Review: Lawrence Brownlee Makes Room for Black Composers

“Wow, I need to take you all wherever I go,” the tenor Lawrence Brownlee told the audience when his return to the stage was met with raucous applause after the intermission of his concert at Zankel Hall on Thursday.

It seemed, even, like every blistering high note, well-turned melisma and swooning falsetto note was greeted with hums of approval and the occasional shout of “C’mon!” Brownlee gave a lot of himself, and the audience was there to receive it.

Thursday’s program, “Rising,” performed with the pianist Kevin J. Miller, was, Brownlee said, conceived during the uncertainty of the pandemic. It was hard to tell what the future might hold, he said, but in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, he sensed that allies were “beginning to make space” for Black voices.

Brownlee wanted to make room, too. As an opera star, he regularly spreads the gospel of Strauss, Debussy and Mozart, but he also wanted to champion the music of Black composers such as Robert Owens, Margaret Bonds and their successors.

That’s what he did at Zankel: With a coruscating tenor densely packed with vibration and lightly worn confidence, Brownlee engraved his voice on a vast collection of pieces with a sure sense of how they should sound.

“Rising” traces an ancestral link among Black composers by focusing on the common inspiration of Harlem Renaissance-era poetry. The program’s first half featured song cycles by Owens (“Desire” and “Silver Rain”) and Bonds (“Songs of the Seasons”), as well as recent pieces from Jeremiah Evans. The second half included new commissions from Damien Sneed, Shawn E. Okpebholo, Brandon Spencer, Jasmine Barnes and Joel Thompson, plus Carlos Simon’s “Vocalise.”

Brownlee’s singing doesn’t sparkle so much as it sparks. It’s very much a coloratura instrument rather than a lyric one — a voice built more for dexterity than warmth — with a narrow spectrum of brilliant colors. Song repertoire rewards a softer touch, and it took some time on Thursday for Brownlee to round off the cutting edge of his sound. Perhaps after years of laser-precision bel canto, Brownlee has cultivated an elegant propriety, staying true to rhythm and seldom straying from a polished, ringing tone.

As such, the subtleties in his singing only deviated minutely from his essentially brilliant timbre — a touch of duskiness here in “Juliet,” an echo of wistfulness there in “Night Song,” both by Owens. Bass-clarinet tones, warm yet reedy, emerged in Bonds’s “Winter Moon.” With an opera singer’s theatricality, he held the stage in the romantic expansiveness of Owens’s “In time of silver rain” and ended the program’s first half with a victorious high C.

Miller’s playing was kinetic, especially in Owens’s vivid writing — efficiently obstinate in “Desire,” with a lovely pitter-patter of raindrops in “In time of silver rain.” He seemed to relish putting a little dirt into the opening of Evans’s “Southern Mansion.”

Among the new pieces, Barnes’s “Invocation,” which turns Claude McKay’s poetic address to an “Ancestral Spirit” into an incantatory refrain, drew intense applause. Spencer showed a wonderful sense of prosody and storytelling in “I Know My Soul,” and Thompson sounded an exultant, if sometimes strident, call to celebration in “My People.”

There is a compelling will to melody and mood, reminiscent of Owens, in the work of Sneed and Okpebholo. Okpebholo’s “Romance” — a sensual, desultory evening come to life from a blissful McKay poem — unwound in an aimless but seductive way. Miller and Brownlee brought out the piece’s mingling of desire and vulnerability.

Brownlee had an enchanting way of cascading through the highly pitched melody of Sneed’s “Beauty That Is Never Old.” And his “To America” was a gut punch. “How would you have us, as we are?” begins James Weldon Johnson’s poem. “Rising or falling? Men or things?”

The title of Brownlee’s program provides an answer — rising, always rising — but his encores made that point, too. Crossing himself before launching into two spirituals arranged by Sneed, Brownlee was positively infectious as he took his voice high and leaned into gospel-style runs: joyful, and sure of his place in the world.

Lawrence Brownlee

Performed on Thursday at Zankel Hall, Manhattan.

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