Coping with crisisSusan Kander: dwb (driving while black). Roberta Gumbel, soprano; Hannah Collins, cello; Michael Compitello, percussion. Albany Records Troy 1858 ©2021, TT:45:00. Available through Albany Records and iTunes. $16.99

Maybe you remember driving home from the hospital with your newborn baby. And maybe you remember the sudden anxiety of caring for a helpless infant. Even if you don’t share this experience, Roberta Gumbel’s performance will surely elicit emotion and even make the hair on your arms rise. Coupled with the performing duo New Morse Code, the performance is riveting. Susan Kander and Gumbel’s collaborative project dwb (driving while black) is not only relevant but also emotionally wrenching. It will break your heart.

Intended for premiere on March 19, 2020, at Baruch Performing Arts Center, NYC, dwb was video-taped in late summer at Lawrence Arts Center and then streamed and extended by popular demand in October. If you missed the performance, this audio recording, released March 15, 2021, is a fine substitute. The opera is timely and extremely well performed, and it should be required listening.

The story line of dwb is familiar to most Americans. But the emotional turmoil can truly be known only by people of color, and especially by parents, who know the dangers of living in a racist society. Gumbel’s text, drawn from her own experience, will bring all of us just a bit closer to understanding. Her words are instructive. She sings, “You are not who they see.” Kander’s lyrical setting imprints Gumbel’s libretto with care. Her work is subtle, complex, and beautiful.

There are few tiresome clichés. The composer does rely on tritones and sigh figures, devices employed judiciously since the Baroque. Tonal references like the falling major triad and auditory symbols like wood blocks mark the kindergarten scene (listed as Bulletin #3), for example. But by and large, the melodic lines are spare and on the mark.

Gumbel’s broad range and wide palette enable her to illuminate Kander’s music with a variety of textures. She makes athletic leaps seem like a breeze. But her melodious voice is at its most captivating without text: her gripping performance of a vocalise mid-way is paramount. Now without a partner, the mother must carry on, put aside her grief and tend to the role of parenting. A change in tempo propels the second half.

The instrumental parts help drive the narrative. New Morse Code players Hannah Collins (cello) and Michael Compitello (percussion) fill in as members of the cast (reading the bulletins, for example). Collins assists with percussion. Together they creatively draw from an amazing number of “tools” and modern technical devices. Compitello, for example, uses the sustain petal of the vibraphone to create a dreamy impression while the mother is deep in thought. Collins underscores the innocence of a twelve year old boy with harmonics in Bulletin #5. But the single caesura (long pause) in Bulletin #6 speaks louder than words. 

There are short moments of comic relief, as when the mother sings a little private blues (“grooving“) and, again, at her impulsive response to good grades, “Let’s get ice cream.” But these episodes are few and short; not enough to override the stress and anxiety produced by the nightmare of daily bulletins.

Gumbel’s singing increases in dynamics and tempo, reflecting the intensity of the mother’s agitation. The recall and variation of “You are not who they see…” reveals her growing fear. Yet she pulls it together, as she must, for a driving lesson. Here, the text flips between a mother’s instructions and her thoughts, the familiar parental monologue; but the whole stands also as a chilling reminder that driving while black is fraught with risk and danger. The final cello lines underscore the angst of a parent who can no longer hold onto her son. “I’ll be waiting for your key in the front door,” she sings. The cellist responds with two consonant notes offering hope.

In sum, this is a strong, sometimes stark and always powerful piece, particularly relevant for the times through which we’re living. Highly recommended!