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Lawrence Brownlee @ Vocal Arts

available at Amazon
Virtuoso Rossini Arias, L. Brownlee, Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra, C. Orbelian
(Delos, 2014)

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Spiritual Sketches, L. Brownlee, D. Sneed
It is always good when Lawrence Brownlee is back in town. The American tenor has been featured in these pages many times before, at Wolf Trap, where he got his start, Washington National Opera, Vocal Arts Society, Washington Concert Opera (and in 2006), and as winner of the Marian Anderson Award. Since we first started writing about him, he has become an international star, most deservedly, just closing out the Metropolitan Opera season, for example, in I Puritani. In accordance with that prominence, perhaps, Vocal Arts D.C. presented Brownlee at Lisner Auditorium on Tuesday night, without seeming to sell many more tickets than would have filled their usual venue, the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. In terms of acoustic and average vantage point, the latter is a superior place to hear this kind of recital, although Brownlee had no trouble filling the larger hall with his consistently lovely voice.

As noted before, in terms of being a song recitalist, Brownlee is not to the manner born. In his first half, problems with pronunciation in sets of songs by Verdi, Poulenc, and Joseph Marx impeded the impact of Brownlee's otherwise fine performance. He was most comfortable when the song gave him a character to play with, like the chimney sweep yelling in the street in Verdi's Lo spazzacamino. Where the music required more of a focus on recitation of poetry and melodic line, he was hampered, but the sweet legato of his sound came across in the slower songs, if without the pyrotechnics of bel canto opera, his specialty, his voice did not have as much occasion to shine. The high point of the first half was a set of delectable songs by Joseph Marx, a composer who deserves a full-fledged resurrection from obscurity. Here and in the Poulenc songs, pianist Kevin Murphy tamed the daring keyboard accompaniments, like the mischievous prancing of Marx's charming Die Elfe, with panache and sensitivity, support that allowed Brownlee to open up vocally, as in the gorgeous Hat dich die Liebe berührt.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Lawrence Brownlee offers arc of self-revelation in Vocal Arts DC recital (Washington Post, May 15)
Alberto Ginastera's Cinco canciones popolares argentias provided a more experimental flavor, with crunchy dissonance in a spare, even barren setting of simple folk poems. Spanish seemed like a language that Brownlee has studied more carefully, so the easier sense of diction helped the performance. The same was true in the concluding American sets, beginning with Ben Moore's Broadway-style songs on poetry by Yeats and Joyce. The concert reached its high point with a set of five spirituals, in arrangements made for Brownlee by Damien Sneed, drawn from their recent recording together. Most classical singers who attempt to sing spirituals have not grown up in that tradition, with predictably stilted results.

Brownlee, like the luscious soprano Krysty Swann, heard a couple years ago, cut his musical teeth on this music. Sneed, who hails from Georgia and has a similar dual background in Gospel and classical music, has made attractive, moving adaptations of lesser-known tunes, which set in the sweet spot of Brownlee's voice were devastatingly effective. Certainly, not a dry eye was left in the house when Brownlee dedicated All night, all day, with its angelic falsetto vocalises, to his son, Caleb, who is on the autistic spectrum. (Hear it for yourself as recorded for an NPR Tiny Desk Concert.) The ovations earned three encores, Schubert’s Der Jüngling an der Quelle, the sentimental Be My Love, and -- finally -- an opera aria, Il mio tesoro from Mozart's Don Giovanni.

The 2014-15 season from Vocal Arts D.C. will feature recitals by Matthew Rose, Pretty Yende, John Brancy, Matthew Polenzani, Karine Deshayes, Karen Cargill, and the New York Festival of Song (featuring soprano Corinne Winters and tenor Theo Lebow).


Peter Russell said...

Thank you, Charles. Larry Brownlee was originally slated for an autumn 2013 Terrace Theater appearance with us. A late-breaking chance to sing his first Tamino with LA Opera during this period necessitated his rescheduling (thankfully, before we went to press, but it also knocked him out of the Renée Fleming Vocal Sympsoium), and the Terrace Theater was unavailable during the tiny window of availability in his schedule (five days, immediately following last Met "Puritani"). Lisner, where we sold 579 tickets (having put only half the house on sale) seemed the best available alternative venue.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for the clarification!