After several decades singing Mozart, Rossini, and other composers to great acclaim on the international opera circuit, US tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s most recent album Rising reaches deep into his African American heritage, with the assistance of a new generation of composers. The inspiration for Rising came from the Harlem Renaissance, a period of prolific cultural awakening in the African American community of New York City, spanning the 1920s and 1930s. “My team and I compiled a list of poetry that meant something to us from Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes and Georgia Douglas Johnson,” Brownlee tells Apple Music Classical. “We then presented that list to our composers, so that they could choose poems that spoke to them, and set them to music.” Six contemporary African American composers were commissioned to join the Rising project, which was funded by Brownlee himself. “I wanted to pick young people that were making waves themselves in their own right,” he comments. Damien Sneed, Brandon Spencer, and Jasmine Barnes are among the composers represented, and in total 14 new songs have been created. “As well as singing in opera I also frequently do recitals, and this whole idea started with me wanting to take a program around the world to places like Carnegie Hall, New York and Wigmore Hall in London,” Brownlee says. “I take the music of Poulenc and Mozart with me. But for young African American composers to have their works in the mainstream too, people like me have to present them in these important places.” As the newly commissioned songs for Rising pinged into his email inbox, Brownlee knew the project was going to be something special. “Every one was like opening a present on Christmas morning,” he recalls. “My pianist Kevin Miller would immediately play through them and FaceTime me about how good the songs are.” They are also, Brownlee continues, full of variety. “It’s so wonderful to see how different they are, and how they reflect very different influences—jazz and gospel, for example, but also Stravinsky.” These various strands of influence, along with the inclusion of song cycles by legacy composers Margaret Bonds and Robert Owens, make for “a very diverse album,” Brownlee says. “It shows that our African American story is not only rooted in pain, sorrow, and suffering. It’s about joy, glory, faith, family, love, and achievement too.”

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