“Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers”
Damien Sneed: I Dream a World
Henry Burleigh: Five Songs of Laurence Hope
H. Leslie Adams: Amazing Grace
Margaret Bonds: Three Dream Portraits
Thomas Kerr: Riding to Town
Shawn E. Okpebholo: Two Black Churches
Robert Owens: Mortal Storm, opus 29
Richard Fariña (arr. W. Liverman): Birmingham Sunday
Will Liverman (baritone), Paul Sánchez (piano)
Recording: Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana (July 22-24, 2020) – 60’52
Cedille Records CDR 90000 200 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English
A stunning new album of art songs by African-American composers may open the door to more exposure and recognition for this long-ignored genre.
Will Liverman, an exciting new presence on the opera stage, brings a depth of feeling, conviction, and personal ownership to 19 songs based on the lyrics of Black poets. In partnership with pianist Paul Sánchez, Liverman delivers a series of heart-felt songs of the highest quality that run the gamut of human emotion and particularly focused on what it means to be Black in America.
The poetry that forms the framework for these musical gems ranges from familiar lyrics by Langston Hughes to the poetry of Adela Florence Nicolson, who wrote under the penname Laurence Hope. The collection appears to gain its title from the first song in the cycle, “I Dream a World” written by Hughes in 1941, a song which, in turn, calls to mind and predates the “I have a dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King. Songs range in subject matter and feeling from the sensuosity of love to the violence levied against peaceful protesters in Birmingham, Alabama.
While the settings of these songs capture the moods and emotional richness of the poetry, they also stand solidly on their own as effective works of art music, seamlessly blending classical Western forms with spiritual and jazz elements, with Sánchez interjecting some subtle improvisational touches. Liverman’s voice is both lithe and robust, whether articulating the spiritual message of a new setting of Amazing Grace with words and music by H. Leslie Adams, or relating the heart-breaking story of a mother losing her little girl to racial violence in Dudley Randall’s Ballad of Birmingham (music by Shawn E. Okpebholo). Amazing Grace is a panoramic, sweeping vision in which Liverman and Sánchez weave a sound tapestry of power and poignancy.
The collection offers a glimpse into the creative work of musical and poetic talents who have been overlooked by the establishment. Robert Owens (1925-2017) is represented by his song cycle, Mortal Storm, five songs based on poems by Hughes. Owens was a first-rate talent who was a child prodigy and studied with Alfred Cortot in Paris, spending the second half of his life performing and composing in Europe. Liverman expresses the composer’s deep anxiety in the final song in this series, “Genius Child”. “No one loves a genius child”, the poet Hughes and composer Owens cry bitterly, from personal experience, and this cry is captured in Liverman’s supple voice, filled with empathy and pain.
Not all the selections in this album deal with injustice and prejudice. Henry Burleigh’s settings of Five Songs of Laurence Hope (Adela Florence Nicolson) include “The Jungle Flower”, full of erotic tenderness. Three songs by composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) show poet Hughes as confident and satisfied with his individuality in “Dream Variation” and “I, Too”, while the ballad, “Riding to Town”, by composer Thomas Kerr (1915-1988) offers Liverman an opportunity to sing in a light-hearted manner.
Liverman has been incredibly active in a wide variety of roles during the past few years. He has performed at the Metropolitan Opera (The Magic Flute, Akhnaten, Marnie) and Opera Philadelphia where I saw him as an engaging Pantalone in Love for Three Oranges in 2019. He has had major roles at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and further leading opera houses, creating the role of Dizzy Gillespie in Yardbird (Opera Philadelphia). Recipient of a Master’s Degree from Juilliard, he received the 2020 Marian Anderson Vocal Award and other prizes. Sánchez is Director of Piano Studies at the College of Charleston, and he holds Master’s and Doctoral Degrees from the Eastman School of Music.
In a personal statement in one of the descriptive booklets that accompanies this collection, Liverman expresses his hope that the album “...inspires you to keep striving to have your voices heard and to speak up constantly and work towards equality.” While it is true that “Dreams of a New Day” does represent a milestone in social-justice musical art, it is much more than a polemic or manifesto. This is a superior collection of art songs whose drama and artistry will register with lovers of great singing, music and poetry regardless of their own experience of oppression. Telling our human stories through art is an important step in the journey to the equity we all seek.