Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Guardian Angels

During the past year I have lost two dear friends….both part of my cheering section during the development of my Gena Project, the recording of my CD and my one-woman show.

Loss is always a difficult item for us to face. As children we are invincible, as teenagers infallible, as young adults we know we have years to accomplish what we want – the world is ours on a silver platter. The years fly by and slowly we have reached the age where we notice those few lines on our faces, our bodies have those creaks and pains and then a stark reality, a dear friend dies. What happened to our invincibility, infallibility and the abundant years?

So, I have faced this kind of loss not just once but recently, twice. Two lovely, strong women, individuals in their own right, supporters of the arts and music, and people whose footprints will forever be on my heart.

I met Millie McGonagle while I was a student at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. She attended student recitals and opera productions encouraging all of us to keep up our studies.

After I left Minnesota to attend graduate school, Millie would write asking me to keep her informed of my performances and auditions. When I returned home we would meet for lunch to discuss my career or concerts and operas we had attended. We always had a great time laughing and enjoying one another’s company.

When I shared with Millie my having found the music of Gena Branscombe and the recording of a CD, her enthusiasm was infectious. She cheered me on. Her Christmas cards arrived with questions as to how the entire project was going. Our infrequent phone conversations were filled with our passion for classical music and the continuance of our sweet friendship.

A trained pianist and at one time a music teacher, Millie was a big fan of the Metropolitan Opera’s Spring Tour to Minneapolis where she attended all seven operas presented. She supported the Minnesota Orchestra’s concerts performed at nearby St. Benedict’s College.

Millie passed away on June 6, 2010. A dear person, gracious, elegant, humor-filled and one whose enthusiasm reached the level of guardian angel for many a young singer. Millie you are missed. Knowing her as I did, it is my belief she is still watching over each and every one of us. Thank you for deeply touching my life.

My dear friend Kathy Neeb died on April 18, 2009. Acquaintances since High School and dear friends from our days as music majors at St. Cloud State, eventually Kathy went on to become a registered nurse and a published author of a textbook on Fundamentals of Mental Health Nursing. Impressive, indeed! She remained a choir singer and a big fan of classical music.

Through thick and thin Kathy stuck by me as a friend. She waved goodbye as I left Minnesota to attend graduate school and then on to New York City. She called or wrote to discuss what was up with my career. Her ability to be my friend through my own personal difficult times reached depths I was unable to accept or comprehend yet there she was with a smile, a hug, her quick cackling laugh and forgiveness. A down-home, no-nonsense person she was!

Kathy was the first of my friends with whom I shared the idea that I might take on my Gena project. This unusual music I found….no one had performed it, maybe a CD and all the other items that came my way during my project found Kathy’s enthusiasm and cheering almost deafening. She kept telling me to follow my instincts, follow the road that was ahead of me and her advice on how I might proceed, was wisdom filled.

She was unable to travel to New York for the premiere of “Life! Love! Song! A Visit with Gena Branscombe.” Though her physical presence was not there, her heart and spirit were with me.

December 27, 2008 I called to wish Kathy a Belated Happy Birthday when she told me she was not feeling well. A few weeks later Kathy was still under the weather and at the end of January 2009 saw a doctor. Early February 2009 she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Devastating news! Yet true to her indomitable spirit she fought as hard as any person could possibly fight. Her family surrounded her with support, research for cancer treatments and trips to Chicago for the best care possible. She lost her battle.

Two great women….now my personal guardian angels. Thank you for sharing your lives with the music world. You are missed.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Phenix Family

Each day that I add another posting to my blog I realize how fortunate I am to have created and developed a project about a woman composer. As I write my story I often wonder if my readers think my narrative sounds like a fairy tale filled with unbelievable happenings and magical coincidences.

My mission was to put forth Gena Branscombe’s music through the recording of her songs and piano works, then tell her life’s story in a one-woman show. This undertaking took countless hours of research at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, innumerable hours learning, practicing and rehearsing songs for recording sessions. I could go on about the myriad of details that made this all happen, yet each second of it was and is a joy for me.

One of the greatest blessings of my Gena Branscombe Project was meeting Gena Branscombe’s eldest daughter, Gena Tenney Phenix, her husband, Philip, and their two sons Roger and Morgan Scott. From the first day Gena Phenix and I spoke by telephone in 2000, I have had the continued support of the family. Generous with sharing stories, pictures, letters, music and photos of their beloved family member, they continue to be open hearted and appreciative of my dedicated work.
For the opening night of “Life! Love! Song! A Visit with Gena Branscombe” it was my hope that Gena Phenix, Roger, Morgan Scott and their families would be able to attend. In her advanced years Gena Phenix had become frail and was unable to make the trip from her home in Virginia where she lived with Morgan and his family.

Roger Phenix and his lovely wife, Joanne, attended that first performance. What a thrill it was for me knowing they were in the audience watching as Roger’s grandmother came to life on the stage. At the curtain call and to the surprise of the audience I introduced Roger as Gena Branscombe’s grandson. The post performance reception found him surrounded by audience members peppering him with questions about his grandmother.

Pictures were taken of Roger, Laurine, Martin and me. Roger’s reaction to the overall performance was touching. First, the set reminded him of his grandmother’s living room. Was the tea set I used hers? Then, he told me there were times during the performance that I looked and sounded just like his grandmother. What better compliment could there have been?

In the ensuing years by telephone I spoke to Gena Tenney Phenix often asking additional questions about her mother, trying to dig deeper into what drove her mother’s life. On occasion Gena Phenix would call me to thank me for bringing her mother’s life and music into the 21st century. Roger and Morgan have offered their stories of their Grandmother. Roger, being the family historian, has shared items from the family archives. I will never forget Morgan’s call when his mother passed away three years ago. Roger and Morgan continue the example set by their grandmother and parents of being an open hearted family!

Roger and Joanne attended the weekend celebration of Gena Branscombe’s music at the 2009 Festival of Women Composers in Hartford, Connecticut. Following my performance there was a “talk back” where I was surprised Roger had a question. “How is it that you never met my Grandmother and yet, you portray her completely?”

Thank you to the Phenix family for opening your hearts to me.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

One More Branscombe Choral Member Comes Forward

One More Member Comes Forward!

Just when a person needs a small pick-me-up in life, something happens to put a smile on your face. In my e-mail today came the following message from a former Branscombe Choral member. Diane sang one concert with the Choral in Spring 1948. Look at the memory she has of that one concert!

“Yes, I sang with the Branscombe Corale in the 40's. I remember the concert in Town Hall. I sang solo with them. I can't remember the name of the number. I do remember Gena in a red velvet gown with open back and a big bow. She always conducted her music from memory. That was a long time ago and I do not remember all the details. I know I'm on the photo of the group. We've all changed and the photo is not too clear.Just thought I'd let you know. As I am 85 years old, I'm not too sure how many of us are still walking the earth!

All the best with your search.

Diane N………..”

I responded to Diane asking many questions and thanking her for contacting me. I gave her a brief recounting of my connection with three other members. Here’s to hoping that more members come forward.