08 Jul 2013

Lawrence Brownlee’s Spiritual Sketches

It would be condescending and perhaps even offensive to suggest that singing traditional Spirituals is a rite a passage for artists of color, but the musical heritage of the United States has been greatly enriched by the performances and recordings of Spirituals by important artists such as Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, Barbara Hendricks, Florence Quivar, Kathleen Battle, Harolyn Blackwell, and Denyce Graves.

To risk committing another offense to political correctness, it cannot be denied that only a number too few to mention of Caucasian artists have done Spirituals justice. The first piece of advice that any aspiring writer is likely to receive is that the successful author writes about the familiar, all of a writer’s work containing elements of autobiography no matter how fanciful the subjects at hand. Similar sentiments might reasonably be extended to a singer’s career. For an opera singer, choices of repertory are—or should be—centered upon the qualities and capabilities of the voice, but a singer’s personality and individual heritage are vital aspects of his artistry. Thankfully, the hateful traditions of slavery in America are now 150 years in the past, but Spirituals connect all who hear them, regardless of race, to the unforgiving fields of the Antebellum South, where these songs were not only expressions of hope and perseverance, outlets for spiritual ardor, and means of survival under unfathomably soul-breaking conditions: these songs, as simple as they are profound, were in many cases the only connections between people and their families and homelands. Today, these remarkable songs are as stirring as they were more than a century ago, but there is now the added joy of hearing in this music the triumph of a people who were too strong to be destroyed by even the basest cruelty of their fellow men. Joy and triumph ring out in every note that Lawrence Brownlee sings on this disc, which offers ten traditional Spirituals in performances that ravish the ears and take the heart on a journey from bleakest despair to the summit of exuberant faith, from which it seems possible to see beyond eternity into the welcoming embrace of salvation.

Born in Youngstown, Ohio, Mr. Brownlee is rightly acclaimed as one of today’s foremost exponents of the bel canto tenor repertory. In terms of range and technique, he has few rivals, the tessitura of his brightly-hued but warmly resonant voice allowing him to ascend with freedom to Arturo’s infamous top F in Bellini’s I Puritani. The intricate roulades and top Ds of Rossini rĂ´les like Rinaldo in Armida and Giacomo in La donna del lago pose challenges to even the most accomplished singers, but the ease with which Mr. Brownlee meets these demands is awe-inspiring. It is significant that, in 2006, Mr. Brownlee’s talents were celebrated by his winning both the Marian Anderson Award and the Richard Tucker Award. In addition to being the first African-American artist to perform on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, Anderson was a noted interpreter of Spirituals and European Lieder. Tucker was the greatest American tenor of the 20th Century but also a deeply spiritual man for whom his Jewish heritage was not merely incidental: he performed and recorded Cantorial music throughout his career, not as a novelty but as an integral part of his artistic constitution. An artist of great personal charm and intense concentration, Mr. Brownlee is an apt successor to both Anderson’s and Tucker’s legacies. Whether or not Mr. Brownlee feels any particular connection to the suffering and circumstances of brutality and inhumanity in which the Spirituals that he has recorded were created and preserved, the dedication and sense of purpose audible in this performance are as impressive as those that he brings to his operatic repertory. This performance is far greater and more artistically important than any effort by an opera singer ‘moonlighting’ in a more popular style. Mr. Brownlee’s singing in this performance is as visceral as any ever recorded, and the immaculate condition of the voice permits the singer to take any risk with the assurance of success.

