Monday, November 16, 2009

Macon State College

In our crazy and wonderful music business one is never sure where or when our next performance may come to us. We will work diligently to send our publicity packets to the right people, try to market ourselves and network as best as we can. Then, what seems to be out of left field, we will receive a phone call or an e-mail inviting us to perform in a place we had not imagined.

In the early days of my Gena Branscombe project I came across the music of composer Kathleen Lockhart Manning. I considered recording a few of her songs which did not happen, yet I kept her music in mind for future concerts. In November 2008 I was again drawn to Lockhart Manning's music and began an internet search for some of her songs. Up came a website "Lanning not Manning" and to my surprise I found mezzo-soprano Rebecca Lanning was doing a project on Lockhart Manning in the vein of my Gena project. I was thrilled to find someone who had found a woman composer whose life and music needed to be brought forth and Gena and Kathleen were from the same era! How exciting!

I wrote Rebecca an effusive e-mail saying how thrilled I was for her and all she was doing to expose the music and life of Lockhart Manning. Several weeks passed before a return e-mail came and throughout that time I thought I had gone overboard in my enthusiasm and probably scared her off. Really the internet is a wonderful thing but sometimes some weird people contact you!

Rebecca wrote back that she appreciated my e-mail and was glad to find someone else who had a similar project. Thus began our sharing of project information and a friendship. We spoke via old fashioned telephone about her Lockhart Manning project, where she wanted to go and what needed to be done to achieve that.

My Gena project had brought people to me that I could never have imagined and people who gave of themselves willingly to help me fulfill my dream. Now, it was my turn to give back to someone and what a pleasure it was.

During the early Spring 2009, Rebecca called me to say that Macon State College, where she is Associate Professor of Music, had funds to bring in visiting artists. Rebecca invited me to submit my Gena show materials for consideration. What a surprise! About two months later we received word that our proposal was accepted and the funds were available! How exciting.

On November 10, 2009, Martin and I performed Life! Love! Song! A Visit with Gena Branscombe for the students, faculty and visitors at Macon State College. What a warm, attentive and responsive audience we had.

Rebecca Lanning did an outstanding job organizing and producing our performance. Thank you Rebecca for all you did to make our trip and performance possible. We had the privilege of hearing five of Rebecca's students in Master Class. What lovely young people who were prepared and willing to take suggestions.

We are always honored and blessed to have people recommend us for performances and thankful to have the work! Thank you Rebecca for making our stay in Georgia a memorable one!


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

An Art Song Recital

Performing my Gena Branscombe show is always a delight and something I enjoy doing. Yet, there are more facets to music making and I have tried to develop those interests and avenues of performance.

Imagine my surprise this past June when I met Dr. Eleanor Elkins, Assistant Professor of Piano at Angelo State University, who invited me to perform on a recital with her as accompanist and share the the program with the University's trumpet teacher, Dr. John Irish.

A return to something I love to do, perform art songs of various composers with poetry by the great writers, creating a mini drama in three minutes of a song. I love the creative process of finding composers whose songs blend together a story over the evening of a recital.

My usual way of researching is to pull music scores from my personal library, open each book, read through songs, search the poetry for a hint of a theme for the recital. I leave the scores open to songs and scatter them over my living room floor, arranging and rearranging the order of songs. I then omit songs, dig deeper to find another that would be more appropriate and eventually settle on the recital repertoire.
The recital at Angelo State University would be slightly different. Sharing the program with the Dr. Irish, I realized his repertoire would be American composers, Kent Kennan and Leonard Bernstein. Making the recital cohesive was important so American composers it was for me as well.

Immediately I included two melodic and touching songs by Richard Hundley followed by Four Songs of Jean Berger with poetry by Langston Hughes. Berger was German born and immigrated to the United States at the early stages of World War II. He and Langston Hughes met and collaborated on these songs over the telephone. These two great men understood the power of discrimination; Berger, a Jew forced out of Germany and Hughes growing up in the South facing Jim Crowe laws. What a group of Four Songs and a pleasure to cull the depths of their hidden meanings.
I did include five songs of Gena Branscombe, Canadian/American, with poetry by Arthur Stringer, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Gena, Eichendorff (translation by Gena) and Canadian Katherine Hale. What a group.
Dr. Irish suggested we collaborate on at least one if not two pieces. Several years ago I performed Henry Purcell's "Ode on St. Cecilia's Day." There is one of those miracle mezzo arias with two trumpets. This time the mezzo gets to sing with trumpets and not the soprano. There also is a lovely short aria with violins. Well, Purcell is not American but his music is in English!

