by Ariel Andrew, special to the Sybaritic Singer
Two words immediately came to mind while listening to Will Liverman’s latest album: Black Excellence.
While listening to Will Liverman’s album Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers, I couldn’t help but feel emotional as I listened to this wonderfully and carefully made album. As a black woman in the classical field, there aren’t a lot of people that we can relate to. However, we are seeing more BIPOC rising in the classical field and Will Liverman has definitely become one of them. Liverman, a very successful baritone, is continuously making his mark in opera’s history. He is fearless and unapologetic in his work and strives to continue to move mountains with his rich voice and artistic vision.
The Black Pride that Will has exhibited in his selections is bursting from the seams. However, this album is for all- no matter the race. For some it is a history lesson to paint a story that they may not be too familiar with; while for others, Liverman has made an homage to brother and sisters that weren’t able to live out a full life and others that have continuously fought against oppression and steadily fight for justice. The selections he chose vary in a wide scope of what it means to be black. From black pride to wanting to be seen as an equal, Mr. Liverman dared to give immense emotion and talent into this album- in which, he truly succeeded.
Liverman’s voice effortlessly ebbs and flows
Starting with the opening number on the album, I Dream a World, it is clear that there was a semblance of inspiration that was drawn from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech. When most people see the word dream in a piece, especially that of the classical genre, we expect a piece that has a glamourized dream like sequence in the piano part or soft tones and gentle vocals, but that isn’t what this piece is about. Liverman gives us true strength and unforgiving power in his words. He emulated the feeling of hope that was known to be had on the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his speech. It is such a brilliant opener for this album in so many ways. Written by the absolutely brilliant Damien Sneed, his jazz meets classical vibe was portrayed beautifully by pianist Paul Sánchez (whom played the majority of the album in likewise manner). Liverman’s voice ebbs and flows throughout the music as effortlessly as it is played. He hooks the listener from the first note and doesn’t let them go for the whole album.
In his next set, Liverman sings Burleigh’s 5 Songs of Laurence Hope. Throughout these five pieces, we get to hear more of Liverman’s absolute command of the array of color his voice can truly wield. His beautiful timbre and ability to effortlessly dictate his dynamics are truly masterful. In this song set, the third selection Kashmiri Song was the one to grab my attention. I found myself enamored not only with the dual storytelling of Liverman and Sánchez, but also just the absolutely beauty of Liverman’s wheelhouse of sound. Liverman is able to use the deep richness of his baritone voice to let out a bellow of glorious sound, but on the flipside, he is able to pull back and make us yearn more. His top notes come in a wide array- not just blaring out at the top of the staff, but rather each one had a purpose- a reason for being sung the way it was. He cradles his gentle, and smooth, voice during the pianissimo of his voice and never let you even think of skipping over anything. It takes a world class singer to be able to keep an audience engaged when there is no stage, yet Liverman does it with grace.
In Amazing Grace, it is definitely not your standard hymnal that you may have sung at church. This power anthem written by Leslie Adams is a new approach on the typical hymnal. Instead of a humble prayer, Adams wrote a declaration of prayer that Liverman executed gorgeously. I definitely got Prince of Egypt vibes from it, but I mean that in the highest compliment. The music was just so engaging and with Liverman giving us the baritone power behind the words, it was hard to not stay engaged from start to finish.
Three Dream Portraits, a song set by Madam Margaret Bonds, give Liverman the chance to truly tell three stories that have an underlying connection: all of them give us stories of a black man. Something about this set felt different out of the other song sets Liverman chose to sing on this particular album. For starters the amount of black pride that was in this set was absolutely marvelous, especially in Dream Variation. It was this piece that captured my attention the most out of this set. Unlike the first piece, this selection truly feels like it was composed to bring the listener into a dream. Liverman pretty much draws the listener in from the first note as he tells us about the beauty to be black.
