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Lawrence Brownlee's Marian Anderson Award Recital

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L.Brownlee, Debut Recital

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C.Orff, Carmina Burana,
S.Rattle / C.Gerhaher, S.Matthews, L.Brownlee

Last Sunday’s 2006 Marian Anderson Award Recital in the Terrace Theater was another part of the Kennedy Center’s Prelude Festival, getting us ready for the season proper. Past Marian Anderson Awards have gone to Sylvia McNair, Denyce Graves, Nancy Maultsby, Michelle DeYoung, Nathan Gunn, and Eric Owens. This year’s winner and recitalist will fit into this list of luminaries seamlessly: Lawrence Brownlee’s talent and promise are enormous, and if you haven’t encountered him on one of the great operatic stages so far, you might this season, at the MET or the Semperoper in Dresden.

To anyone who has heard Mr. Brownlee before – perhaps at Wolf Trap or in the Washington Concert Opera’s Tancredi last April – so much was clear even before the recital began. The concert itself, an eclectic mix of Schubert, Mozart, American songbook items, Rossini, and Donizetti, only cemented that impression. It also suggested that Mr. Brownlee – no surprise here, given his age and experiences – is an operatic singer, not a Lieder singer. I am reminded of an anecdote Hubert Giessen shared about Fritz Wunderlich’s first, relatively late, attempts in the Lied repertoire. After running through a few songs, Wunderlich looked at “Hubs” Giessen quizzically and asked how that had been. “Not very good” was the answer – with Wunderlich replying ruefully: “I was afraid of that.”

But Lieder singing being an art of its own and a singer tackling the material anyway are two different things. Anyone with a voice as good as Brownlee’s has to be tempted to pick some of Schubert’s morsels (Brownlee picked very well with “Auf dem Wasser zu singen,” “Erlafsee,” “Dioskuren,” “Der Jüngling an der Quelle,” “Am Meer,” and “Der Schiffer”), and the beauty of the music invariably overshadows lack of nuance, odd accents, and a pronunciation that is best not commented upon. The Schubert did however give his accompanist (calling him a veteran would be an understatement), Martin Katz, opportunity to shine.

Around Schubert, the first half was bookended with Mozart’s 'Recitative and aria' “Misero! o sogno, o son desto” and Rossini’s “Languir per una bella” from L’Italiana in Algeri, both of which went much further in highlighting Mr. Brownlee’s strengths. In Mozart there were superb searing moments (usually better than ‘dramatic’ ones which tended to be sung with too much of a furrow in the brow). Rossini being one of his specialties, he offered enviable agility. The difference to Juan Diego Flórez, who sang the aria at Washington National Opera in May, was telling, though. While both are equally fleet, Lawrence Brownlee’s voice is compact, dense, even pressed – compared to his more famed colleague’s airy, light approach. That, the dramatic quality of his voice, and the beautiful ring of it in the lower third of its register might suggest that a different Fach might be in the none-too-distant future.

Other Reviews:

Charles T. Downey, Lawrence Brownlee in Recital (DCist, September 12)

In front of a sympathetic audience the artist hit his full stride with Bizet’s “Je crois entendre encore” (Les pêcheurs de perles) and especially “Ah! mes amis”(La fille de regiment). Here he was in his element; his stage-mannerisms (which can still be grating at times) were of a much happier, more natural kind.

The Torelli-Blitzstein-Weill-de Creszenzo-Foster-Rossini smorgasboard that was the recital’s tail end came with commentary explaining Brownlee’s personal connection to – and affection for – each song. There was the unabashed beauty of Torelli’s “Tu lo sai” (the first classical aria he ever sang), timely patriotism with “Stay in my arms” and “Oh Freedom,” three-tenor reminiscences with “Rondine al nido,” “Core ‘ngrato” (Salvatore Cardillo), and “Because” (Guy D’Hardelot), a Marilyn Horne tribute via “I dream of Jeannie,” and the superb “La Danza” – again showcasing Brownlee’s amazing agility from its best side. The crowd’s enthusiastic noise belied the fact that the Terrace Theater was not quite sold out.