A Black Man, in Full Voice, Sings the “Cycles of My Being”

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PREVIEW: Of “Cycles of My Being,” Carnegie Hall, April 24, 2018 – the New York premiere of a new song cycle by composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes, performed by tenor Lawrence Brownlee; and

REVIEW: Of the song cycle’s earlier world premiere at Opera Philadelphia, February 20, 2018.

“Cycles of My Being” – a new art song cycle about the contemporary black male experience, is a compact, provocative, movingly confessional musical experience. Created specifically for, and in collaboration with, acclaimed operatic tenor Lawrence Brownlee, the work proves to be an eloquent and lyrical disburdening of pain and alienation – alternately meditative, gnomic, and flatly defiant. Its six movements in 40 minutes of performance time cover a lot of emotional and psychological landscape, negotiating minefields of resentment and dark coverts of grievance, mounting crests of prayerful hope, and even offering remote, slivered glimpses of optimism. There’s dazzle and darkness, anger, and even a measure of “swagger” in the texts of poet librettist Terrance Hayes (a 2015 MacArthur Fellowship recipient), the eclectic music of celebrated composer Tyshawn Sorey, and the incomparable vocal deftness, fluidity and expressive range of tenor Lawrence Brownlee.

Violinist Randall Mitsuo Goosby and
pianist Kevin Miller perform at the world
premiere of Cycles of My Being on Feb. 20 at
the Perelman Theater in Philadelphia; photo: Dominic M. Mercier

Viewed here at its world premiere presentation at Opera Philadelphia on February 20 (in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts), Brownlee et al. have subsequently given performances of “Cycles” in Chicago and a number of other American cities, and are now poised for the work’s New York debut at Carnegie Hall on April 24, 2018 (7:30 p.m. in Zankel Hall).

Opening the Cycle

A teeming throng packed the blond-wood Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center on February 20, testament in itself to the ferment of anticipation that had surrounded the premiere of “Cycles” from the time Opera Philadelphia announced it in late 2017. The pre-performance tumult of crowd murmurings – a symphony of loamy urban argot and Pecksniffian aesthetes’ sibilations – bespoke the diversity of intrigue.

The main event was preceded by a set of three micro-recitals highlighting the virtuosities of the instrumentalists who would later come together to accompany Brownlee for “Cycles.” Violinist Randall Mitsuo Goosby and pianist Kevin J. Miller splendidly rendered the song-like allegro amabile of the first movement of Brahms’ 1886 Violin Sonata No. 2 (A Major); outstanding as well was cellist Khari Joyner’s and Miller’s performance of the first movement of Samuel Barber’s 1935 Prix de Rome-winning Sonata for Violoncello and Piano; and clarinetist Alexander Laing, along with Miller, performed a graceful set of three traditional, spiritual-inflected songs (a maestoso reading of “Ride on, King Jesus,” a haunting version of William Grant Still’s “Bayou Home,” and a moving “Balm in Gilead”).

Then, enter Lawrence Brownlee to give voice to the “Cycles of My Being.”

A Journey to the Center

Initiating the work in surprisingly delicate gestures, composer Sorey provides a Satie-like netting of chords supporting the text of the opening number, “Inhale, Exhale,” words which arrive with a disarming, Whitman-like quality of intimate address: “America – I hear you hiss and start / Do you love the air in me, as I love the air in you?” This is followed by the first of two installments entitled “Hope,” intriguingly cobbled litanies of anguished paradoxes that never fully resolve (“When any hope is a blade / When wounded hope is what heals me” … then, what?).

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee performed the
world premiere of Cycles of My Being,
written by Tyshawn Sorey and Terrance
Hayes, accompanied by violinist Randall
Mitsuo Goosby, pianist Kevin Miller, cellist
Khari Joyner, and clarinetist Alexander
Laing, on Feb. 20 at the Perelman Theater in
Philadelphia; photo: Dominic M. Mercier

The cycle then ratchets up its emotional temperature and intensity with its two central movements: “Whirlwind” cribs allusively from – and inverts – the biblical Book of Job, in a bid to transmute resignation into resistance (“Lord, I’m trying to break myself open … / … / This song of mine must become a weapon. / This song must become a whirlwind”); then the chillingly confrontational “Hate” assaults with “You don’t know me. Still you hate me. / … / Make no mistake, hate leaves carnage in its wake.”

