John Frayne | Brownlee shows off wide vocal range at Foellinger

John Frayne | Brownlee shows off wide vocal range at Foellinger

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, famous for his virtuoso top notes in arias by Rossini and Donizetti, came to Foellinger Great Hall on April 19, and gave a program that included two song cycles. First came Robert Schumann's well-known cycle, "Dichterliebe" ("Poet's Love") from 1840, and then came a contemporary cycle as pertinent as today's headlines. The work was "Cycles of My Being," consisting of poems by Terrance Hayes, set to music by Tyshawn Sorey. About Brownlee's high-flying operatic singing, you will have to read to the end of this review.

Brownlee began the recital by speaking, without microphone, from the Foellinger stage. He is evidently a likeable, good-humored man, and he told an anecdote about the trials and tribulations of the famous tenor Fritz Wunderlich, who sought the advice of the accompanist Hubert Giesen on his lieder singing. Giesen told Wunderlich that his lieder singing was just plain bad. And so, Wunderlich got better.

After this anecdote, Brownlee began singing Schumann's settings of lyrics by the famous poet Heinrich Heine. I found Brownlee's interpretation of these Schumann songs, which range from elation to despair, quite insight-ful, but Brownlee's voice seemed strained during much of the Schumann work.

Special features of some of these songs are the highly expressive and sometimes quite long piano postludes, and they were played with admirable sensitivity by Brownlee's collaborator, pianist Myra Huang. Toward the end of the Schumann cycle, Brownlee seemed to relax more, and the distinct beauties of his tenor voice became evident.

The major focus of attention during this recital was on Tyshawn Sorey's "Cycles of My Being" on poems by Terrance Hayes. In Brownlee's program notes, he sets forth the intentions of poet, composer and singer as follows: "Together, we have tried to create something that speaks to the day-to day life of a black man in the United States, and the thought and questions he experiences as he moves through the world." And, the backgrounds of the lives of black men in the U.S. involves, in Brownlee's words, "undeserved aggression, incarceration, brutality, and even death."

Hayes' lyrics ranged in tone from aggressive declamation, through wit-inspired litanies, to quiet, peaceful meditation. The order in which the five poems of the cycle were sung was somewhat confusing.

After the opening poem, "Inhale, Exhale," Brownlee continued with the first half of Poem 4: "Hope," then returned to Poem 2: "Whirlwind." Then came Poem 3: "Hate," after which Brownlee returned to the second half of Poem 4: "Hope," and the cycle then ended with Poem 5: "Each Day I Rise, I Know."

Let me say now that Brownlee sounded in splendid voice during this cycle, singing with superb tone and the fierce intensity of one who is expressing his most passionate convictions.

The poem "Hate" contained some of the strongest and fiercest lines I have ever heard in a concert hall. The poem "Hope" consisted of a litany of 27 lines repeating the formula exemplified by the opening "When walking, hope is a swagger," and "When breathing, hope is oxygen." I found the unfolding of these lines both inventive and touching when the first 14 lines were sung, but the effect was more muted when Brownlee returned later to singing the last 13 lines.

The musical setting by Tyshawn Sorey made strenuous demands on both singer Brownlee and pianist Hwang and they together achieved a most moving and powerful effect.

It seems that when the cycle is performed in New York, the piano part will be replaced by an instrumental accompaniment.

After the end of the Sorey cycle, the applause was resounding, and most of the audience stood. In choosing an encore, Brownlee seemed to be jokingly giving in to an inevitable choice, and began singing "Ah, mes amis!," a tenoric tour de force from Gaetano Donizetti's comic opera, "The Daughter of the Regiment." It used to be famously associated with tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Brownlee's soaring, brilliant rendition made this listener yearn for more vocal display pieces during this evening. The audience reaction was pandemonic.

As second encore, Brownlee sang the folksong "Angels Watching Over Me," which he dedicated to a dear friend who was at the point of death. His singing was a most touching tribute. Next time, perhaps we could have more Donizetti and a little bit of unserious Rossini.

John Frayne hosts 'Classics of the Phonograph' on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.