Christine Brewer Sings

Title: Christine Brewer Sings Songs by Wagner, Wolf, Britten and John Carter
Artists: Christine Brewer, soprano; Robert Vignoles, piano
Label: Wigmore Hall Live
Catalog No.: 22
Release date: 2008

This disc is not exclusively devoted to African American music; one will note the presence of German arch-romantics Richard Wagner, Hugo Wolf and Anglo composer Benjamin Britten in the title, all gentlemen who rather obviously do not qualify. Nevertheless, this disc includes the second recording of a highly satisfying and historically pivotal song cycle, entitled “Cantata,” by St. Louis based African American composer John Carter.

Not much is known about Carter; he was born in 1937 and his death date is variously listed as having been anywhere between 1981 and 1989. His musical output appears to have been mainly vocal as the few compositions that have heretofore been recorded are either choral, or as in this instance, in the genre of classical art song. “Cantata” was composed in 1963—the peak year of the Civil Rights Movement—and ostensibly appears to be a typical collection of arrangements of traditional black spirituals into an art song format. However, anyone expecting settings along lines of what was germane to Harry Burleigh, Lawrence Brown or Roland Hayes will not find that in “Cantata,” as these are not conservative sacred settings. Carter was on the same page with twentieth century musical techniques, and his spiritual settings are highly individual, challenging, compelling and at times quite dissonant.

When it comes to the Civil Rights Movement of 1963 and its relation to music—apart from the ubiquitous folk hymn “We Shall Overcome”—there is a range which can be roughly described as running between Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” to the work of free jazz artists like John Coltrane. Carter’s song cycle does not represent an ambitious, and admittedly courageous, undertaking from an otherwise commercial artist, nor does it work from a basis of deep emotional sorrow and anger as does a piece like Coltrane’s “Alabama.” The cycle encapsulates mixed feelings of fear, elation, struggle, self-determination and self-sacrifice—some of the moods no doubt experienced on the ground by participants in the Civil Rights Movement, though composed in an equally brave manner that would not have found wide sympathy among Carter’s peers in 1963. “Cantata” is highly unusual in that it was both written with the future in mind and succeeds in accurately documenting the atmosphere of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 that would not have gone down in any other way; it is both heroic and anti-heroic.

Brewer’s performance is singled out as it so good—it demonstrates that a performer need not necessarily be African American to sing African American art songs well, and that bodes well for the literature itself in terms of its potential outreach. Brewer is a native of St. Louis and maintains strong ties with that community; otherwise it is unlikely that she would ever have come in contact with Carter’s “Cantata.” Brewer also contributes a fine reading of Hall Johnson’s setting of “A City Called Heaven” in the encore section of this live performance.

Posted by Uncle Dave Lewis