Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Baritone Will Liverman Releases 'Dreams Of A New Day: Songs By Black Composers'

The album will be released on February 12.

On Friday, February 12, 2021, baritone Will Liverman releases Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers with pianist Paul Sánchez on Cedille Records. The album features Damien Sneed's I Dream a World, Henry Burleigh's Five Songs of Laurence Hope, H. Leslie Adams' Amazing Grace, Margaret Bonds' Three Dream Portraits, Thomas Kerr's Riding to Town, the world premiere recording of Shawn E. Okpebholo's Two Black Churches, Robert Owens' Mortal Storm Op. 29, and Liverman on piano in his own arrangement of Richard Fariña's Birmingham Sunday. The liner notes of the album are written by Dr. Louise Toppin, a noted performer, scholar, and teacher who specializes in the concert repertoire of African American composers and is currently Professor of Music (Voice) at the University of Michigan.

Liverman says, "Right now, it is more important than ever to celebrate the contributions of Black composers, and I'm honored to give voice to the art songs on this album. There was an enormous amount of material to choose from; Black composers wrote so much more than just spirituals! The album is dedicated to my late mentor Robert Brown who influenced the lives of so many students through his many years of teaching at The Governor's School for the Arts in Richmond, Virginia. I hope this album inspires you to keep striving to have our voices heard and to speak up constantly and work towards equality."

Damien Sneed composed I Dream a World for the 2017 Carnegie Hall debut recital of baritone Justin Michael Austin. Sneed's setting musically depicts the hope for the next generation with rich jazz harmonies, while ascending chords inch toward freedom on the line "where every man is free." The final statement of the song, "I dream a world, my world," leaves the listener with an unresolved final cadence that conveys a feeling of uncertainty.

Henry "Harry" Thacker Burleigh (1866 - 1949) is credited with being the first composer to create spirituals in an art song format for presentation in concert halls. He attended the National Conservatory where Antonin Dvořák was the Director and interactions led to one of the most unlikely, yet powerful collaborations in American musical history. Dvořák, who heard Burleigh singing spirituals, learned more about this vernacular song from him and Dvořák encouraged Burleigh to use the wonderful source material of his people in his own composition. The Five Songs of Laurence Hope composed in 1915 were written to the poetry of Adela Florence Nicholson (1865-1904), who wrote under the pseudonym "Laurence Hope." Her poetry reveals, autobiographically, the tumultuous relationships in her life. She suffered from mental health issues throughout her life and when her husband died suddenly, she consumed poison and committed suicide at the age of 39.

The song "Amazing Grace" is commonly mistaken for a spiritual, as it was composed at the height of the slave trade. It was not created by enslaved Africans, however, but penned by slave ship captain John Newton (1725 - 1807). Newton wrote his famous words after praying for deliverance during a storm at sea and his subsequent conversion from slave ship captain to abolitionist is underscored in the opening line, "Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound) That sav'd a wretch like me!" This song has become a prayer for comfort in times of tribulation and is frequently heard at funerals. Harrison Leslie Adams's Amazing Grace, written in 1992, bespeaks a gratitude that bubbles with exuberant energy and hope. Adams's composition takes the listener on a journey that pays homage to the enslaved Africans of Newton's version as he expresses optimism for a brighter future for African Americans.

One of Langston Hughes's favorite contemporary collaborators was Margaret Allison Bonds (1913 - 1972). A native of Chicago, Bonds and her mentor, Chicago transplant Florence Price (1887-1953), made history by winning the city's famed Wanamaker competition. Not only did Bonds win first prize for one of her songs, but she also became the first African American to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Many of her songs reflect pride in her race, including the Three Dream Portraits written to texts of Hughes in 1959 for two prominent African American opera singers: Adele Addison and Lawrence Winters. Written at the height of the civil rights movement, they express the Black pride that became a hallmark of the blossoming Black Arts movement.

Thomas Kerr (1915 - 1988), was a pianist and organist who graduated from the Eastman School of Music with three degrees in piano and composition. His musical output included solo voice, piano, instrumental, and choral works. He was Professor and Chair of the Piano Department at Howard University, where his work as a composer and teacher influenced generations of music students. His Riding to Town (1943) is a setting of the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), the first African American poet to achieve international fame. His poetry and stories depict the oppression of African Americans during the Jim Crow era. As with Hughes, his authentic poetic voice has continued to inspire contemporary composers to produce new musical settings.

Will Liverman commissioned Shawn Okpebholo (b. 1981) to write Two Black Churches (2020) for this album. The new work is a musical diptych of two poems by Dudley Randall and Marcus Amaker that explores the impact of two watershed moments in the American Civil Rights Movement - the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 and the Charleston church shooting in 2015. The text of the first movement is a poem by Dudley Randall, Ballad of Birmingham, a narrative account of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing from the perspectives of the mother of one victim and her child. Stylistically, this movement juxtaposes 1960s Black gospel with contemporary art song. Subtle references to the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome," and the hymn, "Amazing Grace," are also heard. The song concludes with four sustained soft chords resembling church bells. Each of the chords is composed of four notes that punctuate and amplify the four young lives lost. The text of the second movement is a poem written especially for this composition by Marcus Amaker, poet laureate of Charleston, South Carolina, called The Rain. This poem poignantly reflects the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Set in the coastal city of Charleston, which often floods, The Rain is a beautifully haunting metaphor on racism and the inability of Blacks in America to stay above water - a consequence of the flood of injustice and the weight of oppression. In this composition, the number nine is significant, symbolizing the nine people who perished that day. Okpebholo is Professor of Music Composition at Wheaton College Conservatory of Music and a widely sought-after and award-winning composer, most recently winning the American Prize in Composition (2020).

Composer Robert Owens selected poems representative of a dark time in Langston Hughes's life to tell the story of a dark time in his own personal history: the Civil Rights era and Martin Luther King's assassination. Using poems from the 1920s ("A House in Taos"), 1930s ("Genius Child"), and 1940s ("Little Song," "Jamie," and "Faithful One"), he created the song cycle Mortal Storm, Op. 29 in 1969. Growing up in Denison, Texas, Robert Owens (1925 - 2017) faced his own "storms" of racism. As a result of this racial tension, he left the United States in 1968 to pursue opportunities in Germany and never returned to live in the U.S. He made his career in Germany as a pianist, composer, actor, and director.

The album closes with Will Liverman on piano in his own arrangement of Robert Fariña's Birmingham Sunday. Richard Fariña (1937-1966) wrote Birmingham Sunday in 1964 to memorialize the bombing in 1963 of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley. The melody is borrowed from the Scottish folk tune "I Loved a Lass" (aka "The False Bride"). The piece was first performed by Fariña and his sister-in-law, Joan Baez. Liverman's arrangement serves as a fitting final tribute to the struggles of African Americans. It indicates past and present injustices and provides an opportunity to refocus and reframe the American promise of equality for all its citizens. While making for a poignant and powerful conclusion to this musical offering it also serves as a reminder that the struggle against racism in America has not concluded but is very much a present struggle.

Featured on Stage Door

Shoutouts, Classes, and More from Your Favorite Broadway Stars

Related Articles View More Music Stories

More Hot Stories For You