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Brownlee premieres Cycles at Opera Philadelphia

Perelman Theater
02/20/2018 -  
Johannes Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 2, op. 100 (1st movement)
Samuel Barber: Sonata for violoncello & piano, op. 6 (1st movement)
Traditional Spirituals: Ride on, King Jesus! (arr. Hall Johnson) – Balm in Gilead (arr. Victor Labenske)
William Grant Still: Bayou Home (arr. Alexa Still)
Tyshawn Sorey: Cycles of My Being

Lawrence Brownlee (tenor), Randall Mitsuo Goosby (violin), Khari Joyner (cello), Alexander Laing (clarinet), Kevin J. Miller (piano), Tyshawn Sorey (conductor)

R. M. Goosby, K. Miller, K. Joyner, L. Brownlee, A. Laing, T. Sorey
(© Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia)

African American tenor Lawrence Brownlee is renowned for his technical artistry of bel canto repertoire of Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti on opera stages all over the world. He is also an artistic advisor at Opera Philadelphia, where he most recently starred in the premiere run of Yardbird, an opera about jazz great Charles Parker. Brownlee premiered Cycles of My Being in a one night only sold-out performance presented at the Perelman Theater. The project is a co-commissioned of Opera Philadelphia, Lyric Opera Chicago and Carnegie Hall, were there will also be performances this year.

Brownlee conceived the work with composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes, as a song cycle that spoke to the indignities and oppression, past and present, that black men in America face throughout their lives. Performing the work with Brownlee were pianist Kevin Miller, violinist Randall Mitsuo Goosby, clarinetist Alexander Laing and cellist Khari Joyner. Composer Sorey conducted Cycles seated astride the musicians onstage and Hayes was in the audience.

In addition to its innovative chamber music-vocal dynamic, the piece is a powerful musical j’accuse against the ugly realities of racism in America. Consider the first lines:
America- I hear you hiss and stare/Do you love the air in me, as I love the air in you?
Black boxes of cargo/black boxes in holes/

Or this unflinching imagery:
Black eyes and blackouts/Blackjacks and nightmares
America, do you care for me, as I care for you.

Or the pathos of this verse in 2018:
My courage is made of flesh and spirit. I am your story. I am your lyric.
Lord, I’m trying to break free again.

Or this challenge to America in ‘Hate’:
Tell me, what causes one to hate? /You don’t know me, still you hate me.
Hate takes on many shapes.
It is subtle, overt, passive, often wrapped in disguise. /Hate wears white sheets, black suits, high heels and boot.
-tell me, could it be that you hate me because you hate yourself?

The directness of Hayes lyrics expresses a full range of emotion, from meditative introspection to emotional turmoil, to philosophical polemic to anger and in the end piece ‘Each Day I Rise, I Know’ a stirring and cathartic conclusion with denouement and vocal triumph.

Tyshawn Sorey’s contemporary chamber music in Cycles is a confluence of sonata form, angular harmonics and transcendent musicality fused with innovations of the traditional song cycle and the chromatic adventurism that recalls jazz master Thelonious Monk. Sorey is one of this generation’s defining classical-jazz fusionists, a composer of roiling power and subtlety. His wide-ranging, critically acclaimed recordings are exemplar of a borderless musical expression. Sorey has a doctorate from Columbia and teaches composition at Wesleyan University. Poet Terrance Hayes is a 2014 MacArthur Fellow and winner of the 2010 National Book Award for poetry, guest editor of Scribner’s 2014 edition of Best American Poetry.

And then there is Brownlee’s vocal prowess. Words really do fail in conveying the artistry and power of his voice in this work. The sustained finishing notes, that, in jazz terms become one of the instruments. Brownlee’s upper range tenor soars without losing its sonorous core and he possesses equally rich lower bari-tenor range. Past any virtuosity by the tenor, composer and other musicians, Cycles of My Being is part of the vital engagement of art and social justice.

The 40-minute song cycle was preceded by equally stellar performances by the musicians. Pianist Miller and violinist Goosby played the first movement of Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 2. Khari Joyner and Miller performed Samuel Barber’s first movement to Sonata for violoncello and piano, composed while Barber was still a student at the Curtis Institute and intriguingly prescient to his later Piano Concerto. Clarinetist Laing and Miller performed two African-American traditional spirituals transcribed for clarinet and William Grant Still’s Bayou Home.

Lewis Whittington



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