Songs by Jasmine Barnes, Margaret Bonds, Jeremiah Evans, Shawn E. Okpebholo, Robert Owens, Damien Sneed, Brandon Spencer and Joel Thompson
Lawrence Brownlee (tenor), Kevin J Miller (piano)
Warner Classics 5419756371 60:26 mins
Lawrence Brownlee has made his name as an exquisite bel canto tenor. He is also a tireless advocate for diversity in the opera world. Brownlee combines both these strands in a vibrant new album inspired by the African-American poets of the Harlem Renaissance which features a roster of 20th-century and contemporary African-American composers.
Brownlee describes the album’s mission as as one of ‘uplift, elevation, and rebirth,’ which addresses the challenges faced by African Americans but ‘speaks not just to our struggles, but to our triumph.’ The result is indeed remarkably uplifting, not least due to radiant performances from Brownlee and pianist Kevin J Miller. The wealth of new commissions is also commendable. Highlights include Shawn Okpebholo’s lyrical ‘Romance’, setting a richly inventive poem by Claude McKay, and Jeremiah Evans’s expansive setting of Arna Bontemps’s ‘Southern Mansion’. Brownlee is on especially scintillating form in Margaret Bonds’s luminous Songs of the Seasons, a previously unpublished song cycle composed 1932-55, and recently revived by Professor Louise Toppin of the University of Michigan. The absence of programme notes is disappointing – but, far more perplexingly, none of the poets whose texts have been set are credited anywhere in the original booklet. This is a bizarre omission on the part of the record label, when the programme has so explicitly been conceived to honour these fine writers. Setting this aside, however, Rising is a joyful celebration of the extraordinary contribution of African-American composers and poets, and is both slickly produced and beautifully performed.