Dreams of a New Day – Songs by Black Composers
Burleigh: Five Songs of Laurence Hope; Bonds: Three Dream Portraits; Kerr: Riding to Town; Leslie Adams: Amazing Grace; Damien Sneed: I Dream a World; Shawn E Okpebholo: Two Black Churches; Owens: Mortal Storm; Fariña: Birmingham Sunday (arr. Liverman)
Will Liverman (baritone), Paul Sánchez (piano)
Cedille 90000200 58:57 mins
This outstanding disc of African-American art song marks the culmination of years of work by baritone Will Liverman. As noted in the album’s sleeve notes, ‘the corpus of songs created by African Americans about the experience of Black Americans have long been deemed insignificant and relegated to a status of near-invisibility.’ Liverman is on a mission to redress this injustice. A true passion project, Dreams of a New Day gives voice to the remarkable creative contributions of African-American composers from the 20th century to the present day, while also celebrating the generations of poets and lyricists ‘who have encapsulated seminal events from the African-American community’. Performed with beauty, poise and conviction, the resulting disc is a powerful tribute to a sea of talent too often neglected and sounds a call for social justice.
Contemporary composer Damien Sneed’s vibrant song opens the disc with suitable fire and sets Langston Hughes’s ‘I Dream a World’, a poem written in 1941 at the birth of the Civil Rights era which imagines the ‘sweet freedom’ of a better future. In a new commission for the album, Shawn E Okpebholo’s Two Black Churches explores two horrific acts of racial violence – the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing of 1963 and the Charleston church shooting of 2015 – with mesmerising intensity. The first of the two songs, ’Ballad of Birmingham’, proves especially powerful. The piano accompaniment melds gospel motifs with jagged discord, while a gentle, anthem-like melody flows through the vocal line. At once restrained and tender, the resulting performance from Liverman and Sánchez is almost unbearably moving.
The earliest composer included is Henry ‘Harry’ Thacker Burleigh (1866–1949), often credited as the first Black American composer to reimagine the spiritual in art song format for the concert hall. Keen to emphasise that ‘Black composers wrote so much more than spirituals’, Liverman astutely avoids programming any spirituals here, however. (‘Amazing Grace’ is often mistaken for a spiritual but was in fact composed by 18th-century slave ship captain John Newton.) Instead, the disc features Burleigh’s Five Songs of Laurence Hope (1915), a stirring and quasi-operatic set of songs that set poems by Adela Florence Nicolson, writing under the pseudonym Laurence Hope, and recount snapshots of her travels in India and the Middle East. Margaret Bonds’s acclaimed cycle Three Dream Portraits (1959) is another highlight among the older works featured. Composed at the height of the civil rights movement, these three beautiful songs, also featuring texts by Langston Hughes, range from the wry lamentation of ‘Minstrel Man’ to the powerful and affirming ‘I, Too’.
Liverman’s rich and responsive baritone is a tour de force throughout, matched at every turn by the pianist Paul Sánchez. With superb sleeve notes by Dr Louise Toppin, this excellent disc is commendable in every aspect of its conception and execution.