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A year ago in a particularly well-balanced recital in a nearby sister church, bass-baritone James Longmire traversed the songs of Ravel, Schubert and Verdi. On a similarly crisp Sunday afternoon in the elegant sanctuary of St. Michael's Episcopal Church, his emphasis was on the songs popularly associated with the renowned actor and singer Paul Robeson (1898-1976), a man who inspired a wide spectrum of emotions but no controversy as to his vocal powers. Coming as it did on such a weekend, of course honor was paid to Martin Luther King, Jr., with the implied notion for the audience to ponder the comparisons and the contrasts between these two towering figures of the twentieth century.
Longmire opened the recital in fine style with the eminent "Lord God of Abraham" from Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah. Here his excellent high register was on display as he negotiated the frequent "tenor" measures. In this work and throughout, the support by his longtime accompanist, Sue Timmons, was of enormous value.
Jean Martini's "Plaisir d'amour" (The pleasure of love) and Dvorák's familiar "Als die alte Mutter" (Songs my mother taught me) showed skilled dramatic presence. Carl Böhm's "Still wie die nacht" (As quiet as the night) was especially impressive. And what retrospective of Paul Robeson's songs would be complete without Gershwin and Kern? The former was represented by "I've Got Plenty of Nuttin'" from Porgy and Bess, and the latter's Showboat furnished a Longmire staple, "Old Man River."
He offered an aria from Verdi, and he did not neglect Stephen Foster (e.g., "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair") and such goodies as "Water Boy" and "Lindy Lou." Probably none on the program, however, was as moving as his closing selections. He waded the "Deep River" and he called on that greatest prophet to "Go Down, Moses," with arrangements by H.T. Burleigh. From the work of Hall Johnson and Margaret Bonds, respectively, he could visualize the day that "Bye and Bye (I'm Gonna Lay Down This Heavy Load)" and he enjoined all the oppressed to "(Keep Your Hand on the Plow,) Hold On."
Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King, Jr., probably never were honored by a more heart-felt and artistically excellent tribute.
(For a companion review of this recital, click here.)