On Saturday night, the walls of the Kennedy Center Opera House capably blocked out the celebratory cacophony of horns and hollering that overtook the city. But even the hermetic seal of the hall couldn’t seal out the Big News entirely.
(Actually, if we’re being technical, it was us in the audience who were onstage, masked-up and socially distanced to face the rows of the hall itself, atop which Liverman and pianist Jonathan King performed on a platform — but I’m getting a little tired of the coronavirus messing with my setups.)
In any case, the silence before Liverman sung his first note felt especially charged and expectant. Part of this certainly owes to Liverman’s fast-rising profile: Along with the sopranos Angel Blue and Latonia Moore, he’s set to star in the 2021 premiere of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” Terrence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons’s operatic adaptation of Times columnist Charles Blow’s memoir, and the first opera by a Black composer to appear on the Metropolitan Opera stage in the company’s 140-year history.
But there was an air of address to the evening, and Liverman seized this opportunity with a centuries-spanning program that traced a redemptive arc — limning dark passages with stunning beauty and moving from one height to the next — even as it went from one Loewe (Carl) to another (Frederick).
Liverman’s rich baritone inspired an odd constellation of scribbled descriptors in my notes — steel, marble, chestnut, beam — all unsuccessful attempts to name the shifting textures of his voice, which achieves gleaming strength without surrendering its sublime softness. Imagine if one of Brancusi’s birds could be sung.
(As for “beam” — I’m unclear if I was comparing his voice to a ray of light or a structural support, but Liverman seems to revel in this bothness.)
He opened with an arresting pair of pieces from Carl Loewe’s Op. 1: “Erlkönig,” a setting of a Johann Wolfgang von Goethe poem concerning a child’s grim death by the unseen hand of a nefarious sprit, and “Edward,” a kind of patricidal “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” situation. Both offered Liverman an early showcase for his affable presence onstage and the elasticity of his instrument.
After a lively/lovely reading of Francis Poulenc’s 1904 “Quatre Poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire,” and the appearance of a profound-feeling nightingale perched in Herbert Howells’s 1919 “King David” (“Tell me, thou little bird that singest / Who taught my grief to thee?”), Liverman emerged within the music as fully formed as his tone.
He relieved King at the piano to accompany his own stirring and sensuous mash-up of “All The Things You Are” (from Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Very Warm for May”) and “If Ever I Would Leave You” (from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “Camelot”).
When King returned, he did so with fresh presence, the two of them fully alive within Henry T. Burleigh’s 1915 suite, “Five Songs of Laurence Hope.” “Among the Fuschias,” a century later, could have been written for Liverman; and I’ve never heard the yearning of “Til I Wake” inhabited quite so naturally. Its parting aside — “if there be an awakening” — seemed Saturday italicized in air.
But it was Liverman’s performance of “Two Black Churches” that was the evening’s revelation. Composed by Shawn E. Okpebholo for Liverman and pianist Paul Sánchez, it’s arranged in two parts: “Ballad of Birmingham,” set to a poem by Dudley Randall about the 1963 bombing in Alabama of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and “The Rain,” a contemporary counterpart set to a poem by Charleston, S.C., poet laureate Marcus Amaker on the 2015 massacre of parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
It’s a work that again allows Liverman to contain — and, more importantly, release — multitudes. His voice soared through mournful hymn-tinted passages (the composition draws on elements of “ ’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus”) and withdrew into near-whispered confidences. When the lyric reaches the name of the parish, “Emanuel AME Church,” Liverman stays there a while, tinting it an aching blue. It’s absolutely devastating, and one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard all year — one that seems to authorize the contradictory emotions it captures and sets free.
At the program’s close, an encore (relieved of its once-requisite choreography) of Ken Medema’s “Moses” seemed through Liverman’s soaring line and Medema’s suddenly searing lyric to tap the potential of the moment awaiting beyond the walls of the house, and the questions that remain unanswered: “What do you hold in your hand today? To what or to whom are you bound?”