I have always made my admiration clear regarding Chicago based Cedille Records. They release quality recordings of unusual but intelligent choices of repertoire. This recording continues that formula but here achieves what is likely to be seen as a landmark anthology (or at least sampling) of Art Song by Black Composers. It speaks on many levels, as poetry, as music, as a collaboration between an incredible baritone, an amazing pianist, in a beautifully recorded and produced album. I was left throughout with the feeling that this is a loving collaboration. It is an integrated collaboration between many people who worked well together. It is a beautiful document and a timely one.
Baritone Will Liverman, the young rising star baritone who is slated to perform at The Met in the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” scheduled for fall of 2021 is clearly at the heart of this production. His intelligent choice of repertoire is both pleasing and revelatory. (the poetry of the song texts are published in one of two booklets that come with this CD). And Liverman’s voice is an admirable instrument that he wields with power and nuance. His commission of fellow rising musical star, composer Shawn Okpebholo whose “Two Black Churches” receives its world premiere recording. The pianist who manages to navigate significant demands with confidence and artistry, is Paul Sanchez, an excellent pianist, composer, and a fine collaborator.
The beautifully packaged CD (you gotta buy the CD) consists of 19 tracks representing 8 composers. The recording is billed as “Songs by Black Composers” but one can hardly miss the justly sad or angry tone of the texts and this was recorded July 22-24 of 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and amidst social unrest over the epidemic of modern day lynchings. (2020 was also the year that Anthony Davis won the Pulitzer Prize for his protest opera, “The Central Park Five”) The moving rendition (“put together”, as Liverman quips in the liner notes) of Richard Farina’s 1964 song is played and sung by Liverman connecting this release with the tradition of protest music of another era. The struggle continues.
Before discussing the music I must supply a disclaimer of sorts. My working knowledge of art song in general is fairly limited and my knowledge of black art songs even more so. I know none of this music and have only in the last year or so came to know of the work of Shawn Okpebholo. I had read about the historical significance of Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh and Margaret Bonds but have heard little of their music.
In about 61 minutes listeners are given a survey, a sampling of art song by black composers ranging from Burleigh (who studied with Antonin Dvorak) to Okpebholo whose compositional talents continue to get much deserved recognition. It is a learned sampling of a huge repertory that deserves attention.
The opening song is I Dream a World (2017) by Damien Sneed (1979- ). This setting of the Langston Hughes (1901-1967) poem strikes a somber but cautiously optimistic note. It is followed by “Five Songs of Laurence Hope” (1915) by Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949). The name Laurence Hope is the pseudonym of Adela Florence Nicolson (1865-1904), a British poet who spent much of her life in British India where she developed an interest in the culture of the land. Fascination with the literature and culture of India was strongly in evidence in the early twentieth century. These five songs are reminiscent of Debussy and the impressionists and is but a small sampling of Burleigh’s art song output.
Harrison Leslie Adams’ (1932- ) setting of his own lyrics in “Amazing Grace” is yet another iteration of the abolitionist song. Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972) is represented by her “Three Dream Portraits” (1959), a song cycle on Langston Hughes poems. Bonds’ style put this listener in the mind of Copland’s Dickinson Songs though notably darker. This cycle is contemporary with the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Next is “Riding to Town” (1943) by Thomas Kerr (1915-1988) who chose to reach back to the late nineteenth/early twentieth century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) for his text. Dunbar was for the 19th century what Langston Hughes would be for the early to mid twentieth century.
“Two Black Churches” (2017) is the work commissioned by Liverman for this recording. It is a setting of two poems and one of the musical highlights here. The first, “Ballad of Birmingham” to a text by Dudley Randall (1914-2000) is a contemporary reaction to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls. The second song, “The Rain” to a text by the Poet laureate of Charleston, poet and musician Marcus Amaker (1976- ). It is about the Charleston Church shooting of 2015 at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal in which a lone gunman killed nine people. Okpebholo is modernist but accessible and these settings are among the most devastating and powerful statements on this recording.
“Mortal Storm” Op. 29 (1969) is a song cycle by one Robert Owens (1925-2017). It is a powerful cycle set to Langston Hughes poems. Owens left the United States in 1968-9 in response to the racial violence and moved to Europe where he had studied music under the GI Bill from 1946-1957. Owens died in Munich having never returned to the land of his birth. This work deserves to be better known and thanks is due to Liverman and his associates for bringing this sad masterpiece to contemporary listeners.
The album concludes with Mr. Liverman’s arrangement of “Birmingham Sunday”, a 1964 song by writer and composer Richard Farina (1937-1966). Liverman plays and sings on this final track which is an homage to a previous generation of song writers and protestors as well as a reminder that that generation’s work in Civil Rights is hardly complete. The song was notably used by Spike Lee in his elegiac film, “Four Little Girls” (1997).
The lucid and detailed program notes by Dr. Louise Toppin are a welcome addition to this production and help to provide a context. The design by Bark Design ties this little gem together. This one has Grammy and “collector’s item” written all over it.