Will Liverman 'Dreams Of A New Day' For Black Composers

Feb 9, 2021
Originally published on February 10, 2021 1:03 am

Will Liverman is a young baritone and a new, exciting voice in the opera world. He is also on something of a mission.

In school, the artist was rarely introduced to Black composers. It was a cumulative interest, patched together by YouTube clips and introductions from colleagues. Now, he wants to expose listeners to music that he feels doesn't get programmed enough in concert halls or receive enough airplay on classical radio stations.

Liverman's new album, Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers, is "a collection of just some of the pieces that I was really drawn to, and to highlight black composers who are significant," he says. "And, of course ... I'm a big believer and supporter of new works in the classical field." One of the pieces featured is Two Black Churches, which Liverman commissioned from composer Shawn Okpebholo.

Will Liverman spoke with NPR's Noel King about getting into opera at 13 years old, the pioneering composer and singer Henry Burleigh and the story behind Two Black Churches. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Noel King: I want to ask you about something you wrote in the liner notes. You write, "Black composers wrote so much more than just spirituals." My immediate reaction was: "Well, of course that's the case!" But you thought that bears repeating. Why is that?

Will Liverman: There's so much great music that Black composers have written in the past, and I don't think it gets enough respect and enough of a platform. Growing up, at least in my experience, we honor and celebrate Black composers for their works and contributions to Negro spirituals in the classical field, but I don't really hear so much, you know, art songs or orchestral arrangements or pieces or choral works. There's just so much they've done.

This project has been on my mind for a while. I started singing opera at age 13, when I was in the Governor's School in high school. I didn't really hear so many works by Black composers. So this album was just very important to highlight that and to leave something behind for people to listen to and get to know these composers and research them. It's a true labor of love.

I want to ask you about Two Black Churches. The words in this work are by Charleston's former poet laureate Marcus Amaker. What goes through your mind when you're singing that piece? Please, if you would, tell us: What is it about?

My dad grew up in Virginia and he would tell me stories of his time growing up in the South and growing up with "coloreds and whites" and having to be escorted to the back of the bus. That just sent me down this path of looking through Civil Rights things. And I ran across this poem called "Ballad of Birmingham," which talks about the Birmingham bombing from the perspective of one of the girls, who wants to go out and march and fight for justice and equality. But her mom keeps telling her, "No it's too dangerous. Go to church instead and sing in the choir where it's safe." And of course, in the end, it isn't safe. And I asked Shawn to set music to it. And he had the idea to, sort of, do a parallel of the Birmingham bombing to the Charleston shooting — to just show how much we still go through as Black people and still fighting for justice, still having to deal with white supremacy and the hatred.

And it struck me so hard because I grew up with a heavy church background. It's something that's just so personal to me because I think about my own church family and if something like that were to happen, or if I was a victim — just going out to church on a Tuesday night and you think you're safe. It's a place of peace and comfort. It's just so devastating.

Let me ask you about some of the older compositions on Dreams of A New Day, by a composer named Henry Burleigh. Who was Henry Burleigh and how did he end up on this album?

The way that he set Negro Spirituals in a classical way gave Black classical singers a platform to have solo recitals and solo careers. He just did so much for the culture and so much for Black classical music. But he also wrote a lot of great songs, so I definitely had to have him on the album, his song cycle, Five Songs of Laurence Hope.

People were really drawn to his works. One particular composer: [Antonin] Dvorak. He's a very prominent composer. He's done a lot of great orchestral works. And Dvorak and Burleigh met in New York. Henry Burleigh introduced Dvorak to spirituals and Black music, which then influenced Dvorak's writing. So, it's just little things like that I want to bring to the forefront — that these Black composers really did a lot. It goes overlooked.

Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers
Courtesy of Cedille Records

When I was a kid and my dad wanted to punish us, he would make us sit in the corner and listen to Dvorak. We weren't allowed to read or write. And so, I had no idea that he and Henry Burleigh were contemporaries. That's so interesting. I want to talk about another pairing that I found really fascinating. Another composer you feature on the album: Margaret Bonds. She was a contemporary of the poet Langston Hughes, and they actually worked together on a few pieces.

Yeah, they had a fantastic relationship. Margaret Bonds, being a female composer, one of the first to receive national recognition for her works. She did a lot with her drive and dedication to civil rights and making change. Having "Three Dream Portraits," written by Langston Hughes, was something that was just undeniable to have on this album. And it also kind of ties into Two Black Churches. The Margaret Bonds "Portraits" are about the Black experience in America. And it's still relevant to today.

You've made me very curious. Tell me about being a 13-year-old boy who sings opera. Were you considered a strange child?

Look, my parents were like, "Opera? What's going on?" I grew up with a big, heavy gospel background. I didn't know anything about opera. And I grew up with piano as well. It wasn't until I got to high school, I auditioned for this program — for piano originally. But I also sang in choir and stuff, so I did voice as well. And I got accepted into the voice program. And I didn't know what this program was at the time. I thought it was going to be, like, R&B ... where we learn mainstream songs. And I look on the list and the audition is, like, "Sing one Italian art song." Or, like, "the national anthem." And I'm, like, Italian?! I don't know Italian from French, from gibberish from — so, I sang the national anthem and I got in. And that was that. That was the start of my classical journey. People always wonder — what kind of like X-Men art school did you go to?!

How would you feel about white singers performing the music of Black composers? Are we at that point yet?

