Over the last few years, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis has gotten top-notch reviews of her stage appearances from SF Classical Voice’s writers. On Jan. 27, she presented a recital called “In Honor of Women” at Herbst Theatre for San Francisco Performances. Her wonderfully diverse program also honored Blackness, Black composers, mothers, and her own mother’s Jamaican roots in particular, and it gave Bryce-Davis every opportunity to show the depth of her artistry.
The program opened with the American composer Amy Beach’s Three Browning Songs, Op. 44. The first of these songs, “The Year’s at the Spring,” is just one minute long, and yet Bryce-Davis and the superb pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers made it sound as if written on a large scale indeed. Bryce-Davis naturally brings a sense of grandeur to what she sings because of the size and warmth of her voice and the way that she sustains the musical line. She communicates what she’s singing with her whole body, with movements that mirror the phrases of the song and seem spontaneous rather than rehearsed.
Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, the product of an affair the composer had with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of his benefactor, provided the most explicitly operatic music of the recital. For this cycle, Wagner set poems written by Wesendonck herself, and they traverse a wide emotional range, encompassing longing, sorrow, dreams, and more. Wagner would eventually incorporate the music of two of the five songs into Tristan und Isolde.
All of the songs demand to be sung with both intimacy and grand style, and Bryce-Davis did so with ease, singing with a sense of inwardness throughout and with a gorgeous Wagnerian line. She has already sung Fricka in Das Rheingold and a number of Italian dramatic mezzo roles; surely the major Wagner mezzo roles are in her future.
On the second half of the program, following brief songs by the 20th-century Black composers Margaret Bonds (“Birth”) and Florence Price (“The Crescent Moon”), Bryce-Davis sang Melissa Dunphy’s “Come, My Tan-Faced Children.” This song sets excerpts from Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” It was written for Bryce-Davis and is specifically intended to be sung by Black mezzo-sopranos.
In the composer’s words, it “recontextualizes” the text “in a way that the poet almost certainly never intended,” because Whitman, while opposed to slavery, also held racist views about Black people and thought they should not have full American citizenship. The original poem “was Whitman’s call to arms for white pioneers” to fight in the Civil War, but the particular excerpted texts carry “an entirely different meaning” when sung by a woman of color, “especially now during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.”
The song is by turns lyrical and dissonant but above all dramatic and exciting, covering a wide vocal range. The excerpted texts evoke danger, weapons, and being in the vanguard — and of course, the song fits Bryce-Davis like a glove.
The mezzo-soprano followed Dunphy’s song with three by composer and poet Maria Thompson Corley, who wrote both the text and music. These were, again, composed for the singer. The sarcastic, bitter “I Am Not an Angry Black Woman” belies its title by showing the righteous anger of a Black woman in every possible way. After several denials, the narrator states, “I am a live butterfly impaled by a pin. / I am a strapped-in passenger careening into an approaching train,” and so on, closing with “I am not an Angry Black Woman. / But what if I were? / What if I were?”
Corley’s “The Beauty in My Blackness” is thoroughly celebratory, opening with “The beauty in my blackness isn’t open to debate” and continuing with marvelously alliterative lines such as “Rivulets of royalty feed my river of resilience.” The closing “Black Riders’ Freedom Song” is an homage to Black cowboys and the freedom of the range, composed in a swinging style that subtly evokes the music of Western films.
To close, Bryce-Davis sang settings of three traditional Jamaican songs by composer Peter Ashbourne. She introduced them by noting that they were in honor of both her Jamaican mother and Cilliers’s mother, who was a singer. “How could we perform in honor of women without honoring our own mothers?” Bryce-Davis asked. She also smilingly teased the audience by providing a translation of the texts, which are in a Jamaican idiom and not always easily understood by non-Jamaicans.
During these songs, Bryce-Davis noticeably altered the timbre of her voice, lightening it considerably, even in the most operatic phrases of “Fi Mi Love Have Lion Heart,” a beguiling love song. In “Banyan Tree,” one might wonder whether the reggae-ish rocking under the banyan is dancing or more intimate activities. And the ragtime setting of “Nobody’s Business” seemed entirely appropriate for a song about minor yet amusing sins, like posing as 21 when you’re old.