Review: Tenor Lawrence Brownlee at E.J. Thomas Hall

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by Timothy Robson

It's not every day that a performer can be judged to be one of the two or three best in the world. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee could make that claim, but he probably wouldn't, at least not publicly. Brownlee, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, a Steelers and Ohio State football fan, and an aficionado of good food, is a down-to-earth guy who happens to be one of the leading current examples of that rare species, the bel canto tenor. His recital on Thursday, February 26 on the Tuesday Musical concert series at E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron was brilliant from beginning to end, confirming Brownlee's place in the firmament of opera superstars. His concert can be considered one of the musical highlights of this season.

Brownlee sang a varied program in four languages (Italian, German, Spanish and English) and in a wide variety of styles, accompanied by his accomplished duo partner, the excellent pianist Kevin Murphy. Brownlee seemed most comfortable in the Italian and English works, but his diction was impeccable throughout.

Mozart's concert aria Misero! O sogno... Aura che intorno spiri is a miniature cantata, opening with an extended recitative that sets the stage for the main part of the aria: the song of a lover lamenting that he will never again see his beloved. Like many Mozart arias, it sounds deceptively simple but is filled with land mines: long legato phrases, exposed entrances, varied emotions. Brownlee made it all seem easy. His sound was clear and pure from top to bottom, and his phrasing captured the sense of the text. Murphy's performance of the reduction of the original orchestral accompaniment captured the essence of the orchestra.

Austrian Joseph Marx (1882-1964) had the misfortune of beginning his composing career at the exact moment that fellow Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg was rejecting conventional tonality and espousing the beginnings of atonality. Marx’s musical language, however, was that of a Romantic. His extended tonality, more impressionistic than chromatic, is more Italian and French than Germanic. He wrote well over a hundred songs — not household names, but revived with some regularity. Marx may have been overshadowed by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, but his songs are lyrical and enchanting to hear, especially in performances as polished as those of Lawrence Brownlee. 

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