Baritone Will Liverman says it better than I could, in the liner notes to his new album with pianist Paul Sánchez: “Right now, it is more important than ever to celebrate the contributions of Black composers…[who] wrote so much more than just spirituals!” On Dreams of a New Day, the new album from Cedille Records, the baritone offers a sparkling survey of art songs spanning most of the 20th century. Many of their composers will be unfamiliar to most listeners of any race or stripe. The album is one small step toward filling that knowledge void.
Liverman has made his name on the opera stage, but he is an ideal messenger for the art song. On these often-impassioned pieces his voice soars, floats, grips tightly, touches gently.
The Five Songs of Laurence Hope (1915) by Henry Burleigh are an early link between spirituals and art songs. In these poems, Laurence Hope, a pen name of the poet Adela Florence Nicolson, explores the textures of the globe, situating the Black American experience in the widest possible earthly context. In contrast, Margaret Bonds’ Three Dream Portraits (1959), settings of poems by Langston Hughes, shine a light inward, to the soul and the intellect, vividly reflecting the learned passions of the mid-century Black Arts Movement.
The most powerful music in the set, to my ear, is actually the newest. Two Black Churches by the young composer Shawn E. Okpebholo recounts the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four girls were killed, and the 2015 attack on the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine parishioners died at the hands of a white man they had welcomed into their midst. Sánchez’s pianistic sensitivity and power are both on especial display in the intricate, sometimes angrily dissonant accompaniment, while Liverman makes the words of Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham” and Marcus Amaker’s “The Rain” bloom and burst. The latter poem concludes: “And we are still / trying not to / taste the salt / of our surrounding blues / or face the rising tide / of black pain.” (The CD package includes a booklet with all the text.)
As a kind of coda, Liverman returns to 1963, closing the disc with his own plangent arrangement of Richard Fariña’s folk song “Birmingham Sunday.” This reflects again the intimate, naked resonance of that awful day, but the singer’s artistry refutes the inevitability of perpetual tragedy. It’s an almost unbearably powerful performance.
Despite the pain of much of its specific subject matter, the album is no litany of racial grievances. It is above all a celebration of the brilliance of African American composers in a genre we don’t typically associate with Black artists. There’s life-giving electricity in Robert Owens’ Mortal Storm, settings of five short poems by Hughes. Liverman’s technique shines especially brightly in “Genius Child.” Much of the measure and most of the woe of these poems and of this music arise from Black oppression, but the feelings are universal, from the blues of “Little Sky” to the 37 seconds of fury in “Jaime”: “He sits on a hill / And beats a drum / For the great earth spirits / That never come.” This figure is no fool on the hill. He is a cry for peace, belonging, and justice.
Tucked among the song cycles is a theatrical number by H. Leslie Adam called “Amazing Grace,” not the famous hymn/spiritual but a 1992 piece infused with optimism. It ends with a glorious, quiet scale that rises into the upper reaches of the singer’s impressive range. And the disc opens tellingly, with another paean to hope, Damien Sneed’s “I Dream a World,” where the yearning for harmony is expressed, literally, in black and white. In the words (again) of Hughes: “A world I dream where black or white, / Whatever race you be, / Will share the bounties of the earth / And every man is free…”
Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers is available now.