Peter Dobrin, Inquirer Classical Music Critic
Wednesday, June 10, 2015, 3:01 AM
Leave the putting up of feet to others. On his night off from the extremely demanding title role in Charlie Parker's Yardbird, tenor Lawrence Brownlee took on nearly 90 minutes of spirituals Monday night at Union Baptist Church in South Philadelphia. He had a little help from his friends, soprano Angela Brown and baritone Will Liverman, and perhaps from the knowledge that this had been Marian Anderson's church.
Hundreds packed the pews, and if the temperature inside was somewhere in the enervating mid-80s, nothing could have kept spirits grounded. The singers reminded the audience - in word and deed - that they were a link not only to Anderson, but also to Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes, who sang in this church, too.
The extra-credit concert, dubbed "Spiritual Sketches," was Brownlee's idea, and Opera Philadelphia and Union Baptist agreed. Brownlee's role in the opera has him on stage most of the time, often singing at a high range for extended periods. Lest anyone feared an evening of spirituals would be a walk in the park, Brownlee threw Damien Sneed into the mix, whose arrangements of the tunes added new dimensions of harmonic complexity and technical demand. These were sounds Hayes might not have recognized.
Sneed, at the piano, erased boundaries between this historic repertoire and any number of moments on the musical timeline since. This article is from wwwphilly.comWith Brownlee in "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," Sneed fleshed out weeping chord progressions that seemed sourced from easy-listening of the 1970s. "Soon I Will Be Done" came with a driving jazz-Latin beat and a piano flourish borrowed from the Grieg Piano Concerto.
Sneed's creative pilfering might have seemed arbitrary, and sometimes it was. But when it worked, it could inspire a shiver of meaning. "Deep River" started with a piano splash like sunlight on the water.
The great revelation of the evening for me was Liverman, who is a wonderfully commanding presence as Dizzy Gillespie in Yardbird. Here, in the magnetic "Wade in the Water," he was just as formidable, but with the added veneer of nobility. Union Baptist Church offers little reverberation or acoustical sweetening, so sound was laid bare. What this meant was a chance to hear Liverman's subtle way of changing timbres to fit a lyric. "Steal Away" was gently rocking, reassuring, a pool of intense repose.
Brown, who plays Parker's mother, Addie, in the opera, was a powerful and skilled text colorist in "Lord, How Come Me Here?," rendering specific words with a brittle and extraordinary pain.
But the man of the hour was Brownlee, his tenor assets sometimes challenged, but more often telling the spiritual story through his art-song vibrato and easy diction. He has a way of cozying up to a lyric in an unassuming way, his amiable presence immaterial to the genre. He is the rare bird - a singer who travels well.