Sampling Art Of Song, Will Liverman Leaves Final Lyric To His Mom

Will Liverman (Photo by Adam Ewing)

PERSPECTIVE — “The fun thing about recording,” muses baritone Will Liverman, “is that you can unlock a lot of colors that wouldn’t register on the operatic stage. I like to hope that recordings, and the work we do with them, create a visibility for repertory and an accessibility for people to tap into our art.”

The Grammy Award-winning vocalist is speaking of his latest endeavor, Show Me the Way, a marvelous two-CD recording just released on Cedille Records. The album is a collaboration with Liverman’s longtime colleague, pianist Jonathan King, and features an intriguing cornucopia of American song penned by the pioneering 20th-century composers Margaret Bonds, Amy Beach, and Florence Price, as well as five world-premiere recordings of music from contemporary composers Jasmine Barnes, Libby Larsen, Kamala Sankaram, Rene Orth, and Sarah Kirkland Snider. Liverman and King are joined in selected pieces by sopranos Renée Fleming and Nicole Cabell, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, cellist Tahirah Whittington, and violinist Lady Jess. Liverman is also partnered on one track by his mother, gospel singer Terry Liverman, for the first time on a commercial recording.

Show Me the Way is a homage to many things — American music by female composers certainly — but the album takes on an undeniably moving emotional specificity in its honoring of particular women who have influenced both Liverman and King in their respective musical journeys. It also celebrates what has been a fruitful collaboration between the two men that began in their college years and, as King roguishly says, “was born of our joy in our music, and in trips to Wendy’s for bacon cheeseburgers.”

The project sprang to life during the Covid shutdown. “I was visiting Will in Chicago,” says King. “We were talking about how to stay engaged in our art. It was around the time of George Floyd’s murder. There was a lot of heaviness in the air. We were thinking of ways to consciously make music that engages where we are in our world right now. One thing we realized is that there were a lot of influential women in our lives, stemming from Will’s mom, that we wanted to honor with our music. We began thinking of who our dream collaborators would be. I named Libby Larsen, Will mentioned Renée Fleming. We were laughing about it, thinking about these amazing artists and how this could never actually happen. Then one by one they all agreed to do the album!”

“These are all women who have influenced us,” Liverman says. “It’s been an amazing project because of the joy of bringing such incredible artists together. It strengthens everything when you have people like this bringing in musical ideas, artists who have been part of our lives. We thought of J’Nai Bridges, someone we grew up with. And Nicole Cabell, who was the first African American to win the Cardiff Singer of the World, and one of the artists from the Ryan Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago who I have seen do amazing things on the world’s stages. My mom was the first musician I ever heard, and it was incredibly special to have her in the recording studio.”

Will Liverman and Jonathan King

The collection opens with King’s oozing arrangement of the jazz standard “You Showed Me the Way” by Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb, Teddy McRae, and Bud Green, which became strongly associated with Billie Holiday in 1937. This familiar piece is followed by the first of the album’s premieres, the song cycle A Sable Jubilee by Barnes, an ineffably moving paean to Black joy and pride. Price is represented by two pieces, “I Grew a Rose” and “Songs to the Dark Virgin.” Four classic songs by Bonds are followed by a real discovery: “Ah, love is a jasmine vine,” a stunning duet from Cabildo, the only known opera by Beach, in which Liverman is coupled with soprano Cabell, here in ravishing voice as she executes a lovely series of ascending phrases.

Bridges sumptuously joins the baritone in the lovely, keening “A Prayer” by Orth. There is a fascinating new cycle from Larsen, Machine Head, set to the poetry of Ted Burke. Sankaram is represented by a thoughtful new creation, “Spell to Turn the World Around,” in which King gets quite the workout on the keyboard. Fleming drops in to deftly weave her way through the soprano line of Snider’s “Everything That Ever Was.”

Vocal mavens will find plenty to admire here. Liverman is in superb voice, providing a surfeit of luxurious, baritone velvet in the Price and beautifully floated pianissimo tone in the Snider and the Barnes. “The Price is one of my favorites to sing, ‘I Grew a Rose’ in particular, because of its melodic line,” he says. “It is on the higher side but sits perfectly in a place in my voice that allows me to flow over the line. ‘Songs to the Dark Virgin’ is special because it was one of the first art songs I learned in high school. Doing that again was a full-circle moment. The voice must be crystal clear, because the microphone catches any break or crack. There were definitely things I had to do over, like some of the floaty things in the Barnes, but when that works, it can be really effective.”

As for the accompaniments, “The thing that was most challenging for me was the Bonds set,” King says. “They are very intricate and not easily grasped in the hands, and we were also doing them in a new, lower key. It is easy to sound muddy in those lower textures. The Larsen was one of the most fun to play. The second movement is almost like an overture, with this long piano passage that kind of suspends you.”

Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges (Photo by Dario Acosta)

The anthology closes with what is possibly its most poignant track of all, Alma Bazel Androzzo’s “If I can Help Somebody,” sung by Terry Liverman (whom King calls “Mama Liv”) with son Will at the piano. It may seem overly sentimental to observe that one can glimpse the source of the baritone’s musicality by hearing his mother sing, but it’s true, and her heart-stirring performance brings the album to its conclusion in a very special way.

Show Me the Way is a remarkable achievement in the world of art song, and perceptively reflects the artistic passion of its creators. “It has a catalog essence,” King says. “It preserves songs from the past and honors songs from now and into the future. It is inspiring for me to see people go for things they love. To be part of that narrative is important. It keeps art alive and keeps dreaming alive at a time in history where it can be hard to dream.”