We are taken into the next selection, Riding to Town, and this piece is another wonderful and exciting example of Will Liverman’s ability to truly use his voice as a storytelling device. He allows the entrance to be exciting but feigns the melancholy and tiredness marvelously as the song changes characters to be in a much melancholier than what was produced in the first half.
Liverman gives us raw and untapped emotion and sincerity as he sings
In Two Black Churches, an entire shift occurs on the album. Liverman’s choice in recording this song set must have been one that required a lot of emotional outpour because listening to the words and even hearing the emotion dripping from Sánchez’s keys could cause anyone to feel during this. In the Ballad of Birmingham, a story from the perspective of multiple characters is told. Liverman gives us raw and untapped emotion and sincerity as he sings in which he talks of what might as well be real characters from a historical event. From the rumbling low notes that could move the earth to the eerie calm he in his voice as he touches upon death, I felt such an emotional connection that I didn’t think it couldn’t get rawer.
But boy was I wrong.
In the second selection, The Rain, Liverman continued to show his vocal agility and masterfulness that I have raved on for quite a while, but in this selection, Liverman did something different for me. Something a lot of art hasn’t been able to do for me in quite some time. He made me think beyond the surface. The line that got me was “[the]reality of racism returns”. Just… wow. What a heavy line. Some people may call it brave but is it? I truly believe this is needed. This phrase states of return, but in this day and age, are we sure it ever left? Liverman takes Shawn E. Okpebholo’s, the composer, words in a perspective that we sometimes aren’t ready to face. It isn’t bold or brave. It was needed to open our eyes. It was an absolute brilliant choice to include this song set on the album. This metaphor was written for Black Americans to, quite frankly, keep on keeping on. Based upon the harrowing 2015 Charleston church shooting, The Rain is a letter that tells of the injustice within the black community and the oppression that is faced, but alas, through faith we too shall rise.
He sang with pride and let his voice ring
Robert Owen’s Mortal Storm, Op. 29 is a series of pieces that absolutely are riveting and a completely 360 from the previous song set. While most of these pieces are short and keep a quick momentum, Liverman still delivers. He doesn’t hesitate to put his all into each piece, yes even Jaime which is a mere :37 seconds. A personal favorite of mine is in this set: Genius Child. This piece has always been one that, in my humble opinion, that is just so titillating and Liverman truly made me fall in love with it all over again. He truly has no qualms of just absolutely dominating this piece and mastering all of the beautiful attributes of his voice and wonderful ability to be able to tell a story.
The last piece, Birmingham Sunday, was very different from the rest of the album. Played by Liverman himself, it was such a glorious way to end the album. With a slow buildup that gives a very gospel feel, Liverman sings Fariña’s piece with heart and soul. This piece caused tears to swell up and as he proceeded to rightfully march through the song, he never faltered once. He sang with pride and let his voice ring. There was not a moment that I felt as though he didn’t mean a single word that was sung. It is easy with some artists to feel this way, but there is something truly special about Will’s voice.
Overall, this album is priceless. Will Liverman and Paul Sánchez brought so many great works to life. We could all learn from this album no matter what our background is. We get the perspective of how the composers felt of historical occurrences that occurred in the last century. It is a true shame that pieces have not had more public notice, but I am truly hoping that thanks to Mister Liverman’s time and dedication to putting his heart and soul into this work, he will be able to bring these work to light and allow them to receive all the appreciation and praise that they truly deserve.
Known for having “a force of nature sound with natural ease” (Parterre Box) Ariel Andrew, soprano, is currently making her way through the operatic circuit. With her upcoming debut as Rusalka (LAH-SOW) and company debut with Opera Steamboat this summer, Ariel feels grateful and blessed to be able to continue her career through this pandemic. With credits at Sarasota Opera, the International Performance Arts Institute, Russian Opera Workshop, and MIOpera, she continues to strive towards an internaitonal career. Miss Andrew is currently residing in Chicago, IL and currently studies with Mark Schnaible.