Tenor Lawrence Brownlee unveils a new song cycle on themes of race and hope
As a renowned operatic tenor, a honey-toned specialist in the music of Rossini with a burgeoning reputation, Lawrence Brownlee enjoys an enviable life in many ways. But he’s also a black man in America, and says he’s under no illusions about how easily any protections he has could be stripped away.
Those reflections — and the sense that it was incumbent on him to use his art to further a dialogue on race relations in the U.S. — led him to commission “Cycles of My Being,” an ambitious new song cycle by composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes that Brownlee performed in Herbst Theatre on Saturday, March 31, together with pianist Myra Huang.
“Every day I turned on the TV and saw something that didn’t sit well with me,” Brownlee said in describing the genesis of this project. “I know that a simple traffic stop could take me to a place where I don’t want to be.”
“Cycles of My Being,” which had its world premiere in Philadelphia in February and its West Coast premiere in a recital presented by San Francisco Performances, is a work of both anguish and optimism, at once accusatory and stirring. Hayes’ poetry unspools in long, patterned incantations, using its repetitions and cross-references as a way to burrow into the listener’s consciousness.
The cycle’s six songs, which run about 35 minutes altogether, are arranged in three elaborately matched concentric pairs, whose traversal feels like a descent into a maelstrom followed by the emergence out the other side.
At the center of the cycle — the nub of the problem, if you like — are two songs titled “Whirlwind” and “Hate,” which bring out Sorey’s fiercest and most uncompromisingly dissonant writing. The harmonies are chafed raw, the vocal writing disjointed and emphatic; this is music that deliberately makes little use of Brownlee’s gift for elegant phrasing.
But surrounding those, we get a pair of symmetric paeans to hope — the first set to darkly churning piano figuration, the second to more overtly rhapsodic music. And at the very outside of the cycle comes music that draws most tellingly on traditions of lament and consolation.
In the slow opening song, “Inhale, Exhale,” Brownlee delivered an address to America that registered as a poignantly one-sided love duet (“America — I hear you hiss and stare/ Do you love the air in me, as I love the air in you?”). The concluding “Each Day I Rise, I Know,” gets under way with a bravura passage of unaccompanied vocal melismas — long, ornate variations on simple figures — that conjure up echoes of the spiritual while establishing their own expressive identity.
Brownlee was an ideal interpreter of this music, his bright and unclouded vocal tone allowing access to both the intimacy and public force of the writing. Huang’s playing was tender and eloquent.
The first half of the program was devoted to what Brownlee described as his first public performance of Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,” that exemplar of Romantic ambiguity. Though his singing was never less than precise or elegant, Brownlee’s characteristically forthright clarity proved less persuasive here, in a work so full of emotional shadows and misdirection.
He fared best in such songs as “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome” and “Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen,” which are pretty much just what they pretend to be. Elsewhere, both he and Huang tended to overplay dramatic and expressive twists that are more effective as deadpan throwaways. The pop standard “The Nearness of You” made a sleek encore.