Monday, April 26, 2010

Women Composers of America – 28

The title of the December 11, 1909 article taken from the publication Musical America was “Women Composers of America – 28: A Versatile and Productive Muse is Gena Branscombe’s, Whose Songs Celebrities Sing” authored by Stella Reid Crothers. Imagine one hundred one years ago at the age of 28 Gena Branscombe was the featured interview in the prestigious magazine of the music world.

At the time of the article Gena was studying piano and composition in Berlin yet back in America she was being hailed as an accomplished composer of art songs, orchestral and instrumental works. A well-known authority who remained nameless was quoted in the article, “In her brilliant handling of the harmonic material at her command she is ever mindful of the fact that a melody is meant to sing – that it is written for the voice, and that the richest resources a generous fancy and an artistic skill may lavish can never justify the creation of a song that is unvocal in character. A proof of the composer’s nice discrimination in every detail of her art work is in the taste and judgment that mark her selection of the lyrics she has set to music.” Herbert Witherspoon, David Bispham, George Hamlin and Madame Lillian Nordica were a few of the great singers of the era who performed her songs in concert.

Indeed her songs are melodic with an undercurrent of late German romantic harmony bubbling below the singer which dictates the interpretation of the poetry. Complex songs with the attention she gave to tempi and dynamic markings might be called obsessive today yet if the interpreter follows them, her passionate songs come alive and soar.

Being featured and promoted in this magazine while studying abroad helped Gena's career move forward and kept her in the public eye upon her return home. What a fine tribute to a woman composer struggling to get her music heard!
This 101 year old article came to me through EBAY!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

One Page Letter 1944

Dated May the 17th, 1944, Gena Branscombe’s letter to a Mrs. Gladys Ewing Coombes of Forest Hills, New York, written on delicate paper with a New York World-Telegram review of the premiere performance of Gena’s “Coventry’s Choir” at Town Hall lovingly enclosed.

A thank you for a beautiful gift, an enjoyment of “Camellias,” the beautiful Browning medley and the enjoyment of sitting next to Mrs. Coombes at a breakfast all carefully mentioned on one piece of paper. A sliver of a look into the life of Gena Branscombe during World War II.

Once again EBAY brought this beautiful addition to my Gena collection. Now I would like to know, who is Mrs. Gladys Ewing Coombes? How did she and Gena meet? What breakfast did they attend? Maybe this posting will bring an answer to my questions.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

It takes a team to make a one-woman show….…

In the initial stages of my Gena Branscombe project, creative thoughts and plans seemed to come to me like never before in my life. There was finding Gena’s music, researching her life, making the recording and then, one evening I attended an off-Broadway performance of Elizabeth Perry’s one-woman show, “Sunflower.”

I sat in the theatre watching, listening, and enveloped in the life story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. A woman……wife, mother and suffragette activist bar-none and the reason women now have the right to vote. Elizabeth Perry wrote and starred in her own show. Her knowledge of Mrs. Cady Stanton was inspired, her attention to detail in portraying a woman from over 100 years ago - impeccable, and her passionate acting made one feel the very essence of this important historic woman.

Leaving the theatre knowing my future would be telling Gena Branscombe’s life story in a one-woman show, though, mine would include music, I had to figure out how this was going to evolve. I blindly forged ahead.

Dr. Laurine Marlow encouraged me to use her dissertation as an outline of important events, family happenings or quotations I could use. I began my attempt at writing something theatrical…..I had never done this in my life and for someone who finds writing a chore, the task at hand was daunting. An extensive outline emerged with an over-abundance of dry facts, an occasional full scene written though missing was continuity, humorous moments, the where and why the show takes place and most important character development and Gena’s own verbiage.

One evening in the midst of my writing phase, I had dinner with my colleague and friend Norm Carlberg, who at that time was Director of Opera at the Liederkranz Club. I began sharing details of my Gena Branscombe project and particularly the idea of a one-woman show. Without forethought I blurted out, “Will you direct me in this show?” Without hesitation Norm replied, “Yes!”

OK, now I have a director, an offer to premiere the show at the Liederkranz Club, no real polished or finished script and no idea how to get to that point. I sent Norm what I had written and he encouraged me to start cutting down on the facts and write developed scenes. What and How?

My Gena project has always taken care of itself as if Gena were guiding me, her chosen person to tell her story. The right people seemed to appear to steer me - Martin encouraged me, Gena Tenney Phenix told me I was chosen as did Dr. Marlow, Norm now my director and the next person to be added to the list was my former upstairs neighbor and friend, Evan Pappas.

It was through Evan I found my voice teacher, Stephanie Samaras and it was Stephanie who told me to call Evan for writing help. Again, another person without hesitation said,

“Yes!” A Broadway veteran actor, singer, dancer, director - there he was…now my co-author! A real gift to the Gena project.

Months, days and hours Evan and I spent writing, rewriting, creating, uproariously laughing and sweating over this one-woman show. With his intense knowledge of how theatre works, Evan gave dramatic shape to a show that would be a monologue of personal and musical accomplishments, joys and heart break through humorous buttons, an understanding of humanity, the life of an artist and the reason why this show would exist, taken directly from Laurine Marlow’s experience with Gena Branscombe…..a tea party! Gena Branscombe enters the stage ready to have tea with her interviewer of that day, ready to discuss her life and passions, disappoints and humor, and maybe even dance a little jig!

