CD Spotlight: Lawrence Brownlee, Rising
Imagine you are the director of an opera company and want to put on an opera by a bel canto composer – say, Bellini, Donizetti, or Rossini. Right near the top of the must-get list for your cast will be a tenor who can handle the composers’ near-impossible demands to sustain long lines that seem to leave no room for taking a breath and to deliver with panache the exciting vocal fireworks known as coloratura. Lawrence Brownlee could well be most opera impresarios’ first choice today, with his bright ringing sound, fantastic agility, and musical grace. Whenever he performs, he wins acclaim from critics and audiences alike.
Because he is so remarkably talented at meeting the challenges of this music, it can be easy, when listening to Brownlee, to forget that these roles were crafted to show off the specific vocal strengths of individual singers roughly two hundred years ago. Brownlee has never been content, though, to limit himself artistically to “covering” music written for others, and he has often used song recitals (in works specifically written for him) to share voices and music that aren’t as well known as the beloved opera arias he delivers so memorably.
His new album "Rising" highlights his commitment to expanding the repertory with contemporary works written to suit his voice and his interests. He presents a program of songs (most of which he commissioned himself) to words by poets from the Harlem Renaissance. Not only does the disc offer a terrific introduction to those writers, it also provides a chance to sample the work of many of today’s most exciting African-American composers. It’s a rich musical offering, from Brownlee’s utterly convincing delivery to the deft pianistic collaboration of Kevin Miller.
There are just a few songs from each composer – Margaret Bonds to Jasmine Barnes, Shawn Okpebholo to Robert Owens, and many others – and Brownlee and Miller make one hungry to hear more from them all. The showstopper here is Joel Thompson’s “My People,” which musically captures the exuberance of Langston Hughes’ poetry, and lets Brownlee both show off his ability to adopt very different musical styles, from classical to jazz, and let fly with those coloratura skills that bring opera house audiences to their feet.
What comes across most of all in these recordings is Brownlee’s passion for this music and his desire to share it with as wide an audience as possible. Talk about a gift that keeps on giving!