A Tenor Voice That Carries Across a Century

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 7, 2006

Listening to Lawrence Brownlee sing -- as I did with enormous pleasure at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater Thursday night -- is a little bit like falling into a time warp.

Most of the tenors to whom this spectacularly gifted young Ohioan can profitably be compared flourished the better part of a century ago. And I'm not talking about Enrico Caruso, the first great dramatic tenor, whose influence has never waned and can still be heard in the work of artists as disparate as Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. No, Brownlee summons to mind recordings made by the generation before Caruso -- Italian tenors such as Fernando de Lucia and Alessandro Bonci, with their Old World suavity, their dazzling and cultivated vocal agility, their caressing emphasis on unbroken lyrical sweetness. At his best, Brownlee sounds as though he has escaped from the hiss of an old Victrola -- a real live coloratura tenor in the all-but-forgotten grand manner.

The first half of the program was made up of songs and arias by the four leading opera composers from early 19th-century Italy -- Gioacchino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini and Giuseppe Verdi. Here, Brownlee effectively repealed the law of gravity, sounding increasingly comfortable as his voice soared higher and higher. His scales are bright and fluid, his pitch sense is spot-on, and his moderate-size but powerful and distinctive voice assumes a haunting pathos in softer passages.

The second half was devoted to English songs and settings of Shakespeare by Roger Quilter, Charles Parry and C.V. Stanford; a handful of Hispanic songs by Joaquin Turina, Enrique Granados and the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, among others; and a concluding set of spirituals in the familiar arrangements by Hale Smith.

All of these were remarkable in their own way -- the English music for Brownlee's immaculate diction (no need to follow along in the program when he is singing); the Spanish material for the manner in which the tenor can inhabit and illuminate the slightest of miniatures, infusing it with near-operatic grandeur; and the spirituals because they were the least impressive and, if you will, the least "natural" performances of the evening.

It sometimes seems that spirituals are the musical equivalent of the "free spot" on the Bingo board, taken for granted when African American singers such as Brownlee come to town, as though they have to be there. And, as beautiful as some of them are, they don't have to be there any more than Neapolitan songs need be on the program when the Kennedy Center welcomes a visitor from Italy. The fact is that Brownlee is much more impressive in ornate, fanciful froth by Rossini and Donizetti than he is in the fearful earnestness of such songs such as "Let Us Break Bread Together," "Jesus Lay Your Head" and "Witness," all of which I would happily have traded for another aria from "The Barber of Seville."

Good as Brownlee was, I suspect he may have been fighting off the same cold as the rest of Washington: Some occasional coughing suggested that he was not feeling 100 percent up to par. No matter -- outside of your oldest records, you aren't likely to have heard anything like him. Howard Watkins proved a vigorous, musical but somewhat sketchy pianist. The concert was presented by the Vocal Arts Society.

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