Baritone Will Liverman dreams of a new day in CD of Black composers
In ‘The Manchurian Candidate / Michal Daniel, Minnesota Opera

Chicago-based baritone Will Liverman’s Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers, a CD released on February 12 with pianist Paul Sánchez, comprises more than an hour’s worth of 19 great songs by eight different composers. The senior, and probably to most listeners the most familiar name among them, is Henry Burleigh (1866-1949), whom I know as the arranger and adapter of many of the classic Black spirituals. I knew the name of Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) and probably have heard some of her music on classical radio, most likely during a Black History Month, but can’t be absolutely sure. The youngest of the crop is Shawn E. Okpebholo (b. 1981).

What the 32-year-old Liverman describes as his “passion project” is a remarkable excavation of some of the rich ore in this particular mine. Its depth and variety lead a listener to ask if this might be the first of any number of such albums, for certainly the music is out there, much of it waiting to be discovered.

“I am honored to give voice to the art songs on this album,” Liverman writes in his preface to the program notes. “There was an enormous amount of material to choose from; Black composers wrote so much more than just spirituals!”

Liverman won the 2020 Marian Anderson Vocal Award. After he performed Okpebholo’s diptych “Two Black Churches,” about Birmingham (1963) and Charleston (2015) at the Kennedy Center, the Washington Post reviewer called the set “absolutely devastating, and one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard all year.” It receives its début recording on this CD.

Will Liverman has sung major roles with Lyric Opera of Chicago, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Dallas Opera, and Santa Fe Opera. He is slated to star in the Met’s season opening production of Terence Blanchard’s new opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones in the fall of 2021, the first opera at the Met by a Black composer, adapted from  Charles Blow’s memoir. Opera News magazine refers to his “silken baritone.” His website can be found here.

This May and June he is scheduled to appear at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in Highway 1, U.S.A. by the late William Grant Still, the “Dean of African-American Composers.”

Liverman is also cowriting an opera himself, called The Factotum, an updated African-American version of The Barber of Seville by Rossini.

The recital album appears on the Cedille (pronounced say-DEE) label CDR 90000 200. Cedille is itself an interesting story. The independent nonprofit company dates back to 1989, launched by James Ginsburg as a showcase for the most noteworthy classical artists in and from the Chicago area. Each of its new albums is released not only on a physical CD but on all the other formats as well to make them as widely accessible as possible.

The CD presentation is little short of magnificent. The unit includes two sleeves containing a 20-page booklet with extensive program notes by Dr. Louise Toppin, a professor of music at the University of Michigan who specializes in the concert repertoire of African-American composers. She offers brief biographical information on all the composers and lyricists. The second booklet supplies the complete song texts with words by Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Adela Florence Nicolson, Harrison Leslie Adams, Dudley Randall, Marcus Amaker, and folksinger/songwriter Richard Fariña (the only non-Black composer on the album).

“…and joy attends the needs of all mankind…”

The opening number on the CD is by Damien Sneed (b. 1979), a setting of the Langston Hughes poem “I Dream a World.” The text reflects Hughes’s long affiliation with the aspirational left, and serves as an epigraph for the whole project. “I dream a world where man / No other man will scorn, / Where love will bless the earth / And peace its paths adorn / I dream a world where all / Will know sweet freedom’s way, / Where greed no longer saps the soul / Nor avarice blights our day. /  A world I dream where black or white, / Whatever race you be, / Will share the bounties of the earth / And every man is free, / Where wretchedness will hang its head / And joy, like a pearl, / Attends the needs of all mankind— / Of such I dream, my world!”

The musical setting is in a contemporary vein, which also sets a certain tone. Throughout the album the composers introduce motifs, rhythms and harmonies that reflect characteristics of Black musics (plural intended!), but in great part they are placing themselves amongst the composers of their own times, claiming space not just in the African-American orbit but in the wider world of classical or “serious” music. The majority of what we will hear are what Liverman rightly calls “art songs” meant to call upon the most sophisticated resources of the composer’s craft, and which also ask of the singer a display of his most coveted gifts—his floating high pianissimos among his most compelling. This opening number does not disappoint on either score: We know from the start we are in for an hour of finely honed vocalism in material that will be both unfamiliar and alluring.

The selection of “Five Songs of Laurence Hope” from 1915 is an unusual one, from the pen of Henry Burleigh. Though Burleigh is famous for his arrangements of spirituals as “classical” songs, much of the rest of his catalogue, which includes close to 150 art songs, is set to verses by non-Black poets, such as this group. Laurence Hope was an ironic pseudonym for Adela Florence Nicolson (1865-1904), an Englishwoman who spent most of her adult life in India and the Middle East with her husband, Colonel Malcolm Nicolson. Her poems allude to her surroundings, her obviously troubled marriage, her race consciousness, and mental depression, all pointing toward her sad end: “When her husband died suddenly, she consumed poison and committed suicide at the age of 39” (in Dr. Toppin’s words), perhaps in imitation of the traditional Indian wife’s self-immolation upon her husband’s death.  

