Thursday, June 1, 2023

Lawrence Brownlee “Rises” to the Occasion


CD REVIEW: "Rising" -- Lawrence Brownlee

Warner Classics/Erato Label

Mention the name of tenor Lawrence Brownlee and auditory pleasures of the highest order begin to percolate in one’s musical mind. Known for both his gravity-defying vocal pyrotechnics and sheer melodic beauty, Brownlee evokes images of an operatic trapeze artist, performing without a net because he simply doesn’t need one. In a bit of dream casting, of late Brownlee also has appeared on the Met Opera stage as Tamino in a new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute

In an interview in April 2022, Brownlee enticed us with plans for a project in connection with a tour and coordinating album in the spring of 2023 focusing on several gifted young African-American composers and the Harlem Renaissance. The venture now has come to fruition, following a 9-city tour with pianist and collaborator Kevin J. Miller, in Brownlee’s new album, Rising, releases June 2, 2023, on Warner Classics and all major streaming platforms, in celebration of Black Music Month. 

Rising is a segue to Brownlee’s last acclaimed album on Warner Classics/Erato, Amici e Rivali, consisting of Rossini duets and trios performed with longtime colleague Michael Spyres. For his current CD, the singer commissioned leading African-American composers to set poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to song—among them Damien Sneed, Brandon Spencer, Jasmine Barnes, Joel Thompson, and Shawn E. Okpebholo—with poems by Alice Dunbar Nelson, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson, among others. To this Brownlee adds works from Margaret Bonds, Robert Owen, and Jeremiah Evans. All in all, a veritable cornucopia of African American talent from multiple generations. One could hardly imagine a more comprehensive collection.

The songs, beautifully melodic, inspiring, are poetry in vocal motion, so exquisitely sung that one just luxuriates in the beauty of the sound that Brownlee seems to produce so effortlessly. Brownlee and Miller are perfectly matched and superbly in sync with each other throughout the multifaceted repertoire in this impressive compilation. Miller seems to intuit Brownlee’s every subtle movement of phrase, resulting in a transcendent rendering of each song.

“Beauty That is Never Old,” the first of three Damien Sneed numbers, highlights the gorgeousness of Brownlee’s instrument, with a simple rising and falling of melody that leads to the rhythmically lively and upbeat “The Gift to Sing,” praising the ability of song to make any dark sky bright, and the lyrical “Rising or falling” of “To America.”

Miller and Brownlee make the most of the Brahmsian elements in Jeremiah Evans’s “April Song,” which evokes the Romantic composer’s “Rain” art songs and violin sonata. They capture as well the Rachmaninov-like atmosphere of “Lost Illusions” and shades of Gershwin in “Southern Mansion.” 

Brownlee brings deep introspection to the rhythmic diversity that characterizes Brandon Spencer’s alluring “Dance of Love” and the evocative “Songs of the Seasons” Cycle—Poème d’ Automne and “Winter Moon” (“How thin and sharp and ghostly white Is the slim curved crook of the moon tonight!”) of Margaret Bonds. Spirited femininity and contemplation are appealingly represented in “Peace and Invocation” by Jasmine Barnes.

The tenor ends on a glorious, delicate and flawless high note in Joel Thompson’s “Supplication.” His “God in His great compassion Gave me the gift of song” along with the jazzy, skillfully rendered coloratura stratospheric notes of “Loud laughers in the hands of Fate—My People,” express one of the key themes at the core of this album: the songs of Brownlee’s heritage.

Love is another important leitmotif embodied in the album, and the “Desire Song Cycle” by Robert Owens captures its many facets. The series of songs also displays Brownlee’s uncanny ability to float high notes one after another without strain.

Robert Owens also creates a magical, French Impressionist atmosphere with his “Silver Rain Cycle,” invoking images of hope, new life and new beginnings: “youth and life and and laughter that is good.” A fittingly optimistic ending to a gorgeously wrought endeavor by two dazzling artists at the forefront of their musical world.

Through the many challenges in recent years, both for African-Americans and for the broad spectrum of humanity, Brownlee says, he has seen “moments of strength, inspiration, hope, and great beauty. It is those themes of uplift, elevation, and rebirth that we have tried to focus on with this new project,” with a goal of creating “something that speaks not just to our struggles, but to our triumphs.”

With this new album, Brownlee makes a bold statement with important themes, highlighting Black voices that need to be heard. It is not to be missed.


Photo credit: Zakiyah Caldwell Burroughs 
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

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