Lawrence Brownlee’s Spiritual Sketches

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 rÙles 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]

image_description=Lawrence Brownlee’s Spiritual Sketches
product_title=Lawrence Brownlee’s Spiritual Sketches
product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome
product_id=LeChateau Earl Records 888174029597 [CD]