Not only would Dr. Irish be playing but he invited friends from Oklahoma State University to join us. Included were trumpeter Jonathan Martin, Cellist Meredith Blecha, Laura Talbott, violin and Daniel McCloud, timpani. What a group of wonderful musicians and it was a real kick to perform with them. Thank you for sharing your talents.
Dr. Laurine Elkins Marlow and her husband, Dr. William Marlow drove to San Angelo from College Station to attend the recital. I was able to introduce my friend, Laurine, to the audience and explain that she had worked with Gena Branscombe from 1975-1977.

Now, Dr. Eleanor Elkins! What a pianist, accompanist and musician! It was an absolute pleasure to work with Eleanor. She was prepared, willing to collaborate and unite us as two musicians making music as one. Thank you Eleanor.

In addition while in San Angelo I worked with the Musical Theatre/Opera Workshop students. They were in the process of staging scenes for an upcoming performance. A few days later singers from the two voice studios sang for me and I was able to critique them and add suggestions to their performances. What open, willing and alert singers they are. Thank you for sharing your talents with me.

Every job we get in the music business is a blessing as we are able to share our musical talent with others, grow from the experience, and meet other musicians in this our small world of music. Most important we can say we are working! Thank you Eleanor for this wonderful sharing of music!


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Meet the Family Part II

After finishing my initial phone conversation with Dr. Laurine Elkins-Marlow inspired me to continue my recording work and research into the life of Canadian/American composer Gena Branscombe. I now had a support system which included Gena Branscombe's daughter, Gena Tenney Phenix, and Dr. Marlow who worked with Gena Branscombe. Of course, I must add that my dear husband, Dan, and my wonderful accompanist, Martin, were encouraging me and cheering me on as well. What a team!

In August 2000 I was able to arrange an in-person meeting with Gena Tenney Phenix and her husband Philip. Dan and I traveled to Bridgewater, Virginia where they lived in a retirement community.

I am sure that Mr. & Mrs. Phenix were as apprehensive as Dan and I were. How would this meeting between strangers go? Would conversation flow easily? All our doubts and worries evaporated when we were met at the door by two warm and enthusiastic people. We entered their home and immediately felt part of their lives.

To my surprise and delight, Mrs. Phenix had brought out photos of her mother and family, as well as programs and sheet music. I carefully looked through all of the items noting that one picture of Gena Branscombe conducting her Branscombe Choral looked as if it had been taken at Carnegie Hall. I was quickly told, "No, Dear, Mother's Spring concerts were at Town Hall." I nearly dropped the picture on the floor. For in that picture where Gena Branscombe stood on the Town Hall stage, I had been recording her songs in that very spot. We looked at one another knowing I had been chosen.

Our conversation turned to my interviewing Mr. & Mrs. Phenix about their relationship with Gena Branscombe, mother and mother-in-law. The answers to my questions were filled with pathos, admiration, and love for her as well as honesty about Gena's strength of character and determination. When I asked Mr. Phenix about his father-in-law, John Ferguson Tenney, his response was, "He was a saint!" Mr. Phenix went on to explain that John Tenney was a man ahead of his time, promoting his wife's career, assisting in the production of her concerts, caring for his daughters while his wife worked and maintaining his own career. Mr. Tenney served as editorial assistant and historical advisor for his wife's oratorio, Pilgrim's of Destiny. He reminded me that all this took place in the early part of the 20th century. Nearly unheard of in those days.

Mrs. Phenix, in a clear and succinct manner, drew a verbal picture of her mother as one who also was ahead of her time, a working mother who composed piano works that coincided with her daughter's pianisitic abilities, who held tea parties for them, composing songs and creating plays to be performed by them. A determined and hard working woman who kept her career moving forward until just months before her death in 1977. Deeply involved in promoting American music and in particular, American women composers, she created choral programs for her own women's chorus, The Branscombe Choral, that were 50% American music. For women's and music organizations around the country suggested concert programs were created that were American in accent. Through her speeches she encouraged women to return to music through whatever venue they could for it was through community that the profound message of music would reach people. Gena Branscombe crossed the milkmen's picket line to purchase milk for her daughters explaining to the striking men that the health of her young daughters was at hand! The very essence and spirit of this woman composer was coming to life for me through her own daughter's words.