A second meditation on “Hope,” rife with provocative aposiopesis (“When fatigued hope is a second wind / When dead hope is life”…) gives way to the cycle’s elegant, yet teasingly abstruse concluding aubade, “Each Day I Rise, I Know,” which seems to flaunt a (mock?) attempt at transcendence through vanity, solipsism as a placeholder for optimism: “Mirror gaze a flute of blue jays / Moaning, amazing & misbehaving / […] / Sun-dusk toothbrush hairbrush / Mirror blush … / Each day I rise, I know.”

Textually literate and musically lively, the premiere of “Cycles of My Being” was conducted by the composer. The palpable sense of fully engaged, organic ensemble collaboration was thrilling.

For his part, tenor Lawrence Brownlee brought to bear in full his unique, trademark combination of warmth and light – a voice capable of caressing and enfolding the listener as readily as darting out with awesome, regal radiance.

A Complicated Man

A post-performance panel discussion revealed, even among its creators, a fascinating range and variety of interpretations of and responses to the meanings of the song cycle.

In program notes, Brownlee, who originated the idea for “Cycles of My Being” (and was the prime mover behind its creation), offered that “the goal of this piece is neither to widen … rifts, nor to re-open old wounds; the goal is [to] foster mutual respect.” Intriguingly, though, while poet Terrance Hayes is credited exclusively as the author of the cycle’s lyrics, it was revealed in discussion that the text of “Hate” – the cycle’s longest and most unambiguously rancorous number – was actually written by Brownlee himself.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee thanks the
audience for coming to world premiere of
Cycles of My Being; photo: Dominic M. Mercier

It’s a richly suggestive revelation, and adds immense interest in repeated attendance to Brownlee’s evolving future performances of the work, cognizant as one will be of the profound inner stresses that must inform the artistry of a man who, on the one hand, is the mellow and humane interlocutor documented in an interview conducted here last year (“Tenor at the Table!”when Brownlee was announced as Opera Philadelphia’s newest official “artistic advisor”), yet who can also issue such acid asseverations as “The very essence of me you despise/ … / You hate the God in me, and the God awful too”.

Cycling into the Future?

A final observation: while “Cycles of My Being” will no doubt remain a signature and intimately associated piece of Lawrence Brownlee’s repertoire and artistic legacy, and while its standing as a serious artistic commentary on the black male experience is assured, it is intriguing to note that (other than perhaps some oblique puns in “Inhale, Exhale”) neither the text nor the music feature any element that is definitively or explicitly “racial.” As the work ages, might its vivid poetics of anxiety not eventually be mined for latencies unanticipated by its creators? What fortuitous and surprising cycles of being might be illuminated someday by artists of divergent cultural, social, gender, or even sexual-identity perspectives?

“Cycles of My Being,” was co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Lyric UNLIMITED,” and Carnegie Hall, and was premiered by Brownlee, with the above-noted full instrumental ensemble accompaniment, on February 20, 2018 at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts; Brownlee subsequently performed the song cycle accompanied by pianist Myra Huang on February 22 at Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History, then at venues in several other American cities in advance of his giving the work its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall on the evening of Tuesday, April 24, 2018, at 7:30 p.m., as part of the “Jula Goldwurm Pure Voice Series”; Brownlee will perform Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,” accompanied by Huang, followed by “Cycles of My Being” accompanied again by Goosby, Joyner, Laing and Miller. Additional information is available HERE.

Violinist Randall Mitsuo Goosby, pianist
Kevin Miller, cellist Khari Joyner, tenor
Lawrence Brownlee, clarinetist Alexander
Laing, and composer Tyshawn Sorey
presented the world premiere of Cycles of
My Being, written by Sorey and Terrance
Hayes, on Feb. 20 at the Perelman Theater
in Philadelphia; photo: Dominic M. Mercier

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About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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