Arts & Events

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee at Herbst Theatre

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday April 06, 2018 - 04:19:00 PM

On Saturday, March 31, tenor Lawrence Brownlee gave a recital at Herbst Theatre accompanied by pianist Myra Huang. Already acclaimed as a leading interpreter of the operas of Rossini and Donizetti, Lawrence Brownlee introduced himself Saturday evening to the Herbst Theatre audience by saying that he also aspires to become a leading interpreter of German lieder, and he cited tenor Fritz Wunderlich and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as his models. Tonight’s recital, Brownlee noted, might be thought of as his first step on a long voyage.  

Leading off Saturday’s program were the Dichterliebe/Poet’s Love by Robert Schumann. Set to poems by Heinrich Heine, Schumann’s Dichterliebe bear a strange, somewhat problematic relation to the composer’s love for Clara Wieck, later Clara Schumann. Though they fell in love when Clara was in her early teens, their hopes of marrying were blocked by Clara’s father; and it was only when Clara reached age twenty-one that she and Robert Schumann were able to marry. It is a fact, however, that during the years of being blocked in his desire to wed Clara, Robert Schumann wrote many very beautiful love songs. It is also a fact, albeit a very curious one, that once married, Schumann wrote his Dichterliebe, which are full of doubts about love, its eventual decay, and the death of the sensitive poet-lover. In any case, the Heinrich Heine poems set to music by Schumann follow a clear, disheartening progression from giddy elation to the onset of doubts, and from decay of love to pain, despair and death.  

In singing Schumann’s Dichterliebe, Lawrence Brownlee was, one might say, a man of two voices. There was the heldentenor voice, strong and almost hard-edged; and there was the soft, almost falsetto voice. While there were a few brilliant moments of the heldentenor voice, there were also some passages in that voice that didn’t quite work. One such example came in the sixth song, Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen/There is fluting and fiddling, where Brownlee’s fast and strong-voiced singing seemed to swallow up some of the words. Conversely, nearly all the soft, almost falsetto passages were exquisitely sung. One of the best examples of the latter came in the fourth song, Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’/When I look into your eyes. In this song’s final stanza, the words are “But when you say: I love you! I must weep bitterly.” These words were sung by Brownlee very softly, emphasizing and at the same time calling into question the mixed emotions behind the words.  

Likewise, in the tenth song, Hör ich das Liedchen klingen/I hear the little song playing, Brownlee gave this slow, poignant little song a very soft treatment, while his accompanist Myra Huang completed the song with a strong ending, the combination of which was most expressive of pain and grief. In a change of pace, the eleventh song, Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen/A boy loves a girl, Brownlee and Huang joined in giving this a strong, full-voiced treatment that was quite expressive of the pain and irony in Heine’s words. The thirteenth song, Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet/I wept in my dream, found Brownlee opening with very softly-sung low notes, then slowly gaining strength to close with a full-voiced expression of his flood of tears. The fifteenth song, Aus alten Märchen winkt es/From old fairy-tales it beckons, was performed fast and loud; and the closing song of the cycle, Die alten, bösen Lieder/The old, angry songs, opened with a dramatic burst from the piano, then proceeded with Brownlee’s pained evocation of morbid thoughts about a coffin in which to bury the poet’s love, and ended with Myra Huang playing very poignant closing notes on piano. All in all, Lawrence Brownlee may indeed become a fine interpreter of German lieder; but at present there is work to be done in refining his vocal technique to deal with such exposed, intimate feelings. 

After intermission, Lawrence Brownlee and Myra Huang returned to the stage to perform the West Coast Premiere of Cycles of My Being, with music by Tyshawn Sorey set to poetic texts by Terence Hayes. Introducing this song-cycle, Lawrence Brownlee, himself an African-American, recounted that he got together with two of his African-American friends, composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terence Hayes, to explore what’s it’s like for black men to live in contemporary white America. Brownlee cited the need to face-up to undeserved aggression, incarceration, brutality, and even death. “It’s different,“ he said, “for a black man than for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white person.“ A sympathetic audience applauded this heartfelt introduction by Brownlee.  

The opening song of Cycles of My Being featured angular music set to words that began, “America – I hear you hiss and stare. Do you love the air in me, as I love the air in you?“ Moments later, the word “hysteria,“ sung on a very high note, was repeated in a tone full of anguish. This opening song was, in my opinion, the most successful of the six songs in this cycle.  

Next came a song entitled Hope (pt. 1), which featured interesting, very vigorous circular runs on piano to accompany repeated expressions of hope by the singer. A disquieting note, however, closing on a very high note, came with the words, “When angry hope is a blade.“ The third song, entitled Whirlwind, featured the line, “Lord, I’m trying to break free of prison; this song of mine must become a weapon.“ This same line recurred at the end of this song, sung by Brownlee on a very high note. The fourth song, entitled Hate, contained the line, “You don’t know me. Still you hate me. Your contempt for me does not allow you to see me for who I am.“ Song number five, entitled Hope (pt. 2), found Brownlee slipping a bit in his diction when he sang the word “serenity“ as if it were “serenaty.“ 

The sixth and final song, entitled Each Day I Rise, I Know,“ opened with melismas that seemed inspired by spirituals, as Brownlee sang elaborate coloratura over quite a few words in the text. As for the text in this song, it plays with rhyming words but makes little sense, becoming almost embarassing in its repetitions of words such as toothpaste, toothbrush, hairbrush and the like. As a closing statement in this otherwise powerful song-cycle, it seems weak. However, at the close of Cycles of My Being, the audience gave Brownlee and Huang a thunderous standing ovation. As an encore, Lawrence Brownlee sang “The Nearness of You,“ which he dedicated to Nat “King“ Cole.