Life! Love! Song! A Visit with Gena Branscombe” came to life with 15 songs interspersed between dialogue, songs that drew from the spoken text for added emotional impact.

Meetings with Norm, Evan and I further honed the show and in March 2004 rehearsals began. Dear me, I had sung my entire career now I would have dialogue that led into song that led into more dialogue. A new adventure for me and one I was excited to tackle. Rehearsals went on as rehearsals do with me floundering for lines, missing the entrances of songs, trying to remember where I was on stage, what my motivation was, Martin playing beautifully and reminding me of musical items and going through all the misgivings we performers have!

I learned that Norm’s way of directing was to give you an outline of staging, a few key words for character then he left you to use your imagination, emotions and intelligence. Phone calls to Norm after rehearsals were similar to the pain of pulling teeth. I would ask what suggestions/criticisms he had and his response would be….”just keep going in the direction you are.” Or maybe….”mumble to yourself a little more” or “don’t worry it’s fine.” We singers are more insecure than that and he knew it. We need to be stroked, yet I learned in his quiet way he was allowing me to grow as an artist …telling me to be stronger and more self sufficient, and watching me grow as a singing actress

Opening night of “Life! Love! Song! A Visit with Gena Branscombe” took place at the Liederkranz Club on April 17, 2004. What a debut it was with a packed audience that included my dear friend Julie, Laurine who flew in from Texas and Gena Branscombe’s grandson Roger Phenix with his wife Joanne. What a thrill! More on Roger’s reactions in the next blog about the show.

A few days after the performance Norm called and said in his low bass voice, “It was really good!” Four simple words……discreet, understated, sincere and filled with pride of our partnership. A more kind and understanding colleague one could not find and as a friend, a blessing to my life. Rehearsals for future performances were to take place in the Fall of 2005 but unfortunately Norm died suddenly that summer. The show continues with the spirit of Norm infused in its original staging. The show must go on…………….

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Festival of Women Composers

Attending the Festival of Women Composers at Indiana University of Pennsylvania for the third time was an experience I shall never forget. Organized by Dr. Susan Wheatley, Dr. Sarah Mantel and their graduate assistant Rachel Hagar, the Festival presents concerts, lectures and presentations on the works of women composers, musicologists and performers both present day and historical.

Several years ago, Dr. Laurine Marlow and I offered a lecture recital on the vocal works and life of Gena Branscombe. This year, I attended as an audience member to take in the wide variety of presentations, to meet new composers and old friends. The Composers-in-Residence were Dr. Deborah Kavasch and Dr. Rosephanye Dunn Powell and Hasu Patel, sitar, was Artist-in-Residence.

From Wednesday, March 17 through Saturday, March 20th the days were filled with music by women. Dr. Kavasch presented a Master Class on extended vocal techniques and then performed a recital of her own works. Hasu Patel gave a lecture presentation on the art of the sitar and tabla then appeared in concert.

Presenters and performers came from universities and colleges across the United States offering music for piano, chamber ensemble, voice, electronic music, instrumental works by composers such as Rebecca Clark, Graznyna Bacewicz, Lili Boulanger, Emma Lou Diemer, Anne Kilstofte, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn and Alma Mahler, Dora Pejacevic, Jennifer Higdon, Elizabeth Bell, Sally Reid, Barbara Harbach and more.

Dr. Katherine Eberle performed her one-woman show “Pauline Viardot: Composer, Singer, and Forgotten Muse.” Katherine and I were classmates at CCM quite a number of years ago and I had the pleasure of introducing her performance. Her concert done in period costume and accompanying herself was enthralling as she spun out the story of Viardot’s life as a much sought after performer, composer and lady of the day. With humor, beautiful singing and poignant acting, Katherine did a great job.

One particular lecture that was of interest “Call Me Dika – Dika Newlin’s Irreverent Influence on 20th Century Music.” I had never heard of this woman and soon learned she was a child genius, child prodigy whose symphonic composition written at age 11 was played by the Cincinnati Symphony. More important she was the last surviving student of Schonberg with whom she studied at a young age. She kept extensive diaries of her times with him. Dika Newlin was composer, performer, teacher and a bridge between eras of our musical heritage and who has been overlooked …. one does wonder why.

Having composers in attendance at your concert to hear their works is a thrill for the composer and a bit unnerving for the performers! Dr. Eleanor Elkins, Dr. Christine Buckstead and Dr. Timothy Bonenfant of Angelo State University in San Angelo, TX presented works by Barbara Harbach, Elizabeth Bell and Deborah Kavasch. The latter two were at the concert and I am sure they were more than pleased with the performances by these three accomplished musicians!

My colleague and friend, Dr. Marlow lectured on “Blacks and Bays: Female Organists in Texas Horse Shows.” Laurine’s love of horses and all activities surrounding that subject came to life when she shared the history of horse shows from the clothing, horse adornments and then the importance of the women organists who play for the shows.

The final concert of the Festival was given by the wind ensemble and chorus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania performing works of women composers including Dr. Kavasch and conducted by guest conductor Dr. Kristin Tjornehoj and four alumna conductors of the University.

Thanks to Dr. Wheatley, Dr. Mantel and Rachel Hagan for an inspiring Ninth Festival of Women Composers. I look forward to attending the Tenth Festival in two years time.