A mixed evening of diverse cycles from Brownlee at Zankel Hall

Wed Apr 25, 2018 at 10:55 am
Tenor Lawrence Brownlee performed song cycles by Schumann and Tyshawn Storey Tuesday night at Zankel Hall. Photo: Steve J. Sherman

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee performed song cycles by Schumann and Tyshawn Sorey Tuesday night at Zankel Hall. Photo: Steve J. Sherman

What happens to a dream deferred?  If it’s a dream of love, one might find the answer in the fierce, intimate emotions of Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe.

But if it’s something closer to the dream Langston Hughes was talking about—or that of Martin Luther King, Jr.–there’s a new song cycle about that too.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s recital/chamber program Tuesday night at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall included both works, which seemed to invite comparisons between Schumann’s Romantic masterpiece and Cycles of My Being, a five-movement work for tenor and chamber ensemble composed by Tyshawn Sorey to poems by Terrance Hayes. Sorey’s cycle was receiving its New York premiere, as a joint commission of Opera Philadelphia, Carnegie Hall, and Lyric Unlimited (a division of Lyric Opera of Chicago).

In the event, the two pieces proved to have little in common, especially in Tuesday’s performances, with the Schumann tenderly inflected in almost a parody of “sensitive” Lieder style and Sorey’s piece stoutly declaimed in a variety of tempos ranging from slow to very slow to glacial. They did share the moods of bitterness and disillusionment that are the common lot of disappointed lovers and those who suffer social injustice, but these shared emotions were more evident in the texts than in the music itself.

Before the Sorey cycle began, poet Hayes came onstage and read a poem full of images of disappearance and forgetting, a frequent theme of black writers going back to Ellison, Baldwin and beyond. This poem and the piece’s lyrics evoked contemporary African-American experience with clusters of enigmatic images and frank declarative sentences à la Hughes. A wealth of internal rhymes (“I hate that your hate can decide my own fate”) occasionally brought hip-hop to mind, but for the most part the African-American influence on music and text was kept subliminal in a work meant “to foster mutual respect, understanding, and communication across races and generations,” as Brownlee wrote in a program note. 

It was not just the instrumentation—violin, cello, clarinet and piano—that recalled Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, but also the enormous spaces that Sorey opened in which to contemplate the poems–which were not so much musically enacted as intoned by the singer in long notes, sometimes one word to a breath. In spite of the slow tempos, Brownlee managed to sing in shapely, very long vocal lines. To hold the ensemble together, the composer conducted discreetly from a seat among the players.

The burden of instrumental expression fell largely on pianist Kevin Miller, who supported Brownlee’s powerful delivery on a cushion of blues-colored chords in the first song, “Inhale, Exhale,” and egged the singer on with more assertive dissonances in “Whirlwind.”

The near-frozen tempo of the third song, “Hate,” was a Messiaenic test of concentration for the audience and the African-American ensemble alike, with violinist Randall Goosby, cellist Khari Joyner, and clarinetist Alexander Laing joining the pianist in long, fading chords. These three players made valuable contributions of a solo here, a minimalist figure there, throughout the cycle, with clarinetist Laing in particular coming in for expressive solo interludes, notably in the fourth song, “Hope.”

Laing also contributed a hair-raising crescendo in rasping multiphonics to the otherwise gentle, gospel-style finale, “Each Day I Rise, I Know,” in which all the players sang unison responses to Brownlee’s fantastic vocal melismas and pianist Miller’s softly swinging ostinato. If this was not exactly a foot-stamping closer, the piece as a whole brought a warm, standing response from the audience, which called the performers, composer and poet back to the stage twice for bows.

Opening the evening with Dichterliebe, Brownlee the bel canto star seemed determined to leave his operatic chops at the door and get into a self-effacement contest with pianist Myra Huang. The pianist’s sensitive style has made her the collaborator of choice for many current vocal stars, but it seemed a bit underpowered for this Schumann work, which is as much a chamber partnership as a song cycle. 

Despite her light touch at the keyboard, Huang managed to cover Brownlee’s murmurous delivery in places. But in its understated way, the performance offered many fine moments of imagination, such as the wildness of the wedding scene in “Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen,” and of execution, as in the way singer and pianist seemed to breathe and speak together in “Allnächtlich im Träume.”

Following the Sorey piece, as if to relieve the waiting-to-exhale feeling of the whole evening, Brownlee and Huang returned to the stage for an encore, a lush and affectionate rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s sly standard, “The Nearness of You.”

Carnegie Hall presents pianist Daniil Trifonov and Kremerata Baltica in works of Chopin 8 p.m. tonight in Carnegie’s Stern Auditorium. carnegiehall.org; 212-247-7800.


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