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Review: Tenor Lawrence Brownlee Addresses the Black Male Experience In ‘Cycles of My Being’ at Zankel Hall

Lawrence Brownlee

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, April 26, 2018

Lawrence Brownlee, one of the busiest singers around, in demand for bel canto opera roles all over the world, has a commanding stage presence, flawless intonation, and crystal-clear diction. The son of a church choir director, music is in his bones, and his lush, shimmering tenor voice flows effortlessly. In an impressive, warmly received recital at Zankel Hall on Tuesday evening with a program of contrasting pieces, Brownlee demonstrated his range well beyond the melismatic dramatics of Italian opera.

Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe is the quintessential romantic song cycle, and in many ways, a defining piece of the romantic period in music. Sixteen songs, some quite short, detailing the universally human experience of dizzying infatuation and painfully unrequited love. The title means “A Poet’s Love” and the text is poetry by Heinrich Heine, arranged into this narrative arc by Schumann.

Schumann is always tricky interpretively, and the Dichterliebe is a true test for both vocalist and pianist. Their collaboration must be well-honed and artistically polished, and Brownlee and Huang bring exceptional refinement to their passionate performance of the dramatic piece.

Huang plays beautifully, every phrase shaped like a refined jewel, each note placed deliberately. Her round tone and subtle use of pedal result in a gorgeous sound from the instrument. In his approach to art song, Schumann approaches the text from the piano and the inner life depicted in the poetry is frequently depicted in the piano texture.

Huang expressively sets the stage for Brownlee to shine, not merely accompanying, but lifting up and enhancing his heartfelt interpretations. In the exquisite “One bright summer morning,” Huang’s delicate, ravishing pianism gently buttressed the emotional resonance in Brownlee’s delivery of the melancholy lament.

My hat is off to Brownlee for spearheading the project that he is presently performing around the U.S. Cycles of My Being, commissioned by Opera Philadelphia, Carnegie Hall, and Lyric Unlimited, is a powerful new song cycle written expressly for Mr. Brownlee by composer Tyshawn Sorey and librettist Terrance Hayes. Scored for piano, violin, cello, and clarinet, the composer conducted this moving, earnest performance.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee

(l. to r.) Randall Goosby, violin; Khari Joyner, cello; Kevin Miller, piano; Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Alexander Laing, clarinet; Tyshawn Sorey, composer/conductor in recital at Zankel Hall; photo: Steve J. Sherman.

Cycles of My Being addresses the experience of being a black man in America, and Brownlee explained in an earlier interview that the intent behind the piece’s creation is to give an idea of what black men think about on a daily basis, as they move through a world in which they must endure the threat of “undeserved aggression, incarceration, brutality, and even death,” as he writes in his program notes.

Hayes’s searing text pulls no punches. The opening song, “Inhale/Exhale,” begins with the line “America — I hear you hiss and stare,” setting the stage for what is an unflinchingly honest examination of how racism is experienced on the receiving end. The third song, “Hate,” speaks plainly. “Hate takes on many shapes. It is subtle, overt, passive, often wrapped in disguise. Hate wears white sheets, black suits, high heels, and blue uniforms.” It goes on and concludes heartbreakingly, “I hate that your hate can decide my own fate.”

These ruminations are set to music of a very different sort than the lighthearted, busy Rossini and Donizetti that Brownlee has made a career performing. Sorey’s music has a searching quality, with long-arced melodic lines, and harmonies that move from mournful to wrenching underscoring Hayes’s words. The challenging vocal writing provides Brownlee an opportunity to communicate from his soul, and to soar in a wide variety of dynamics, frequently in the highest reaches of his wide vocal range.

Brownlee returned to the stage with pianist Huang for a less moody encore, a jazzy arrangement of “The Nearness of You,” a perfect choice in the way it contrasted with the Schumann and Sorey, a reminder of the breeziness that Brownlee can impart with his voice.

It’s refreshing to hear a new composition like Cycles of My Being addressing the artists’ experiences in such an unequivocal way. The message conveyed is a crucial one, and today’s classical music audience is richer for having Cycles in the world, and for Brownlee and his collaborators bringing themselves so wholly to their artistic endeavors.

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Lawrence Brownlee, tenor and Myra Huang, piano, Tyshawn Sorey and Friends in recital at Zankel Hall on April 24, 2018. With Randall Goosby, violin; Khari Joyner, cello; Alexander Laing, clarinet; Kevin Miller, piano; Tyshawn Sorey, conductor.

SCHUMANN Dichterliebe

TYSHAWN SOREY Cycles of My Being (NY Premiere, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall)

Encore:

CARMICHAEL / WASHINGTON The Nearness of You

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Cover: Tenor Lawrence Brownlee and pianist Myra Huang in recital at Zankel Hall; photo: Steve J. Sherman.


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