Mezzo-Soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis Shines in Music@Amherst

Managing Arts & Living Editor Sarah Weiner ’24 reviews the third concert in the 2023-2024 Music@Amherst series, noting the concert’s focus on honoring women musicians.

On the evening of Friday, Feb. 9, the Amherst community flocked to Arms Music Center to hear the incredible vocals of mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis. Bryce-Davis, accompanied by Jeanne-Minette Cilliers on the piano, was the third musician featured in the 2023-2024 Music@Amherst series, and the first of the spring semester.

Bryce-Davis, an accomplished singer at 37 years old, has performed at world-renowned music venues in the United States, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, England, Costa Rica, Germany, Canada, Austria, and Italy. In addition to a similar international concert presence, Cilliers has earned many of her credits composing and collaborating on new scores and serving the music staff of prestigious opera houses. When Bryce-Davis and Cilliers took the stage, their distinguished visages and dress promptly reminded us they are accustomed to playing concert halls much larger than our cozy Buckley Recital Hall. Their clothing donned several sparkling accents reflecting the bright stage lights.

More than their outfits though, their gazes reached far beyond the last row of the hall. As the pair assumed their positions for the first cycle of the evening, “Three Browning Songs, op.44” by Amy Beach, their poise and concentration intimidated the audience. Following the cycle, Bryce-Davis and Cilliers softened, welcoming the audience to the evening of music with humor and warmth.

The evening’s program was in honor of women — particularly the female composers and lyricists who have been forced to cloak their success. Accordingly, the program noted Beach as “the first American woman to achieve widespread professional success as a composer of art music.” On a personal note, Bryce-Davis also dedicated the program to one of her teachers, Thomas Muraco, who passed away a week earlier. Her delightful humor and tenderness came through as she shared an anecdote about Muraco, a professor with high standards who finally gave Bryce-Davis his seal of approval just a few weeks ago.

“Wesendonck-Lieder” followed as the longest cycle of the concert. Though its music is by Richard Wagner, the text of the songs was written by German poet Mathilde Wesendonck, a fact that has been largely obscured. She wrote the text during an affair with Wagner. Bryce-Davis sang the cycle’s five songs with deep attention and extreme expression. I could see her fingertips strain with energy as she moved her entire body to produce her rich noise, but keeping her right hand on the edge of the piano to stay in touch with Cilliers’s part. In the silence just before “Im Treibhaus” (“In the hothouse”), Bryce-Davis’s eyes shifted suddenly to examine her new imagined environment and she swept the back of her hand across her head in the fictional heat. At the end of the cycle, Bryce-Davis and Cilliers left the stage to an uproaring applause which we had patiently waited to bestow on them since the beginning of the cycle.

Normally I wouldn’t care to note an intermission, but in this program the break gave Bryce-Davis and Cilliers the chance to change costumes, prompting delighted reactions when they returned to the stage. With the evening’s theme explicated for us earlier, the new outfits were a clear nod to each artist’s femininity. Cilliers attached a skirt to her pants, and Bryce-Davis replaced her dress with a jacket and fluffy tulle skirt combo. The pieces were designed by Bryce-Davis’s fiance Allan Virgo. Later in the program, Bryce-Davis sang a piece he commissioned for one of his fashion shows.

When Bryce-Davis introduced the second half of the program, she highlighted a conversation she had with her sister that motivated her to look for music written by “my own community,” she said. Thus, she began with three songs by collaborator and pianist Maria Thompson Corley. “I am not an Angry Black Woman,” a short but incredibly dynamic piece, received the most thunderous applause of the evening. As she sang, Bryce-Davis seemed to anticipate the show-stopping nature of this composition, accentuating the text with precise diction and spirited emotion.

The latter half of the program also included “The Crescent Moon” by Florence Price with text by Louise C. Wallace. With a premiere at The Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933, Price was the first African-American woman to have her work performed by a major orchestra. In 2009, a notable collection of Price’s work was discovered, which Cilliers was given access to by a colleague. The files sat unopened on her iPad for years, until the start of the coronavirus pandemic when Cilliers lost motivation to play piano. Price’s pieces lured her back to the piano, and when she played them for the first time, she “cried for three hours,” she told the audience.

The evening ended with a trio of Jamaican folk songs by Peter Ashborne, to honor Bryce-Davis’s culture and both of the musicians’ mothers — their first introductions to music. “No. 3 Banyan Tree” brought out Bryce-Davis’s choreography! Though not codified or harshly pre-mediated, her footwork and gentle arm movements brilliantly and effectively brought us under the banyan tree to “dance around and round.” The program ended with “No. 5 Nobody’s Business” which effectively showcased Bryce-Davis’s theatrical storytelling.

The audience was thrilled to see Bryce-Davis and Cilliers return for an encore and another two bows. It seemed we could have easily sat for a third or even fourth section of the concert; Bryce-Davis and Cilliers delivered performances full of warmth, personality, and skill that were deeply relevant to them and, by the end of the evening, relevant to all of us.

The Music@Amherst series will present three more performances this semester. Reminder: tickets are free for Amherst College students!