Classical Music Review: “Dreams of a New Day — Songs by Black Composers”

By Ralph P. Locke

The young baritone Will Liverman’s performances are full of spirit and a wide range of moods.

Dreams of a New Day — Songs by Black Composers, Will Liverman ‎(Cedille).

“Black Composers Matter” — that could be the motto of a number of Intrepid and imaginative musicologists and performers, committed to bringing to performance the largely neglected but often immensely effective and affecting works of such Black American composers as William Grant Still and Florence Price.

Will Liverman is a prominent, youngish baritone who has sung important roles at the Metropolitan Opera (in Marnie and Akhnaten) and Santa Fe Opera (Schaunard in La bohème) and is poised to garner much more attention in Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones (scheduled to open the Met’s Fall 2021 season) and as the Celebrant in Bernstein’s Mass (at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington DC).

His first solo CD, Whither Must I Wander, was hailed by BBC Music Magazine (“admirable poise and clarity of intention”). Now, accompanied by pianist Paul Sánchez, he offers a cross-section of songs written at various times over the past century or so by seven Black composers.

Most impressive here is the 1915 set of five songs by Harry (Henry Thacker) Burleigh, the “Negro” singer, composer, and arranger who became a close, trusted companion to Dvořák during the two and a half years that the latter spent in New York City (with vacations in Iowa) running the short-lived National Conservatory of Music, 1892-95. The texts, by Adela Florence Nicolson (pseud. Laurence Hope), are full of exotic evocations typical of the day (“jungle flowers,” “the Lotus lake,” “Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar”). Burleigh sets them marvelously for singer and piano alike. If I picked up a hint of Verdi’s Amneris (“Strana pietà” on the repeated words “Crushing out life”) and Chopin’s Prelude no. 20 in C minor (a brief piano transition in “Till I Wake”), this just shows a confident composer knowing how to incorporate devices that suit his expressive purpose.

The other composers vary in style, but all know how to create effective songs. The one world-premiere recording is “Two Black Churches,” a setting—commissioned by Liverman—of two painful poems (by different poets) about attacks on Black churches: in Birmingham (1963, leaving four girls dead) and Charleston (2015, killing nine parishioners). Shawn E. Okpebholo (b. 1981), professor at Wheaton College-Conservatory of Music, sets them powerfully, with subtle evocations of several hymns and of tolling bells.

Among other highlights are Three Dream Portraits by Margaret A. Bonds (1913-72), to poems by the great Langston Hughes. Many works of Bonds have recently been republished and brought to performance, and these three songs show her mastery, not least in “Minstrel Man” (“Because my mouth is / Wide with laughter, / You do not hear / My inner cry?”). Other composers include Damien Sneed, Leslie Adams, Thomas Kerr, and Robert Owens. (Owens’s “Little Song” is a definite keeper!) Liverman ends the CD accompanying himself in a heartbreaking rendition of Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday.” (Fariña is the one non-Black composer or songwriter here. His father was from Cuba, his mother from Ireland.)

The performances are full of spirit and a wide range of moods. Liverman’s voice is caressing when soft, powerful (and sometimes a bit hectoring) when at full blast. Perhaps the microphones could have been put just a bit more distant. Pianist Paul Sánchez, who is also a well-known composer, provides splendid, richly characterized support every inch of the way. The CD is available from all major dealers and can be streamed from Spotify and other services. You can hear portions of each track here.

The main booklet contains extensive information on the poets and composers, but it shuttles confusingly between general trends, biographies, and the specific repertory. Also, it should have indicated in passing that the aforementioned “Kashmiri Song” poem (“Pale hands…”) was famously set by Amy Woodforde-Finden (1902) and that Langston Hughes’s “I, too, sing America” is one of the thirteen American poems in Leonard Bernstein’s Songfest (1977). If a composer later than Beethoven or Schubert set Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” or Goethe’s “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” a writer would naturally mention the famous earlier setting, if only to prevent certain readers from wondering why the title sounded so familiar.

A second booklet contains the full poetic texts (in their original wording, without any changes made by the composers). Unfortunately, the names of the composers have been omitted in the text booklet: one might think, therefore, that “Five Songs of Laurence Hope” were composed by Laurence Hope.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York Arts, Opera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich).

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