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20.10.16

Lawrence Brownlee, classical voice

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Donizetti & Bellini: Allegro io son, L. Brownlee, Kaunas City Symphony, Kaunas State Choir, C. Orbelian
(2016)
The Kennedy Center is skewing toward more popular forms of entertainment. It has turned out to be the hallmark of the tenure of the organization's new president, Deborah Rutter. In a formula familiar from many concert presenters, Renée Fleming has been called in to offer some star advice, for a set of concerts unimaginatively called "Renée Fleming VOICES." (Capital letters make it different!) The new series kicked off with its sole classical performance, by tenor Lawrence Brownlee. The rest of the season features jazz, musical theater, and cabaret.

It always takes my ears a few moments to adjust to the active vibrato in Brownlee's voice. Not unpleasant in any way, it is a prominent flutter, tightly coiled, but after some time passes my ear adjusts to it and can still perceive the center of the pitch. True to form Brownlee's strongest work came in arias from bel canto operas. Brownlee hit the first big high notes of the evening in "Seul sur la terre," from Donizetti's Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal. That vibrato, among other advantages, gives a high-energy buzz to Brownlee's notes off the top of the staff, which do not sound floated, in the sense that there is intensity and effort in them. This was more apparent in the even higher notes in "Terra amica," from Rossini's Zelmira, which was truly thrilling as Brownlee showed off the virtuosity of his runs and top notes. A close second was the closing set of spirituals, in classic arrangements by H. T. Burleigh.

A set of Strauss songs was more successful than seemed likely given Brownlee's strengths. The German diction was not always clear but especially in subtle songs like "Breit' über mein Haupt" he brought the same silky clarity and gentle phrasing that make his bel canto singing so pretty. With "Morgen" and "Die Nacht" pianist Justina Lee, for much of the evening merely a competent accompanist, was integral to the beauty of the performance. Finally with "Cäcilie," both artists cranked up the excitement for the song's dramatic climax, which was thrilling. An opening set of Liszt songs, some of which were heard more beautifully from Angela Meade in August, impressed less. With all due respect to i nostri amici italiani, if I never hear a set of these Italian art songs again for a decade, that would be fine by me. All was forgiven, however, by the choice of encore, a plangent rendition of Donizetti's Una furtiva lagrima.

The best news of the evening is that the Kennedy Center has fixed the buzzing sound that plagued concerts in the Family Theater earlier in the fall. The sound, something like a vibrating light fixture, was absent on Tuesday evening, although there was still just a whisper of unwelcome noise, perhaps from the ventilation system.

Lawrence Brownlee stars in Washington National Opera's upcoming production of Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment (November 12 to 20, but in only five of the eight performances), in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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