Opera Philadelphia’s Brownlee brings young African-American composers to “Rising”

opera Brownlee

When world-renowned tenor Lawrence Brownlee is in Philadelphia, it is usually for his role as Opera Philadelphia’s Artistic Advisor or on stage for gigs like Charlie Parker’s ‘YARDBIRD’. This week, however, Brownlee has a new venture with ‘Rising’, his freshly-commissioned project with pianist Kevin J. Miller featuring six young African-American composers setting poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to song.

Brownlee and Miller will play the work of composers Damien Sneed, Brandon Spencer, Jasmine Barnes, Joel Thompson and Shawn E. Okpebholo at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Perelman Theater on March 29 before releasing their ‘Rising’ album on Warner Classics in June to celebrate Black Music Month.

Commissioning the composers of ‘Rising’ and marrying their new music to the texts of authors and poets such as Langston Hughes meant putting together artists that are important to Brownlee.

“I looked at artists who stretched the envelope for me as a performer and as a curator, as someone who is a frequent recitalist,” said the vocalist. “It is good to try to add to the art song canon, which is why I reached out to these wonderful young African-American composers.”

Choosing composers for his ‘Rising’ project often meant working with these writing artists in the past or receiving great word-of-mouth about their recent past work.

“Composers such as Jasmine Barnes – her work floored me, and I knew that she, and the other five young composers had spent time trying to be a part of the dialogue, and I wanted to give them each an opportunity to be further seen and heard in more spaces, and in important spaces,” said Brownlee.

Matching the words of Harlem Renaissance writing legends such as Alice Dunbar Nelson and Langston Hughes to fresh new music meant a great deal to Brownlee.

“As someone who is over 50-years-old, the writings of authors such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Georgia Douglas Johnson were crucial to my upbringing. And highlighting Harlem Renaissance writers whose work is less well known than, say, Langston Hughes, was important to the story of ‘Rising’,” said the vocalist-curator. “I wanted these composers to take what they found important in the writings of these authors, not only to illustrate the Black American experience, but would be fuel for their artistry going forward.  I asked each composer to find writings that meant something to each of them, that resonated with them. We gave each composer a wide berth, and they all found the right words that would inspire them to composer music around that.”

The authors of the Harlem Renaissance and their meeting of new music composers that is ‘Rising’ has created an additional level of nuance and relevance for the past, present and future of the American Experience.

As for Browlnee’s dynamic relationship with his friend and pianist Kevin J. Miller, the vocalist thinks of his longtime collaborator as a little brother to his “big brother.”

“Our relationship has grown over competing on the tennis court and uniting for music projects such as ‘Rising’,” said Brownlee. “When you have someone that you trust as a person, sitting there, playing, and being a foundational person, a collaborator on the stage, and someone with who you can crack jokes with often – it makes the experience so much more meaningful.”