Lawrence Brownlee, Bel Canto

National Sawdust Presents a Master

By: - Aug 08, 2020

Lawrence Brownlee talked about music and this moment with composers Helga Davis and Paola Prestini.  The event was hosted by National Sawdust, an institution for our times, which is led by the super-energetic Prestini. 

While the Zoom moments were billed as an exploration of Brownlee’s approach to character in the roles he undertakes, his sensitive choice of three songs to sing showed him as a master of the pulse.  He opened with a song from ‘Cycles of Being,” a  cycle he developed with Tyshawn Sorey and Terrance Hayes. Heard in its entirety, the work gives a better feeling for the position of black men in our society than almost any other work of art or discussion. 

Brownlee sang a beautifully-set text asks us to inhale and exhale, and to acknowledge that we all breathe American air.  The moment that precipitated the current “Black Lives Matter” movement is rooted in the breath, as all singing is.

Marc Blitzstein’s Stay in My Arms reminds us to cradle close those we love in dire times and to remember what is important. Brownlee sings it to his children at bedtime.  We were held in Brownlee's beautiful tenor on Zoom.

Myra Huang accompanied Brownlee long distance, through a headset. She is a frequent collaborator,  Her performance movingly underlined the texture and tone of the songs.

In the final song, Lead Belly’s There's A Man Going Round Taking Names, Brownlee a cappella captures the anguish and the pain of a life lived fully. It is not the blues, but it feels like what Albert Murray writes about them. We can never overcome the pain of life, but we can learn to live with it. Brownlee suggests how, as we get ready for the man to come around.

Brownlee is an artistic advisor to Opera Philadelphia. “My passion is to advocate for new music.  People of this time have to have a say in its music. To contribute to what are listening to.  I balance the new music of an opera on Charlie Parker with Rossini and Bellini.”

National Sawdust is offering elucidating and entertaining streamed occasions during lockdown.  Brownlee interviews artists on his Facebook page on Sunday afternoons at two.  Pretty Yende, the soprano phenom, was his most recent guest.