Morris Robinson in recital at the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, June 18, 2024. (credit: Fort Worth Opera / Forever Photography)

A bass like no other: Morris Robinson closes Fort Worth Opera season with a memorable recital

CONCERT REVIEW:
Morris Robinson
June 18, 2024
Fort Worth Opera
Kimball Art Museum
Fort Worth, TX – USA
Morris Robinson, bass; Caren Levine, piano.
Wongang Amadeus MOZART: “Mentre ti lascio, o figlia”
Hugo WOLF: “Wohl denktbich oft” from Drei Michelangelo Lieder 
Hugo WOLF: “Alles endet” from Drei Michelangelo Lieder 
Giuseppe VERDI: “Il lacetrato spirito” from Simon Boccanegra
Rchard WAGNER: “Mogst du mein kind” from The Flying Dutchman
Giuseppe VERDI: “Come dalciel precipita” from Macbeth
Leonard BERNSTEIN: “Greeting”
Leslie ADAMS: “For you there is no song”
Florence PRICE: “Song to the Dark Virgin”
Margaret BONDS: “Dream Variation”
Margaret BONDS: “I, too”
Wendell WHALUM: “God is a God”
Wendell WHALUM: “Sweet Jesus”
TRADITIONAL/arr. Caren Levine: “Go Tell It on the Mountain”
TRADITIONAL/arr. Caren Levine: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
Jerome KERN: “Old Man River”

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs | 25 JUN 2024

The Fort Worth Opera ended its 2023/24 season by presenting a big-name opera star in recital in the concert hall of the Kimball Art Museum. Actually, Morris DeRhon Robinson is a double big name.

Many opera performers held a variety of  “day jobs,” related or not,  on the way to the Met stage. (Actually, one might be able to create a fascinating story on that subject.} But Robinson’s pre-opera day job brought him to the level of international acclaim that few, if any, could ever achieve. While being a 2022 Grammy® Award winner is nice, how can that compare with being a swoon-worthy All-American college football star?

Well, being born and raised in Atlanta and being the son of a Baptist minister, singing in church was just what everyone did. Singing professionally, let alone opera, was hardly a consideration. But his voice always marked him as special: dark, lustrous, flexible, focused, immense, and backed by intelligence and a gift for phasing.


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But college football also issued a clarion call, and so did The Citadel, a military college in Charleston, South Carolina. He was offered a scholarship and a spot as an offensive lineman. Who could resist? It was there that he was voted 1-AA All-American offensive lineman – not just once, but three times.

However, hard as it is to believe when you are dwarfed standing next to him, he was too small to qualify for the NFL.

In an interview on February 3, 2016, with Karen Grisby Bates for NPR’s Morning Edition, he said: “At 6 feet 2-1/2 inches, 290 pounds, I’d be blocking someone 6 feet 6 inches, 300 pounds,” he says. “Would somebody pay me millions of dollars to protect their quarterback? Probably not.”

Morris Robinson in recital at the Kimball Art Museum in  Fort Worth, Texas, June 18, 2024. (credit: Fort Worth Opera / Forever Photography)

Morris Robinson in recital at the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, June 18, 2024. (credit: Fort Worth Opera / Forever Photography)

But the Boston Lyric Opera had no such restrictions. He debuted with them in the role of the king in Aida and never looked back. (By the way, that Aida was also the first opera he ever experienced – and he was in it.)

While he opened this wide-ranging recital with some opera and art songs, for the second half of the concert, he honored the coinciding Juneteenth celebrations with songs by black composers as well as traditional spirituals in creative jazz-influenced arrangements.  Robinson was accompanied by the diminutive pianist and long-time collaborator Caren Levine.  She dazzled us with her sensitive musical connection with Robinson and tossed off the virtuosic piano parts with aplomb.

The program began with something you rarely hear, an aria by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart written for concert performance titled “Mentre ti lascio, o figlia” (“While I leave you, O daughter”). The pathos-filled text was lifted from another opera by Paisiello, and Mozart set it for his friend Gottfried von Jacquin.


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This was our first exposure to Robinson’s Brobdingnagian and beautifully burnished voice. But wisely, he kept the intrinsic doleful nature in Mozartian scale rather than full-blown romantic grief.

He followed this up with a set of songs by Hugo Wolf, rarely heard in concert except on graduate recitals. Drei Lieder nach Gedichten von Michelangelo (“Three Poems by Michelangelo”). Considering Michelangelo’s overwhelming and astounding artistic accomplishments, his poetry feels like an afterthought. But once again, Robinson plumbed the depths of these profound meditations on love, God, fame, and posterity.

Two arias from Giuseppe Verdi’s operas ended the program’s first half.  Robinson sang them with some restraint, as befits a recital format versus a full production. But there was no mistaking the sentiments expressed. The first, “Il lacerato spirito” from Simon Boccanegra, is full of anger, rage, blasphemy, and repentance. The other was “Come dal ciel precipita” from Verdi’s Macbeth, sung by Banco, a general in the army of King Duncan of Scotland. This aria is full of forbidding and fear of what terrors Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan will rain down on all of them.

l-r: pianist Caren Levine and bass Morris Robinson performing at the Kimball Art Museum in  Fort Worth, Texas, June 18, 2024. (credit: Fort Worth Opera / Forever Photography)

l-r: pianist Caren Levine and bass Morris Robinson performing at the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, June 18, 2024. (credit: Fort Worth Opera / Forever Photography)

The second half was lighter and featured works by mostly black composers. However, Morison started out a song by Leonard Bernstein: “Greeting,” from Arias and Barcarolles. This work exists in a number of formats, from a few songs for singers and piano, to a huge version for full orchestra that includes some of his other works.  Robinson brought some welcome lightness with this song that the composer wrote celebrating the birth of one of his children.

Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) was one of the first black composers to gain recognition  – and a woman as well. This combination kept her from the fame she deserved. Robinson sang two songs from her brief cycle based on poems of Langston Hughes’ texts from his collection The Dream Keeper.

We heard “For You There is No Song.” It is the third song of H. Leslie Adams’ song cycle, Five Edna St. Vincent Millay Songs. It is morose and speaks of tears falling on her writing page.


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The poetry of Langston Hughes reappeared in Florence Price’s setting of his “Songs to the Dark Virgin.” The texts come from his 1926 volume, The Weary Blues. Although the title suggests more than one song, the three stanzas merge into just one. Price, although still in the weeds of fame, is the first black composer (also a female) to become known for her symphonic works.

After that, we got to the promised spirituals. We heard “Sweet Jesus” and “God is a God”. These were in dynamite arrangements by Wendell Whalum (1931-1987), a celebrated black composer, organist, choral conductor, pianist, and arranger. The piano parts in these selections were wildly virtuosic, and Levine took full advantage of the opportunity they presented. After that, we heard two familiar spirituals that Levin herself arranged with equal élan: “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

Early in his career, Robinson refused to sing “Ol’ Man River” because he felt it was “expected” from a black man with a glorious bass voice. Later, after he actually sang the role, he gave in to audience demands. He closed this program with it. It was worth the wait. Robinson sang without adding musical comment, letting the song’s weariness and hopelessness speak for itself.

In fact, that was his approach to everything in the program. He never editorialized or added a personal dramatic overlay to any of the selections he presented. He let the music speak for itself, and the result was magical.

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About the author:
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs is a Dallas-based composer, conductor, and journalist. He is also a coach and teacher with a private studio.

Read more by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs.
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