This past March President Melanie Smith released the first announcement of the 2020–21 San Francisco Performances (SFP) season, the 41st annual offering. Usually, this would be the time of year when I would be writing articles summarizing the offerings in the different series of programs available for subscription, sorted according to different genre categories. For now, however, I am keeping those previews on hold until I know more about how the schedule of events will be impacted by shelter-in-place conditions in general and the shutdown of all War Memorial performance venues in particular.
That said, SFP has created its own resource for previewing the performers scheduled for the coming season. There is now a “gallery” Web page on which SFP has collected video clips of all those performers. Indeed, when two or more individual performers are sharing a performance, each has been given his/her own video clip. My current intention is to provide “vignettes” based on these videos while waiting for further information on how the performances themselves will be presented.
The first of these vignettes will discuss tenor Lawrence Brownlee, whose recital in the Art of Song Series has been planned to be presented in conjunction with the 41st Gala. His video was uploaded to YouTube on October 7, 2013 by NPR Music as part of their Tiny Desk Concert series. Brownlee made his San Francisco recital debut on March 31, 2018 in the third of the four Vocal Series SFP concerts. His San Francisco debut was made in the fall of 2016 when San Francisco Opera presented Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.
Brownlee’s recital debut presented an imaginative coupling of song cycles. The first half of the program consisted entirely of Robert Schumann’s Opus 48 Dichterliebe (a poet’s love), composed in 1840. This was followed in the second half by Cycles Of My Being, composed by Tyshawn Sorey setting texts by Terrance Hayes. Composed for Brownlee, the cycle was written to explore the experiences of living as a black man in America and was premiered in February of 2018.
The program that Brownlee had prepared for his return to San Francisco was “completely different” from his past offerings. Crooners was conceived as a full-evening homage to the legendary popular vocalists from the Fifties and Sixties. (The encore for his SFP debut was inspired by Nat King Cole.) Similarly, his Tiny Desk visit took its own unique approach to genre. The program consisted entirely of three spirituals, “There Is A Balm in Gilead,” “All Night, All Day,” and “Come By Here,” all in impressive arrangements by Damien Sneed for voice and piano, the latter played by Justina Lee.
Sneed’s arrangements consistently explored approaches to synthesizing the rhetorical approaches to singing spirituals with jazz-influenced piano accompaniment. This allowed Lee to explore polyphonic elaborations on a basic tune that opened the music into a broader scope without ever conflicting with Brownlee’s fidelity to the tunes themselves. Indeed, every now and then Lee could be heard as venturing into stride rhetoric with the same abandon that could be found in Brownlee’s vocal delivery.
There was also an intensely personal approach to “All Night, All Day,” whose text refers to the band of angels keeping watch on the singer. When this performance was recorded, Brownlee had a three-year-old son, Caleb, who had just been diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder. As a result Brownlee renamed the tune “Caleb’s Song,” bringing a new dimension of poignancy to his delivery. This was particularly evident in his scrupulous control of dynamic levels with a clear sense of where he wanted the climax to register.
Those of my generation probably detected the “family resemblance” of “Come By Here” to “Kumbaya.” This was no coincidence. The tune most likely originated in the Gullah culture of enslaved African Americans in the islands off of South Carolina and Georgia. The “Come By Here” text can be traced back to a 1926 recording by “H. Wylie,” which was subsequently transcribed by Jennifer Cutting:
These days “Kumbaya” has become its own insipid parody. (I can imagine Joan Baez lying awake at night trying to get the damned thing out of her head.) “Come By Here,” on the other hand, is a pull-out-all-the-stops joyous spiritual. The camera work suggests that Lee was reading notation, but she delivered a throughly unabashed account of that notation that perfectly complemented Brownlee’s spirited delivery.