After nearly an hour and a half our visit was drawing to a close. My husband, Dan, noticed a painting of a young girl on the livingroom wall. Dan called me over to have a closer look at the painting and remarked how much I looked like the young girl. When asked, Mrs Phenix explained that the girl was her younger sister, Betty, who died during the great influenza epidemic of 1919. I looked like her sister. Another connection, unexplainable!

As we prepared to leave, we hugged one another knowing we had become friends for a lifetime, we shared the common bond of promoting Gena Branscombe's music and life, and the spirit of that woman was with us and guiding us. With tears in our eyes we drove off. I turned to look back, Mr. and Mrs. Phenix were waving good-bye. A picture emblazoned in my memory forever.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Meet the Family Branscombe/Tenney/Phenix

As I continued my work recording the songs of Gena Branscombe, it was my desire to meet any surviving members of her family. After reading Dr. Marlow's dissertation I knew two of Miss Branscombe's daughters had died during her lifetime and then, hoping that genetic longevity played a factor, maybe one of the two oldest daughters would be alive.

Gena Branscombe lived from 1881-1977; 96 years! Her eldest daughter Gena Tenney was born in 1910, second daughter Vivian in 1913, daughter Betty was born in 1916 and died in 1919 and fourth daughter Beatrice was born in 1919 and died in 1954. Maybe just maybe, one of those ladies was alive.

In continued research I discovered that Miss Branscombe's music was under copyright. Martin suggested I call ASCAP to inquire if there was someone holding those rights. I called the ASCAP office, inquired about the holder of the rights, there was silence so I asked further, "Would this person be old?" The answer, "Yes, if they are still alive!" From that I knew that one or hopefully both of the two oldest daughters was alive! ASCAP would not give out the name or address of the person.

Following this lead one step further, I wrote a "Dear Family Member" letter explaining the beginnings of my project, how I discovered Gena's music in the New York Public Library, the recording of the songs and my wanting to meet family members. I gave my contact information and asked if they would be so kind as to be in contact with me. I sealed the letter and put it into an envelope addressed to ASCAP asking them to forward it to the copyright holder of Gena Branscombe's music. Then the wait....what seemed to be an interminable wait...

I continued my work at the New York Public Library Special Collections Department looking at every song, looking at her manuscripts and published works. I was in awe of the output of this woman who had composed songs, chamber music, choral works, an opera, instrumental much yet she seemed to be unknown. Studying one of her manuscript orchestral works I put my hands on that paper where her hands had worked and touched those very lines and I said, "Gena, please have your family contact me!" My palms of hand began to tingle. Why is that happening? It had been 10 days since I sent my letter to ASCAP!

At 9:45AM the next day my phone rang, I answered and then a very proper voice on the other end inquired, "Is this Kathleen Shimeta"..."yes"...."This is Gena Tenney Phenix. I am Gena Branscombe's oldest daughter!" My heart began pounding. Mrs. Phenix continued to speak, reassuring me that my recording of her mother's songs was wonderful idea and she approved 100%. Most important she was thrilled I had found her mother's music in the library as it deserved a chance to be heard now. Our conversation flowed easily as if we had known one another all of our lives.

We spoke for 45 minutes on subjects ranging from her family, her sisters, father, her mother's career and her own life. Dr. Vivian Tenney had died in 1989 and she, Gena Tenney Phenix was the sole survivor of her mother. I asked Mrs. Phenix to recall any of her mother's songs that she would like included on the CD and I would gladly record them.

As we finished our conversation she gave me Dr. Laurine Elkins Marlow's phone number. Mrs. Phenix had been with Dr. Marlow as she interviewed her mother, Gena Branscombe, for her dissertation. She spoke highly of Dr. Marlow and told me it was an absolute must for me to be in touch with her. Finally, I had a contact number for Dr. Marlow. I had read her dissertation and had not gotten around to finding her.

As we began our goodbyes, Mrs. Phenix said to me, "I know my mother is looking down on you, pleased that you found her music. You were chosen by mother to do this work!" I was speechless as I hung up the phone. Me speechless.....

Moments later I picked up the phone and dialed Dr. Marlow. A sweet voice answered and I asked for Dr. Marlow...response...."speaking." I explained who I was, Gena Tenney Phenix had given me her number, then all the details of my finding the music, the beginning of the recording and my continuing work on the collection in the library. There was dead silence.... my heart skipped a beat, then I thought "darn, someone else beat me to this collection and has already completed a CD"....when Dr. Marlow said, "I've been waiting for someone to find that collection!" I nearly jumped for joy.

