music has been remiss in addressing themes associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, certainly to the extent that artists working in film, theater, literature and visual art are doing.
And there was no denying the palpable commitment that Brownlee, and his finely supportive accompanist, pianist Myra Huang, brought to this Chicago premiere of “Cycles of My Being.” The duo had taken part in the world premiere Tuesday in Philadelphia, where it was presented with a slightly larger instrumental accompaniment. Opera Philadelphia, where the singer is artistic adviser, co-commissioned the work along with Carnegie Hall and Lyric Unlimited, which sponsored Thursday’s performance.
The cycle of six songs, some to rewritten sonnets by Hayes, a 2014 MacArthur Fellow, and poems by Brownlee himself, steers clear of politics, touching instead on matters of hate, religious faith, black consciousness and, ultimately, hope and unity. Song and speech mingle in songs like the fourth, in which the singer declares, “You don’t know me. Still you hate me.” The overall tone is more of questioning that anger. As Brownlee has said in interviews, there are no raised fists here.
At its best, Sorey’s music allows Brownlee to do what he does best — to soar effortlessly into the vocal stratosphere, nail perfectly placed high notes and invest them with expressive meaning. But even with his best efforts, the singer could do little to bridge the gap between the power of the poetry and the hesitancy of some of the vocal writing and the plainness of the piano part. Earnestness isn’t the same as emotional urgency.
What came off as rather gray for the first two-thirds of the 35-minute cycle found a true sense of authenticity by the final two songs, “Hate (Part 2)” and “Each Day I Rise, I Know,” both with texts largely by Brownlee. Here the singer lofted curling, melismatic lines laced with bluesy half-steps. Suddenly the music felt spontaneous rather than studied. Suddenly music and message were as one.
Brownlee devoted the second half of his program to more conventional recital fare — a pair of his specialty bel canto arias, standards from the great American songbook and several spirituals, interspersed with ingratiating commentary. One of the most winning aspects of a Brownlee recital is the easy rapport he enjoys with his listeners, and it was great to see such a diverse, responsive audience packing the theater.
Even pianist Huang applauded him after he sent the famous nine high C’s in Donizetti’s tenor aria from “The Daughter of the Regiment” flying with the greatest of ease. He also treated the crowd to inventive modern stylings of pop standards made famous by Nat King Cole, who he said was one of his role models growing up.
He dedicated his heartfelt rendition of the spiritual “All Night, All Day” to his son Caleb, a special-needs child, and sent everyone home with a rousing rendition of the gospel favorite “Come By Here.”