Thursday, March 18, 2021

'Dreams of a New Day': A baritone's intense, subtle survey of songs by black composers deserves attention

Finale: Baritone sings and plays "Birmingham Sunday."

 "I, too, sing America," begins a famous poem by Langston Hughes, supplementing the archetypal proclamation of Walt Whitman.

A setting of the Hughes poem by Margaret Bonds is the centerpiece of "Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers" (Cedille), a recital in which  Will Liverman's overwhelming belief in the music is linked to a well-nuanced technique and means of expression. Paul Sanchez adds vivid accompaniment at the piano through most of the program.

Liverman commands a voice of operatic heft (which is borne out by his professional resume), yet the contrasting charm of his tender, intimate manner is authentic. A few songs, such as Henry Burleigh's "Till I Wake" in its final measures, display his  smoothly linked falsetto range.

Bonds is perhaps the best-known of black women to have composed art songs. "Three Dream Portraits" is a triptych using Hughes' poetry. Her music to them never withdraws from the explicit, direct expression characteristic of Hughes. 

"Minstrel Man" meets the poet on his own trenchant terms: the bitterness of a sad clown, representing acceptance of black culture as entertainment when full acceptance was out of the question.  The middle song of the set, "Dream Variation," links nocturnal calm to the virtues of racial pride, quietly expressed. The lyrical import has a pointed subtext insofar as  "night comes on gently / Dark like me."

The historical fulcrum that promised to balance black and white realities in American high art was the acquaintance in New York of Henry Burleigh and a distinguished European visitor, Antonin Dvorak, who taught at a conservatory where Burleigh was a student. Through the black musician, Dvorak became acquainted with the music of a people not very far removed from slavery. The Bohemian composer was impressed, and through what he learned from Burleigh, publicly advocated that American composers make use of the folk traditions that were at home here among people of color. American composers partially rose to Dvorak's challenge, but some of the reception of new music influenced by black and American Indian traditions was faddish and short-lived. 

Burleigh's own work, represented here by "Five Songs of Laurence Hope," reaches deeply into a variety of texts. Especially moving is the music's response to "Among the Fuchsias," an enraptured hymn of devotion to a beloved, the object of some mysteriously forbidden liaison. Liverman's dynamic control is particularly stunning in this song. And the way the baritone moves easily between registers is well showcased in "Genius Child" by Robert Owens.

Two contemporary composers are included. Leslie Adams (b. 1932) composed an "Amazing Grace" to his own text that has nothing to do with the well-worn hymn of that title. It's one of the Liverman/Sanchez duos triumphs in this recital. The other composer, Shawn E. Okpebholo (b. 1981), lifts up as memorials two black churches where terrible atrocities occurred: the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingtham, Ala., resulting in the death of four girls, and the 2015 gunning down of the pastor and eight Bible study parishioners at Emanuel AME in Charleston, S.C.  The composer uses a ballad-style lyric by Dudley Randall for a song commemorating the first event; a prose poem on the Mother Emanuel slaughter brings up a musical setting just as responsive to a much different text.

To close out the program and add further resonance to the Randall/Okpebholo piece, Liverman sits down at the piano and plays his arrangement of short-lived folksinger Richard Farina's "Birmingham Sunday," a song many will know from Joan Baez's performance. It's a little outside the repertoire signaled by the disc's subtitle, but it nonetheless comes off as a perfect finale. Little wonder that the jacket art and the disc itself carry photos of the singer with a raised fist.

 

 


 





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