To Their Impressive Portfolios, Brownlee and Owens Add Spirituals and Gospel

18/02/2019

Various selections: Lawrence Brownlee (tenor), Eric Owens (bass-baritone), Craig Terry (piano), presented by Stanford Live!, Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, 15.2.2019 (HS)

Lawrence Brownlee

Lawrence Brownlee

In their classical recitals a half-century ago, Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman were famous for wowing audiences with spirituals and gospel songs.

Though African-American opera singers have, in moments of reflection, expressed some conflict about doing so, listening to Lawrence Brownlee and Eric Owens sing ‘This Little Light of Mine’ as an encore to their Saturday recital should put any concerns to rest.

Their velvety voices melded seamlessly in a wise and touching arrangement by their pianist colleague Craig Terry, who cast the usually boisterous song as a soft, touching hymn. Familiar phrases emerged with freshness and sincerity. It was the bow on a genial and impressive gift of a recital at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall. I took it as a statement of the singers’ shared history as persons of color in America, underlining their powerful musical heritage.

Following a series of eight operatic solos and duets before intermission, the encore put an extra glow around a second half that delved into non-operatic material, including spirituals, popular songs and gospel music.

Highlights among the spirituals were ‘Come By Here,’ given a roof-raising lift by Terry’s arrangement and Brownlee’s tenor range, and ‘Give Me Jesus,’ rising on the power of Owens’ immense bass-baritone. Brownlee started the gospel favorite ‘I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired’ at a slow tread, Owens joining in with a ‘Joy, joy’ counter melody that drove to an ecstatic finish. ‘Every Time I Feel the Spirit’ finished the set with extra spice. Brownlee, in particular, applied a showman’s flair.

A set of American popular songs included several made famous by African-Americans. The early jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet had a hit with ‘Song of Songs,’ by the British composer Harold Vickers. Fats Waller’s rendition of Harry Warren’s ‘Lulu’s Back in Town’ made the song a classic, and Sarah Vaughan notably recorded ‘Through The Years,’ which Brownlee and Owens transformed into an anthem of their 20-year friendship as colleagues.

Brownlee may be best known for his Rossini roles and Owens for Wagner (in particular a stellar Wotan at the Metropolitan Opera), but they sidestepped those composers for this program. In his first outing of the evening, Brownlee nailed the endless series of high Cs in ‘Ah! mes amis’ from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment. In a version dripping with panache, his sound never lost its satiny texture—even on the high notes. He also delivered an exquisite ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from the same composer’s L’elisir d’amore.

Best known for heavier roles, Owens managed to step deftly through Mozart’s ‘Se vuol ballare’ from Le Nozze di Figaro, injecting a properly angry undertone. Even if he could not quite get the French sleekness to ‘Le veau d’or’ from Gounod’s Faust, he brought needed contrast to a couple of familiar duets. He and Brownlee brought humor and character specificity to the Dulcamara-Nemorino scene from Elisir, and created waves of pulsing camaraderie in ‘Au fond du temple saint’ from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers.

Throughout, Terry’s work on piano added brilliant tweaks and moments that clicked with the singers. He even got a few chances to stretch his jazz chops with solo breaks that swung admirably.

Other moments that stood out included Brownlee improvising impressively on the ‘ooh ooh’ second section of the spiritual ‘All Night, All Day.’ He also loosened up engagingly in a freely swinging version of ‘Lulu’s Back in Town.’ Owens may have reached the highest rungs of the ladder, though, with ‘Some Enchanted Evening,’ the Rodgers and Hammerstein song that brought the great operatic bass Ezio Pinza to Broadway. Owens’ proud demeanor and deep, rich sound gave the song extra majesty.

Harvey Steiman

Comments

Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews

MW

Facebook-button-1

Season Previews

__________________________________
  • NEW! Geneva Grand Théâtre in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! 2019-20 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden __________________________________
  • NEW! Bregenz Festival 17 July – 18 August 2019 __________________________________
  • NEW! Sergei Polunin and Friends at London Palladium 28 May – 1 June 2019 __________________________________
  • NEW! City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! 2019 Elgar Festival in Worcester from 30 May to 2 June __________________________________
  • NEW! Musikfest Berlin 2019 from 30 August to 19 September __________________________________
  • NEW! 2019 BBC Proms 19 July – 14 September __________________________________
  • NEW! Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Zurich Opera House in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! English National Opera in 2019-2020 __________________________________
  • NEW! Leeds Lieder Announces 2019 Art-Song Festival __________________________________
  • NEW! Adrian Partington Introduces the 2019 Three Choirs Festival in Conversation with John Quinn __________________________________
  • NEW! ENB in 2019-2020 and Updates on their New London City Island Home __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music and Other Events at the Southbank Centre in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Longborough Festival Opera’s 2019 Season __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Cleveland Orchestra in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

    __________________________________
  • NEW! English National Ballet Announces Winners of Emerging Dancer 2019 __________________________________
  • NEW! CONDUCTOR THOMAS SANDERLING IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • NEW! YOUNG RUSSIAN PIANIST ALEXANDRA DOVGAN TALKS TO GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • NEW! Chelsea Opera Group Perform Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon on 30 June __________________________________
  • NEW! When Music is Indistinguishable from Drama by Jack Buckley __________________________________
  • NEW! In August Fulham Opera’s Most Ambitious Project to Date – Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg __________________________________
  • R.I.P. IN MEMORIAM ANDRÉ PREVIN (1929-2019) __________________________________
  • NEW! CHRISTOPHE ROUSSET IN CONVERSATION WITH COLIN CLARKE __________________________________
  • CONDUCTOR ÁDÁM FISCHER IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL COOKSON __________________________________
  • SOPRANO ELENA MOȘUC IN CONVERSATION WITH CASEY CREEL __________________________________
  • MAESTRO RICCARDO FRIZZA IN CONVERSATION WITH MARGARIDA MOTA-BULL __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH GERMAN SOPRANO PETRA LANG __________________________________
  • HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH ITALIAN BARITONE FRANCO VASSALLO __________________________________
  • Search S&H

    Archives by Week

    Archives by Month