All of the Spirituals recorded here are sung in arrangements by Damien Sneed, who also accompanies Mr. Brownlee. Mr. Sneed’s arrangements are superb, his consummate musicality apparent in the both the idiomatic power and adroitness of harmonic progressions and his sense of drama evident in his frequent but unerringly effective demands upon Mr. Brownlee’s upper register. As a pianist, Mr. Sneed plays with absolute command of the material, shaping phrases with the rhapsodic dash of a great jazz pianist and supporting Mr. Brownlee with the collaborative precision of a Lieder accompanist. Mr. Sneed’s arrangements are occasionally unconventional. The familiar ‘Deep River,’ for instance, opens with a figuration for the piano that mimics a pensive jazz riff before settling into an understated account of the melody that unfolds with the naturalness of a Lied by Hugo Wolf and contrasts Mr. Brownlee’s lower and upper registers very effectively. At the bridge, there is a moment when it seems as though Aaron Copland’s setting of ‘Simple Gifts’ is close at hand. It is an appropriate reference, even if unintentional: the text of the Spiritual, singing of wanting to ‘cross over into campground,’ is a suitable companion to the Shaker song’s extolling of ‘find[ing] ourselves in the place just right.’ ‘Come By Here, Good Lord’ has all the swing and exuberance of a Scott Joplin rag. The obvious success of Mr. Sneed’s arrangements is that they would sound equally at home in Carnegie Hall and Preservation Hall, as would his pianism.

Like the most elegant European art songs, Spirituals are driven by text, and Mr. Brownlee’s diction is so clear that his storytelling is splendidly immediate. Every emotion in ‘Here’s One’ pours out with palpable sincerity, Mr. Sneed’s arrangement pacing the vocal line conversationally over a Gershwin-like accompaniment. Mr. Brownlee’s vocalises, employing his exquisitely beautiful mezza voce, are ideally integrated into the melodic line. ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’ is sung with a quiet conviction that makes the song’s message of the possibility of healing a ‘sin-sick soul’ extraordinarily vivid. ‘Every Time I Feel the Spirit’ fizzes with energy, Mr. Brownlee’s voice ringing excitingly at the climaxes. ‘Down By the Riverside’ has all the soul of a performance by the young Ray Charles and the tireless delight of a Rossini patter aria. ‘Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass’ progresses with the tension and release of a Torch Song, Mr. Brownlee’s chestnut-colored lower register adding an element of mystery to the prospect of dying and ‘los[ing] your soul at last.’ ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,’ one of the most widely-known of all Spirituals, is sung with great poignancy, the restless harmonies conveying the sense of feeling ‘a long way from home.’ ‘Soon I Will Be Done,’ its tone slightly menacing, builds to an explosive coda that takes Mr. Brownlee into his upper register to thrilling effect.

Even among such wonderful performances, Mr. Brownlee’s singing of ‘All Day, All Night’ is a thing apart. Supported by a simple, hymn-like accompaniment, the wide-ranging vocal line is marked by a delicacy that recalls the singing of Mahalia Jackson. The effect of hearing Mr. Brownlee’s wordless vocalise give way to the voice at full throttle in the song’s last refrain can only be described as stunning. It is the sort of singing that seems to stop time; the sort of singing to which it seems that Nature itself stops to listen. Then again, it almost seems not to be singing at all: it is, in the very best sense, emotion and the lifeblood of humanity inevitably expressed in sound, like the mighty, ever-changing voice of a waterfall.

One of the most profound joys of song is that the colors in an artist’s voice are the only important contributors to the value of his artistry. It seems unthinkable that not so long ago the color of Mr. Brownlee’s skin might have placed restrictions on his career. A voice such as his cannot be silenced, however, and a performance such as he gives on this disc cannot be forgotten. Whatever one’s race, Spirituals are as much a part of America’s native musical heritage as the music of Mozart is of Austria’s. Every recording in which Mr. Brownlee has participated to date has been treasurable for his contributions if for nothing else. Spiritual Sketches is an achievement of a quality that cannot be overstated. It brings to mind the words of Celia to Rosalind in Act One of Shakespeare’s As You Like It: ‘Now go we content / To Liberty, and not to banishment.’ In this inexpressibly moving performance of Spirituals, Lawrence Brownlee becomes the voice of a people scarred but content finally in liberty; a people neither black nor white, neither slave nor master. Stripped of artifice and agendas, this disc reveals how powerful Music can be. Lawrence Brownlee takes the listener who hears Spiritual Sketches by the hand and leads him down a dusty road to a little country church sweltering in the heat of summer, everyone fanning in uncoordinated time with the music and all the faces shining with smiles and tears.

Joseph Newsome

Spiritual Sketches—Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Damien Sneed, piano [LeChateau Earl Records 888174029597; 1CD, 38:12]