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Concert Review: The Next Giant Steps

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Lawrence Brownlee in a fierce Liederabend at Zankel Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: The Next Giant Steps

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee explored 19th century and contemporary song at Zankel Hall on Tuesday night.
Photo by Shervin Lainez for Opera Philadelphia.

The American tenor Lawrence Brownlee has emerged in the past decade as one of the leading lights of the bel canto revival that has swept operatic stages in this young century. He is possessed of a memorable stage presence, formidable technique, a plangent, sweet tone and a powerful, nimble insrument. On Tuesday night, a packed Zankel Hall got to see a different side of Mr. Brownlee, as he led an exploration of the art of the song at the Carnegie Hall venue.
The program was divided into two parts. First came a performance of Dichterliebe ("A Poet's Love") the Robert Schumann song cycle that is a staple of lieder repertory. Most performances of these songs are done by baritone singers, so it was interesting to hear Mr. Brownlee apply his technique to these pieces. His accompanist for the first half was pianist Myra Huang, who supplied dreamy and driving textures from her instrument as required.
These sixteen songs are based on texts of Heinrich Heine. Mr. Brownlee showed an easy command over the first few in the book, singing the two spring songs that launch the set with a relaxed and convivial approach. Ms. Huang sped the tempo for "Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne", and Mr. Brownlee raced along, keeping up easily and navigating the tricky passages with the skill one is used to from his performances of Donizetti and Rossini.
It was in the later songs that the character of the tenor voice brought a very different palette of sounds to the fore. Mr. Brownlee used his voice like a silver rapier, jabbing and stabbing, opening his powerful "head" voice and putting the full force of his instrument into the most emphatic passages. The effect was startling, unsettling and finally, thrilling as he caught the storm and struggle of these tormented verses.
In the tragic depths of the last half of the songbook he turned dreamy and pensive, singing with a heart-melting sadness as the poet-protagonist mourned his lost love. The bleak final song, with its evocation of burial and death plunged emotional depths, and the fearlessness with which the singer approached this material spoke volumes as to his development as an artist, with intentions that are far beyond the roles that he has mastered thus far.
The second half was also thrilling but in an entirely different way. This was the New York premiere performance of Cycles of My Being, a song cycle co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Opera Philadelphia from the contemporary composer Tyshawn Sorey. This is a setting of poems by the lauded Terrance Hayes, who opened the set by reciting another one of his poems. Mr. Sorey also conducted, from an iPad to the right of Mr. Brownlee, leading a small ensemble of piano (played by Kevin Miller) clarinet (Alexander Laing) violin (Randall Goosby) and cello (Khari Joyner). The accompaniment drew from tone-rows, contemporary tonality and modal jazz, shifting in a heartbeat from a whisper to an anguished scream
The songs were slow, searing and merciless, with Mr. Brownlee's tenor like a licking flame. "Inhale, Exhale" was the powerful opener, questioning the country's view of the African-American experience, especially in this lunatic time. "Hate" slowed the pace even further,  a careful and unflinching examination of the roots of prejudice with unsettling intervals and interspersed spoken lines. "Hope" strove for just that, starting at a determined andante and slowing to a more reflective pace. All the musicians sang passages in the final "Each Day I Rise", showing Mr. Sorey's understanding of roots music and the power of Mr. Brownlee's voice over their droning response.

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