A song recital offers a performer nowhere to hide. As a rule, there are no costumes, no characters, no sets. On Thursday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, the tenor Lawrence Brownlee responded to the challenge, in a repeat visit to Vocal Arts DC, by pushing his comfort zone and revealing new dimensions of himself.
Repertory staples such as Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe” can be a singer’s biggest challenge: It’s hard when the audience knows the piece so well and can compare you with dozens of other singers. Brownlee, a specialist in Italian bel canto opera, is not known for either his German or his song repertoire, but his melting voice certainly had the right weight and color for this music. Often associated with baritones — thanks in part to the dominance of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the German art-song king of the 20th century — this cycle was originally dedicated to a soprano, and Brownlee’s sweetness of tone in “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” (the first song, taken at a glacially slow pace) or “Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen” evoked memories of predecessors such as Fritz Wunderlich.
It’s not quite home turf yet, as Brownlee himself freely acknowledged. There was something a little studied about his approach at times, though his German was clear and accurate, and there were hints of a forced quality in some of the bigger songs, such as “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome.” Rather than presenting studied melancholy, Brownlee offered an impetuous tenor hero, his honeyed light voice, with its climactic upper notes, contrasting dramatically with the firm lower timbre of the piano, strongly played by Myra Huang. But it represented an honorable staking out of terrain that, as the singer acknowledged to the audience, can continue to be tilled for a whole career.
“Cycles of My Being,” the six-song set that came after intermission, was a contrast — or simply the yang to Schumann’s yin, a complementary opposite. Brownlee commissioned the work, first performed last year, from the composer Tyshawn Sorey and the poet Terrance Hayes, aiming to create a musical statement about being a black man in America. Huge as the topic is, and distinctive as is Sorey’s genre-bending blend of musical languages, you could draw a straight line from Romantic tradition to this work, which opens with a song of unrequited love (“Inhale, Exhale” asks America, “Do you love the air in me, as I love the air in you?”), passes through introspection and desperation (the two central songs are called “Whirlwind” and “Hate”), and ends with a withdrawal into the self and a paean to the simple beauties of life: sunlight, birds in flight.
The piece struggled mightily, at times, to get huge points across. In the two songs called “Hope,” the music sought to bind fragments of association, litanies of the different kinds of hope and the different sustenances they offer. In “Hate,” by contrast, the music was more fragmented than the text, which poured out in direct, unmediated phrases, such as “Could it be that you hate me because you hate yourself?” The piano offered now a peripatetic race over the keys, now shards of single-line melody, and now silence as Brownlee opened the final song, “Each Day I Rise, I Know,” with a cappella floods of some of the most virtuosic and beautiful singing I’ve ever heard, mingling classical and gospel traditions in a single distinctive stream.
This, to me, was the most striking feature of the work: Tailor-made for Brownlee, it fit him like a glove and made him look and sound great. From the first notes, he sounded assured, direct, glorious and at home. Not many new cycles are so well written for the voice, and the assurance this music seemed to give him — showing, in effect, who he was — pushed him into even higher artistic gear. That, at least, was the effect, as he left the evening with “All Night, All Day (Angels Watching Over Me),” an encore he often gives, dedicated to his 8-year-old son, Caleb, who is on the autistic spectrum. It was glorious, masterful, comfortable singing, from the sweetest falsetto crooning to ringing high notes. Whatever you thought of the individual songs, the portrait of the singer that emerged was true, compelling and left you wanting more.