From Dr. Marlow I learned that when Gena Branscombe died, she went to the apartment where for 18 months she had interviewed Miss Branscombe and had begun the work on her dissertation. There amidst the piles of music, articles and books piled under the piano, on the piano, on tables and chairs, Dr. Marlow began the work of organizing all the manuscripts and published works, recordings and programs. She put them in alphabetical order and then began the process of typing, yes typing a catalogue list of each work. This is tedious work especially organizing works of a composer.
Gena had written multiple manuscripts of any given work, changing the instrumentation whether for full orchestra, then chamber orchestra, or piano with several instruments. Her choral works would be written for women's chorus, then 4 part men's chorus or SATB. Each piece was a separate entry.

When Dr. Marlow completed her cataloguing, she, Gena Tenney Phenix and Dr. Vivian Tenney donated the collection to the New York Public Library Special Collections department.

As Laurine and I completed our one hour conversation, she said to me, "You were chosen for this work!" Twice in two hours I was told I was chosen.
My first contact with Gena Branscombe's daughter, Gena Tenney Phenix and Dr. Laurine Elkins Marlow was now the beginning of our work together. Part II.....of Meet the Family will come in a few days. Thank you Gena Branscombe!


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

We're Making a CD

With Martin's encouragement we used David Smith as our sound engineer and guide during the recording process. What a process it is. So technical, the lack of an audience for whom you perform, take after take because the piano bench squeaked or I sang a wrong note or something else went wrong. This is followed by the pain of editing; listening to yourself, Martin's playing then the combination of Martin's work and mine to find the best take to wed together with a few previous measures. A painful process indeed.
Finally with five good songs knitted together, I applied to several labels asking that they pick up this Gena Branscombe recording for its unique qualities and its importance to American music especially American women composers. Albany Records picked us up! How thrilled we were!

Not only were there Gena's beautiful, melodic songs, but Martin agreed to play four of Gena's piano works. These charming pieces were written for her daughters at their various stages of piano lessons. Martin's playing.....simply exquisite!

Our CD was released in November 2003....Ah! Love, I Shall Find Thee: Songs of Gena Branscombe on the Albany Records label....Troy #599. Available on my website


Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Journey Begins

An art song recital for Valentine's Day, it should be fairly easy to find repertoire to fill out a program. My thought.....what is the greatest love story in the literary world? Why that would be Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. Is there a a woman composer who set Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem, How Do I Love Thee? Two women-in-music reference books listed Gena Branscombe's settings of six of the Sonnets from the Portuguese as fine pieces of music. Her setting of How Do I Love Thee? was noted as being one of the best of her era. A small music publisher in Texas had reissued the song cycle, Love in a Life, which included the song I wanted. Who is this woman and why am I now being drawn to her music?

When the music arrived I took it to my accompanist Martin Hennessy. His immediate reaction was, "You must record these songs. And, who is she? She composes beautifully." Thus began my journey.

Several trips to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center provided me with more information. There was a doctoral dissertation written about Miss Branscombe and the author, Dr. Laurine Elkins Marlow, worked with Gena for 18 months before her death gathering all the necessary information. I found that nearly all of Miss Branscombe's original manuscripts and published works were held in the Special Collections Department. There were 150 art songs, instrumental works, piano pieces, chamber music, an oratorio, unfinished opera and choral music. A true treasure trove of music to be explored and reintroduced to people.
Reading through her songs, Martin and I began to choose those we thought would be the best representation of Miss Branscombe's art songs and piano works. We were going to record a CD....something I never thought I would do!


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I'm up and running in the 21st century

Today, I have entered the 21st century technical world. I am officially on Facebook and have this blog. How exciting is that! More to come in the next few days. How exciting!


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Three simple measures -- an original piece of manuscript -- her signature. What a find! A collector's item for sale on e-bay and I must own it. This is one of the first two Branscombe songs I learned in 2000 and it is the opening song on my CD, "Ah! Love, I Shall Find Thee: Songs of Gena Branscombe." Serenade is sung in my one-woman show, "Life! Love! Song! A Visit with Gena Branscombe."
My performing career expanded from art song recitals, contemporary music and oratorio to performing the music of this lovely woman composer , famous in her day. After her death her music and original manuscripts were held in boxes at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts until I discovered them and thus began my journey!