Adrienne Danrich’s Harlem Renaissance in Milwaukee
An echo of not only the sounds but also the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance electrified the Peck School of the Arts Recital Hall Saturday.
Adrienne Danrich, a world-class soprano with blues in her soul, put on her Evening in the Harlem Renaissance on UWM’s Vocal Arts Series. I talked with Danrich Thursday, but didn’t realize the scope of her show until I experienced it. She brought along Will Johnson, a spectacular bass-baritone with international credits, to give a spine-tingling account of Old Man River, among other numbers. (You can hear Johnson as the Revival Singer on the Florentine Opera’s recording of Elmer Gantry.) She also brought in her assertive but sensitive pianist, Djordje Stevan Nesic. And Danrich has been working with UWM voice students for several days and got some of them into the act, too. (The whole company will move on to Next Act Theatre March 1-4.)
Danrich, who wrote this show, shines as its sun, and not just because of her gorgeous singing. Her passion for that admirable group of black Harlem artists and intellectuals, some famous and some forgotten, came through in her body language and in every word and note. She read the poetry of Langston Hughes, whose work is at the heart of her show, as brilliantly as she sang them. She wrote a punchy, efficient script; she gives us the facts of Harlem life quickly. As she spoke, remarkable works by visual artists of the period passed on a screen. Danrich made clear the great achievement of a small group who set out, in the 1920s and 1930s, to create an African-American high art with techniques borrowed from Europe but an essence rooted in black experience and tradition.
I admire her courage in including such white composers as Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and George Gershwin in the mix. Arlen wrote many songs specifically for the black singers of the Cotton Club, and by all accounts they adored Arlen. Kern presented blacks as people, full of pain and yearning, in Showboat. Gershwin, of course, wrote Porgy and Bess and admired many black musicians, but was more remote from them. But Danrich’s implied point holds, at least in the cases of Gershwin and Arlen. Without them, the Harlem Renaissance wouldn’t be quite the same. And without the Harlem Renaissance, especially without the Cotton Club, Arlen wouldn’t be Arlen and Gershwin wouldn’t be Gershwin. However obliquely made, that’s a bold argument for such a friendly, inspiring show as this.
That’s all very interesting, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that sing. And brother, can Adrienne Danrich sing. Her richness and clarity, her seamless tonal quality throughout the range, her deft articulation and emotional commitment to the sentiments of the music dazzled at every turn. She brought out the big, operatic guns for Alexander von Zemlinsky’s setting of Hughes’ Misery (Zemlinsky! Who knew?), art songs by the nearly forgotten but compelling Margaret Bonds, and the still-current William Grant Still. She hit her operatic peak in My Man’s Gone Now, from Porgy and Bess. You can’t have a champagne reception for this singer; that voice would break all the glasses.
Unlike most opera singers, she is also expert at vernacular style. She became a cabaret chanteuse in a subtle and affecting rendition of Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child, and she channeled Bessie Smith and a low-down, bitter Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.
The UWM students — Gina Graffagna, Nathaniel Greenhill, Bryan Ross, Danielle Teeter and Aftin Warren (a 2004 grad back for Danrich’s workshop) — sang well in solo. They also came on as back-up singers in a few numbers. Their enthusiasm for Danrich and her subject was obvious in their faces. They represented at least three different ethnicities, and it was moving to see them united in the grand ideals of the Harlem Renaissance.
Frankly, as much as I admired the Harlem Renaissance, I thought it a failed experiment. Now, I can see that it’s still going on.