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

United StatesUnited States 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

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