Wednesday, September 8, 2021 Classical Music Review: “Dreams of a New Day — Songs by Black Composers”

Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers
Baritone Will Liverman
Pianist Paul Sanchez
Cedille Records

The Arts Fuse                                                                                    

By Ralph P. Locke

The young baritone Will Liverman’s performances are full of spirit and a wide range of moods.

Dreams of a New Day — Songs by Black Composers, Will Liverman ‎(Cedille).

“Black Composers Matter” — that could be the motto of a number of Intrepid and imaginative musicologists and performers, committed to bringing to performance the largely neglected but often immensely effective and affecting works of such Black American composers as William Grant Still and Florence Price.

Will Liverman is a prominent, youngish baritone who has sung important roles at the Metropolitan Opera (in Marnie and Akhnaten) and Santa Fe Opera (Schaunard in La bohème) and is poised to garner much more attention in Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones (scheduled to open the Met’s Fall 2021 season) and as the Celebrant in Bernstein’s Mass (at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington DC).

His first solo CD, Whither Must I Wander, was hailed by BBC Music Magazine (“admirable poise and clarity of intention”). Now, accompanied by pianist Paul Sánchez, he offers a cross-section of songs written at various times over the past century or so by seven Black composers.

Most impressive here is the 1915 set of five songs by Harry (Henry Thacker) Burleigh, the “Negro” singer, composer, and arranger who became a close, trusted companion to Dvořák during the two and a half years that the latter spent in New York City (with vacations in Iowa) running the short-lived National Conservatory of Music, 1892-95. The texts, by Adela Florence Nicolson (pseud. Laurence Hope), are full of exotic evocations typical of the day (“jungle flowers,” “the Lotus lake,” “Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar”). Burleigh sets them marvelously for singer and piano alike. If I picked up a hint of Verdi’s Amneris (“Strana pietà” on the repeated words “Crushing out life”) and Chopin’s Prelude no. 20 in C minor (a brief piano transition in “Till I Wake”), this just shows a confident composer knowing how to incorporate devices that suit his expressive purpose.

The other composers vary in style, but all know how to create effective songs. The one world-premiere recording is “Two Black Churches,” a setting—commissioned by Liverman—of two painful poems (by different poets) about attacks on Black churches: in Birmingham (1963, leaving four girls dead) and Charleston (2015, killing nine parishioners). Shawn E. Okpebholo (b. 1981), professor at Wheaton College-Conservatory of Music, sets them powerfully, with subtle evocations of several hymns and of tolling bells.

Among other highlights are Three Dream Portraits by Margaret A. Bonds (1913-72), to poems by the great Langston Hughes.

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