Friday, April 27, 2018 Review: Tenor Lawrence Brownlee Addresses the Black Male Experience In ‘Cycles of My Being’ at Zankel Hall

Lawrence Brownlee


April 26, 2018

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer

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.

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.

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