United States Various: Raehann Bryce-Davis (mezzo-soprano), Jeanne-Minette Cilliers (piano). Presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, 27.1.2024. (HS)
Amy Beach – Three Browning Songs, Op.44
Wagner – Wesendonck–Lieder
Melissa Dunphy – ‘Come, My Tan-Faced Children’
Margaret Bonds – ‘Birth’
Florence Price – ‘The Crescent Moon’
Maria Thompson Corley – ‘I Am Not an Angry Black Woman’; ‘The Beauty in My Blackness’; ‘Black Riders’ Freedom Song’
Peter Ashbourne – ‘Banyan Tree’; ‘Fi Mi Love Have Lion Heart’; ‘Nobody’s Business’
Songs by and about women, especially Black women, made for a rousing evening of beautifully voiced music from mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis. Those who remember Bryce-Davis from her time as a Merola artist at San Francisco Opera were rewarded by her winning stage presence, and by how her voice has developed a rich, ripe gleam.
Fashion had extra meaning here. Her fiancé Allan Virgo, a clothing designer, outfitted her in two eye-catching gowns, an off-white number dripping with threads of sparkly beads and a black-and-white caftan with bold diagonal stripes and a spangled hoodie and back. Pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers sported another of the designer’s outfits, a tight jacket and pants that contrasted their dark gray color with a yellow, skirt-like train.
Bryce-Davis has been getting raves internationally for roles as Azucena, Ježibaba and Baba the Turk at top-tier opera houses, and she will return to the Metropolitan Opera this season as Ella in X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. The beauty of her sound in the opening set of the recital, Amy Beach’s Three Browning Songs, demonstrated careful attention to the poet’s texts, and a range from unstrained high notes to resonant low notes.
The focus of this program, she explained after that set, was music written by or otherwise associated with women.
As if to establish classical-music credentials, she took an impressive run at Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder (written by his then-secret paramour, Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of his patron, Otto Wesendonck), the only piece in the recital that she sang from a written score. The note-perfect singing had moments of insight, which boded well, but it was clear she was still settling into the nuances of these five florid songs, two of which found their way into Wagner’s score for Tristan und Isolde.
The rest of the recital offered brief examples of two great twentieth-century African American women composers; contemporary songs by Melissa Dunphy and Maria Thompson Corley; and classical settings by Peter Ashbourne of songs that Raehann’s Jamaica-born mother sang to her.
The standout for me was the set of three songs by Maria Thompson Corley, a Jamaican Canadian composer. Especially moving was ‘The Beauty in My Blackness’, a proud, lyrical statement in words, music and sultry attitude by the singer. It was sandwiched between ‘I Am Not an Angry Black Woman’, a defiant, roiling accusation of anyone who might take the title literally, and ‘Black Riders’ Freedom Song’, a rollicking gallop in a 6/8 meter that saluted men and women of color who found liberty in the post-Civil War American West on horseback.
Both Bryce-Davis and pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers (on the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music and in demand as a collaborative pianist) celebrated the variety and spice in those songs, attributes that were in short supply during the otherwise faithful rendition of the Browning songs earlier.
‘Come, My Tan-Faced Children’, a setting by Dunphy of lines from Walt Whitman’s ‘Oh, Pioneer!’, created a more racially aware and political slant than Whitman meant. The music, written for Bryce-Davis, was straightforwardly contemporary operatic, which framed the text more subtly than might have been intended.
The songs that followed, neither more than a minute long, were ‘Birth’ by Margaret Bonds’ and Florence Price’s ‘The Crescent Moon’, an all-too-brief taste of two pioneers who proved that Black American women could write high-level classical music.
In the final songs. Ashbourne, a Jamaican American composer, fashioned elaborate piano trappings around three Caribbean ditties. I would have appreciated less operatic heft to the voice in these charming, lilting tunes, which Bryce-Davis remembers her mother singing around the house.
For an encore, Bryce-Davis harked back to a 2022 performance at Herbst Theatre, where the second half of ‘The Majesty of the Spiritual’ opened with ‘No Ways Tired’ in an inspiring arrangement by Jacqueline B. Hairston. As an encore here, it brought an explosion of soul and brilliance to a thoughtful, musically rich program.