Burleigh’s sophisticated music is cultured, with hints of eroticism in its “Orientalist” modalities, and aimed at the recital hall. These tragic songs of betrayal and fated love are surely worth performing and hearing, somewhere, sometime, and I can hardly imagine a more sensitive interpretation of them than we get here. But I would question their place on an album with such a professed agenda of dreams and liberation for our common humanity.

The “Amazing Grace” by H. Leslie Adams is not the one you are familiar with—which as you may know, is not a Black spiritual but a song written by John Newton (1725-1807), a slave ship captain and clergyman turned abolitionist. In Adams’s own lyric, he fuses imagery of physical, caressing union with Grace and Truth to the ecstatic embrace of the divine and the eternal.

The “Three Dream Portraits” by Margaret Bonds are set to more Langston Hughes poems. In “Minstrel Man” Hughes poetically reprises the “double consciousness” thinking of W.E.B. Du Bois as first articulated in The Souls of Black Folk, the idea that African Americans were constantly fine-tuning their national identity as Americans to their racial identity. Hughes summons up the old conundrum of the pagliaccio, the clown on the outside, the hurting misfit on the inside. “Because my mouth / Is wide with laughter, / You do not hear / My inner cry? / Because my feet / Are gay with dancing, / You do not know / I die?”

In “Dream Variation” Hughes contrasts “white day” with night “Black like me.” The dream is “to fling my arms wide…to whirl and to dance,” and yet the two references to tall trees inevitably evoke the terror for Black people lurking across America. “I, Too” is a rejoinder to Walt Whitman, who Hughes felt inadequately addressed the African-American presence in his all-inclusive America. “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / When company comes. / Nobody’ll dare / Say to me, / ‘Eat in the kitchen,’ / Then. / Besides, / They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed—.”

Thomas Kerr (1915-1988) sets the poem “Riding to Town” by turn of the 20th century vernacular poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to a rollicking waltz that ostensibly describes a trip into town on a horse-driven wagon with Katie May but may also be read in more suggestive ways that honor the equal entitlement of the African American to “joy in a song as we rattle along,” tellingly, as the opening words say, “When labor is light.”

The emotional heights of the album are reached in Shawn E. Okpebholo’s “Two Black Churches,” which Liverman personally commissioned. “Ballad of Birmingham,” set to the lyric by Dudley Randall, recalls the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that galvanized the civil rights struggle in new ways with the cruel murder of four beautiful young Black girls. In ballad form, in eight rhymed stanzas, poet and composer tell the story from the double perspectives of a mother and her child. The girl pleads with her mother to be allowed to go downtown “And march in the streets of Birmingham / In a Freedom March today.” Mother warns of dogs “And clubs and hoses, guns and jails” and sends her to sing in the children’s choir at church. The rest of the story we know, of course, but the poet expresses the mother’s remorse, anger and terror in his final, wrenching strophe: “She clawed through bits of glass and brick, / Then lifted out a shoe. / ‘O, here’s the shoe my baby wore, / But, baby, where are you?’”

The music to this song equally rises to ennoble these events with its evocation of gospel and the familiar reassuring church chords echoing spirituals and blues. The explosion is heard in the wild, dissonant piano, with a calming interlude meant to sound like an introspective improvisation, and after that last terrifying verse, some comforting blues, a begrudging accommodation to the tragic loss. In Toppin’s words, “The song concludes with four sustained soft chords resembling church bells. Each of the chords is comprised of four notes that punctuate and amplify the four young lives lost.”

The second part of the set, “The Rain,” is by Marcus Amaker, poet laureate of Charleston, and moodily places the listener in the rainy Lowcountry where nine African-American worshipers perished at Emanuel AME Church in 2015. The imagery is all watery—the mix of cleansing rain with the ever-threatening flooding from the Atlantic Ocean. “And we are still / trying not to / taste the salt / of our surrounding blues / or face the rising tide / of black pain.” In but a few dozen words, the poet also introduces words such as “the reality of racism,” segregation,” and “a murderers’ gunshots.” The powerful theme that came down, within the first few days after this repulsive, cowardly act of mass murder, was of forgiveness and grace, at least on the part of some of the survivors and the grieving families, but serenity is not what we have here. Musically, the composer uses florid melisma on certain words to recall that common tradition in the gospel church, but keeps his piano accompaniment spare and minimal.

Robert Owens (1925-2017) also delved into the Langston Hughes well for his “Mortal Storm” series of five poems all offering short pen-portraits of alienation in one form or another. In “Little Song,” Hughes revisits his famous “dream deferred”: “Lonely people / In the lonely night / Grab a lonely dream / And hold it tight. / Lonely people / In the lonely day / Work to salt / Their dream away.”  The “dream” fits into the spirit and the title of the CD.

The final cut on the album is the well-known popular song “Birmingham Sunday” from 1964 by Richard Fariña (1937-1966), which Will Liverman has adapted for his voice and on which he also plays the piano. In a less “arty” vein, this haunting number may be for many listeners their own personal highlight.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.