I think so. Maybe not the spirituals because of the significance and the history behind that, but definitely Black art song. I think this is what makes it normal, right? This is how we make it something that's not, like, "Oh, let's make a concert featuring Black composers!" No, let's put these Black composers in concerts at Carnegie [Hall] and let's make it something that people are used to seeing, just as they're used to seeing Schubert and Mozart. Let's see Burleigh. Let's see Margaret Bonds. And so I think these works that these Black composers have done, it is music that everyone should be singing.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORTAL STORM, OP. 29 - V. GENIUS CHILD")

WILL LIVERMAN: (Singing) This is the song for the genius child. Sing it softly, for the song is wild.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Will Liverman is a young baritone with a mission. He wants to expose listeners to music that he thinks doesn't get programmed enough in concert halls or on classical radio stations. His new album is called "Dreams Of A New Day: Songs By Black Composers."

LIVERMAN: In school, I never was really taught a lot about these composers. It's just from all experience and listening to these composers along the way, whether it's something on YouTube or a colleague that sang a piece that I really liked. So it really is to highlight Black composers who are significant. And, you know, I'm a big believer and supporter of new works in the classical field, so I commissioned Shawn Okpedbholo to do "Two Black Churches."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO BLACK CHURCHES - I. BALLAD OF BIRMINGHAM")

LIVERMAN: (Singing) Mother dear, she asks, may I go downtown instead of out to play and march the streets of Birmingham in a freedom march - freedom march.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about "Two Black Churches." I'm glad you you brought it up. Please, if you would, tell us - what is it about?

LIVERMAN: My dad, you know, he grew up in Virginia. And he would tell me stories of, you know, his time growing up in the South and growing up with coloreds and whites and having to be escorted to the back of the bus. And that just sent me down this path of looking through civil rights things, and I ran across this poem called "Ballad Of Birmingham," which talks about the Birmingham bombing from the perspective of one of the girls who wants to, you know, go out and march and fight for justice and equality, but her mom keeps telling her, no, you know, it's too dangerous; go to church instead and sing in the choir, where it's safe. And of course, in the end, it isn't safe.

And I asked Shawn to set music to it, and then he had the idea to sort of do a parallel of the Birmingham bombing to the Charleston shooting to just show how much we still go through as Black people and still fighting for justice, still having to deal with white supremacy and the hatred.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO BLACK CHURCHES - II. THE RAIN")

LIVERMAN: (Singing) No, you are. And I am in church (ph).

And it struck me so hard because I grew up with a heavy church background. It's something that's just so personal to me because I think about my own church family and if something like that were to happen, or if I was a victim - just going out to church on a Tuesday night and you think you're safe. It's, you know, a place of peace and comfort. It's just so devastating.

MARTIN: Let me ask you about some of the older compositions on "Dreams Of A New Day," by a composer named Henry Burleigh. Who is Henry Burleigh, and how did he end up on this album?

LIVERMAN: The way that he set Negro spirituals in a classical way gave Black classical singers a platform to, you know, have solo recitals and solo careers. And he just did so much for the culture and so much for Black classical music. But he also wrote a lot of great songs, so I definitely had to have his song cycle, "Five Songs Of Laurence Hope."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIVE SONGS OF LAURENCE HOPE - I. WORTH WHILE")

LIVERMAN: (Singing) Wouldst thou rather - wouldst thou rather never have met the one whom thou lovedst beyond control and whom thou adorest yet?

Dvorak, you know, he's a very prominent composer who's done a lot of great orchestral works. And Dvorak and Burleigh met in New York. Henry Burleigh introduced Dvorak to spirituals and Black music, which then influenced Dvorak's writing. So it's just, you know, little things like that that I want to bring to the forefront, that these Black composers really did a lot.

MARTIN: When I was a kid and my dad wanted to punish us, he would make us sit in the corner and listen to Dvorak. Like, we weren't allowed to read or...

(LAUGHTER)

LIVERMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And so I had no idea that he and Henry Burleigh were contemporaries. That's so interesting.

LIVERMAN: Yeah, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIVE SONGS OF LAURENCE HOPE - I. WORTH WHILE")

LIVERMAN: (Singing) ...We have known.

This project was a true labor of love. I mean, I started singing opera at age 13, when I was in the Governor's School in high school.

MARTIN: Whoa.

LIVERMAN: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah. And I just don't really hear so many works by Black composers. So this album was - is just very important to have something behind for people to listen to and get to know these composers and research them.

MARTIN: You've made me very curious. Tell me about being a 13-year-old boy who sings opera. Were you considered a strange child?

(LAUGHTER)

LIVERMAN: Look - my parents were like, opera? What's going on, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

LIVERMAN: That program in Norfolk, Va., Governor's School for the Arts - shout out to Virginia Beach and Norfolk - I grew up with a big, heavy gospel background. I didn't know anything about opera. And I grew up with piano as well. It wasn't until I got to high school, I auditioned for this program. And I didn't know what this program was at the time. I thought it was going to be, like, a R&B, you know...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

LIVERMAN: ...Sort of school, where we learn, like, mainstream songs. And I look on the list, and the audition is, like, sing one Italian art song or, like, the national anthem or...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

LIVERMAN: I'm like, Italian? I don't know Italian from French from gibberish from, you know - so I sang the national anthem, and I got in. And that was that. That was the start of my classical journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE DREAM PORTRAITS - II. DREAM VARIATION")

LIVERMAN: (Singing) To fling my arms wide in the face of the sun - dance, whirl, whirl - till the quick day is done.

MARTIN: Will Liverman - his new album is called "Dreams Of A New Day: Songs By Black Composers." It's coming out on Friday. Will, this was a real joy. Thank you so much.

LIVERMAN: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILL LIVERMAN SONG, "THREE DREAM PORTRAITS. - II. DREAM VARIATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.