Review: RISING at Kennedy Center

Mr. Brownlee, in conjunction with his talented pianist Kevin J. Miller, has enriched the arts community while helping to promote the extraordinary work of African America

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Acclaimed Tenor Lawrence Brownlee treated his audience, at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, with an afternoon of engaging, sensitive vocal interpretations of some of the world's most talented African American composers. This invigorating program, entitled Rising, increased in vocal nuance, and beautifully intonated clarity as it ran the gamut of spiritual, romantic, jazzy, contemplative, and socially conscious original compositions by this illustrious and very talented roster of creative composers.

Composers as varied as Robert Owens, Jeremiah Evans, Margaret Bonds, Jasmine Barnes, Brandon Spencer, Damien L. Sneed, Shawn E. Okpebholo, and Joel Thompson were represented in compositions that ranged from the plaintive, poetic, sensual, intimate, and spiritual.

The vocally enveloping voice of Mr. Brownlee singing these impressive and captivating compositions was only one layer of the intricate riches of this program; there were also the texts and translations of the Harlem Renaissance poets and the sensitive piano accompaniment of Mr. Kevin J. Miller to add to the musical pleasure of the concert.

Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and others enlivened the compositions in the concert with poetic and dramatic heft. Variety was the norm ----Margaret Bonds' Songs of the Seasons (with a text by Langston Hughes) was a fulfilling blending of images from nature mirroring the human being lost in love's fleeting and elusive spontaneity. The songs in this lovely song cycle contained an almost "haiku-like" feel and texture.

The intimacy of the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater was an excellent showcase for this moving and extremely relevant concert. Mr. Brownlee added snippets of brief conversation throughout that included his feelings of needing to express his artistic and social convictions after the killing of George Floyd and the isolation of the pandemic. He went on to explain that he wanted the various artists included to bring their collective experiences to this project.

Diversity and activism were present in the thrust of this concert and were blended in such compositions as "To America" by Damien L. Sneed (text by James Weldon Johnson) and the rhythmic "My People"(composed by Joel Thompson---text by Langston Hughes). A wonderful jazz piano accompanied "My People" and the composition was specifically significant as well as being explosively inclusive in spirit. Mr. Brownlee aptly conveyed the upbeat joy of this standout composition.

Mr. Brownlee's Bel Canto ----very expressive and full of clarity --was very pleasurable to hear. Each note he sang was beautifully rendered with a resonant tone and a pristine delivery. Mr. Brownlee has the gift of making all the inherent preparation that goes into such a vocally demanding concert as this all seem effortless-- which is the hallmark of a true artist.

Pianist Kevin J. Miller played with aplomb and markedly evident interpretive skill and understanding throughout the concert. Mr. Miller shone especially on the jazzier interludes and moments. Mr. Miller's fingers glided deftly over the keys and his accompaniment illuminated Mr. Brownlee's glorious singing.

An almost Shakespearean feel was evoked by Damien L. Sneed's "Beauty that is never old" as I thought of Shakespeare's sonnets in the mesmerizing poetry of James Weldon Johnson. Mr. Brownlee sang this with expressive vocal interpretation.

I was struck by an almost pantheistic quality that imbued many of the compositions -- showing a passionate, spiritual love and worship of nature (though mirroring the passages of time and life-awakening moments). This was particularly evident in Robert Owens' "In time of silver rain" from Op. 11(text by Langston Hughes) and Jeremiah Evans' "April Rain Song".

A very captivating and successful aspect of the concert was Mr. Brownlee's wordless (except for a succession of what I could construe as the pronunciation of "ah" sounds) vocalizing --with which an intricacy of color and tone conveyed the range of his voice from his highest notes to lower register. Composer Carlos Simon's "Vocalize I", "Vocalize 11", and "Vocalize Ⅲ" were the innovative musical compositions that enabled Mr. Brownlee to engage the audience with this vocal inflection, color, and nuance.

Mr. Brownlee's family was lovingly mentioned during two encores as Mr. Brownlee sang two moving spiritually infused songs full of Gospel fervor. The audience was reluctant to let Mr. Brownlee and pianist Mr. Miller leave the stage.

Mr. Brownlee has the gift of singing as if he was singing directly to everyone in the audience; such is the emotional depth to which his obviously highly developed technique reaches. Mr. Brownlee, in conjunction with his talented pianist Kevin J. Miller, has enriched the arts community while helping to promote the extraordinary work of African American composers and poets.

Running Time: Two Hours with one fifteen-minute intermission.

Rising was presented on March 26, 2023 at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater located at 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20566.

Photo: Lawrence Brownlee, tenor (right) and Kevin J. Miller, Pianist (left) in Rising. Photo by Courtney Ruckman.


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