Tenor Lawrence Brownlee Captivates Opera Lovers at The Conrad

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee and pianist Kevin Miller presented a rewarding recital Saturday at The Conrad in La Jolla. From German lieder to opera arias to Italian art songs and an impressive set of songs written by contemporary African-American composers, the scope of their programming was more than matched by the vocal allure and keyboard prowess of these artists.

(l. to r.) Kevin Miller & Lawrence Browntree [photo (c.) Ken Jacques]

Brownlee opened his program wit a set of five ingratiating lieder by Joseph Marx, a late-Romantic Austrian composer who was a contemporary of Arnold Schoenberg, but one who found the arching melodies and lush harmonies of early Richard Strauss more than sufficient and the atonal direction of Schoenberg and his serialists unappealing. Vocalists love Marx’s decadent songs, but accompanists dread their chromatic, labyrinthine accompaniments.

Brownlee’s bright lyric tenor and admirable breath support proved ideal for these songs, and Miller sailed through the keyboard complexities with astounding facility. Of the five Marx songs, I was taken by the opening “Nocturne,” far more radiant than the usually dreamy nocturne; the nostalgic Christmas memory of “Christbaum” with its allusions to a traditional Sicilian carol in the piano part, and “Hat dich die Liebe berührt,” an impassioned love ballad.

The young African-American composer Jasmine Barnes lifts up Douglas Johnson’s deceptively understated poem “Peace” with increasingly complex melismas on the word peace and climaxes her song with a flash of urgent advocacy. Brandon Spencer’s “I Know My Own Soul,” a setting of Claude McKay’s poetry, follows a similar dramatic trajectory, moving from questioning introspection to confident affirmation. Brownlee balanced these more philosophical musings with brightly animated offerings such as Damien L. Sneed’s “The Gift to Sing,” an opportunity for the tenor to revel in the composer’s assertive, ebullient setting of James Weldon Johnson’s eloquent poetry.

Recently, San Diegans have been enjoying the work of Carlos Simon: in the last year the San Diego Symphony has twice played his commissioned Wake Up: A Concerto for Orchestra and UC San Diego presented his chamber oratorio Requiem for the Enslaved. Brownlee not only met the daunting rhythmic challenges of Simon’s rapid, vocally athletic “Vocalise III”—he made it just as captivating as the slow songs with their dulcet melodies. Brownlee’s vivid account of Langston Hughes’ poem “My People” unlocked both the exuberance and the irony in Joel Thompson’s setting of this exhaustive yet giddy listing of the multitude of African Americans’ roles and occupations.

With the exception of “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, Brownlee’s opera aria selections came from rather obscure operas. Donizetti’s one-act comic opera Rita, or the Beaten Husband was never performed in the composer’s lifetime and only rarely since its premiere in Paris in 1860. However, Brownlee made the jocular aria “Allegro io son” from Rita highly entertaining, crowning its cynical antics with a glorious cadenza at its climax. While Bellini’s Il Pirata is not standard repertory, it made a modest comeback in a 1958 production at La Scala that featured Maria Callas and Franco Corelli. Brownlee gave a highly dramatic account of the opera’s opening aria “Nel furor delle tempeste,” and Miller supplied a worthy orchestral tempest at the piano.

Italian art songs may be an acquired taste, but I thought Brownlee’s vivacious, articulate performance of Donizetti’s “Me voglio fa’na casa,”  a lighthearted Neapolitan popular song, made me a believer. At least while he was singing the song.

The encore: the rousing spiritual “Come by Here” arranged by Jeremiah Evans.

This recital was presented jointly by the La Jolla Music Society and the San Diego Opera at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts center in downtown La Jolla on Saturday, March 2, 2024.

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