No less impressive with her rich, variegated sound, Williams on this outing at the American Philosophical Society took some chances. She premiered a work written for her, danced in another, and, with the excellent pianist Laurent Philippe, ended up forming a portrait of song as social conscience.
In a program note, Williams said she set out to "be a voice for the voiceless, hope for the hopeless, strength for the weakened." It was a tall order, but by looking back through today's woke lens at repertoire old and new, Williams managed a sweet spot that's hard to hit — frankness without growing preachy or gloomy.
Ravel's Chansons madécasses has long had the admiration of harmonic progressives, but in the larger context of this program, the human toll of colonialism and exploitation emerges viscerally and with great immediacy through the composer's bleak dissonance. "Awa! Do not trust the white men, you shore-dwellers," opens the third song. Performed here just with piano rather than a chamber group, Williams searched for meaning through the use of her finely calibrated technique, finding pain in various grades.
She uncovered melancholy in Felipe Hostins' Meu Brasil de Cristal (Chrystal), conceived through Astral's micro-commissioning program and being given its premiere. It was one of those pieces that in its writing already knew the performers. Hostins himself played the accordion, but the part he wrote for Williams was no less suited to her particular qualities. The piece is about the ability of a people to carry on with a smile through horrible circumstances, Hostins told the audience vaguely, and the text both weeps and fights the good fight. Hostins had an entire orchestra in his accordion. He asked of Williams both bel canto agility and low-register digs into sorrow, and she carried it beautifully.
She moved closer to home in the second half with works by African American composers. Williams danced and gestured while Philippe played "Troubled Water" from Margaret Bonds' A Woman's Perspective, and then she sang "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" from the same set. She had an easy, informal way with three selections from Night Songs by H. Leslie Adams. She closed with three spirituals of Harry T. Burleigh. Williams is adept at bending her sound and expressive tools to suit the material — a breathiness for a split second here, a quick ornament there. What's just as impressive, though, is the way she does so while putting forth a strong sense of personality.
When you think of what makes singers memorable, it's this idea of personalizing the material. Williams has it, and next time no doubt she'll take it somewhere else we didn't expect.