Last night at Herbst Theatre, tenor Lawrence Brownlee returned to San Francisco to make his recital debut in the third of the four concerts in the 2017–2018 Vocal Series presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). In the fall of 2016, he had made his debut with the San Francisco Opera in Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. For his recital he was accompanied by pianist Myra Huang, who was also making her SFP debut.
The program consisted of only two song cycles, separated by over 175 years. In 2016 Brownlee was invited to plan a recital to perform at Carnegie Hall. He later told an interviewer from The New York Times that he knew he wanted to perform Robert Schumann’s Opus 48 Dichterliebe (a poet’s love). This was one of the composer’s major achievements in 1840, the Liederjahr (year of song) during which he composed over 130 songs. (It was also the year in which, on September 12, he finally married Clara Wieck.)
If Opus 48 remains one of the major components of the art song tradition, Brownlee wanted to complement it with a song cycle for the immediate present. Indeed, he wanted a song cycle that would be not only contemporary but also personal, “detailing our own perspective of what it is to be a black man in America” (Brownlee’s words). What emerged was a two-year collaboration with composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes, a 50-minute composition in six movements setting five poems. (One of the poems, “Hope,” is distributed across the second and fifth movements.)
By way of context, it is worth recalling that the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in the summer of 2013, born out of a hashtag introduced after George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in his trial for the shooting of the African-American teen Trayvon Martin. It says something about our national culture when we realize that this is now practically ancient history, not because its past is so distant but because incidents of the sort that prompted the Black Lives Matter movement just keep coming, possibly with even greater density. When we recall that 2016 was also the year of our last presidential election, we find ourselves viewing that past as a prologue (with apologizes to William Shakespeare) to an even more disquieting reality.
Nevertheless, Hayes’ words do not wallow in that disquiet. Indeed, whether his verses are free or imaginatively structured, they vibrate with a deep structure of plain-speaking prose that reflects the “Tell It Like It Is” attitude of protest back in the Sixties, repurposed as an Aaron Neville song written for him by George Davis and Lee Diamond. Sorey’s music captures the discursive qualities of Hayes’ texts through well-chosen approaches to dissonance and rhythms of uneasy restlessness. While most of the score skirts around explicit references (which could easily have turned art song into agitprop), there is still some sense that the opening incantation of the final song, set to the words “Each day I rise,” was inspired by a muezzin’s call to prayer at the mosque, suggesting, perhaps, that holding fast to ritual is the one way to endure the harsh uncertainties of reality.
When music is based on so many different layers of context, it is difficult to assess either the song or the singer on the basis of a single experience. (Those who read this site’s account of Lera Auerbach’s piano recital know that this principle applies to far more than vocal music.) Nevertheless, one can certainly credit both Brownlee and Huang for the clarity they brought to their interpretation of Sorey’s score. One can also appreciate that the house lights were bright enough to follow the text sheets included in the program book. Even with the advantage of Brownlee’s clear diction, one still had to negotiate many of the convolutions in Hayes’ phrasing. Still, this is music that demands more than a single listening experience to establish an awareness of what the composer was trying to do and how the vocalist was approaching those objectives.
Fortunately, for many of us Schumann provided far more familiar ground. Even with that familiarity, though, one could again appreciate Brownlee’s clarity of diction and a phrasing in which he tried to establish that every word mattered. Like many of Schumann’s instrumental compositions, this is music replete with wide swings of mood; and the best performers are the ones who know better than to reduce the whole affair to a roller coaster ride. Indeed, Brownlee and Huang clearly appreciated the idea that there should be one “major peak” across the full expanse of the cycle; and, in their interpretation, that peak came at the middle with gradual ascent and descent on either side (with minor departures from the overall flow).
It is also worth appreciating that, even in this “year of song,” Schumann always had the piano in the foreground of his attention. What makes Opus 48 so fascinating at the level of the music itself is the way in which every song is given an extended instrumental coda, which provides a sort of link between the conclusion of one song and the beginning of its successor. This makes for an excellent example of Schumann’s efforts to deal with a sequence of movements as a unified whole. (The astute listener may also pick up a piano passage that attracted the attention of Gustav Mahler while he was working on setting Des Knaben Wunderhorn texts to music.) Furthermore, the final song has the most extended coda of all, almost as if, like a narrator, the piano is saying to the audience, “You know what happens next without my disclosing all of the details.” As a result, the success of last night’s interpretation of Opus 48 owed as much to Huang’s understanding of the role of the keyboard as it did to Brownlee’s mastery of the text.
After all that intensity, Brownlee’s encore offered a bit of relief before sending us all to our respective homes. He explained that he had a great interest in Nat King Cole, more as a vocalist than as a pianist. He sang Hoagy Carmichael’s classic “The Nearness of You” (which, like “Stardust,” has been given a recorded account by just about every vocalist under the sun). While Brownlee’s vocal delivery was straightforward (which is how Carmichael would have wanted it), there was something eyebrow-raising about Huang’s accompaniment, including some modulations that I would have expected from the song stylings of Bill Evans. (As far as I can tell, Evans never recorded this song.) Given the intensity of the program itself, it was nice to end the evening with a gentle surprise or two.