Thursday, July 29, 2010


Twenty years of collaboration….how does one write about those twenty years without sounding sentimental, saccharin and overly emotional? My job now is putting into words what it has been like to have an accompanist, collaborator, cheerleader and dear friend named Martin Hennessy.

“Concerts to Go” was a program sponsored by the music series at Trinity Church in New York City. With a baritone friend, Martin and me, we traveled subways and buses to perform opera arias, duets and show tunes in nursing homes throughout the five boroughs. Touching these elderly people’s lives with the gift of music and watching the smiles on their faces was a reward beyond what words can express.

Martin became my coach and accompanist from that original collaboration. Over the past twenty years we have prepared and performed countless recital programs. He has helped me learn oratorios that I have sung from New York to Maine. He knew which of my buttons to push to make me reach deeper inside myself allowing me to find ways to express the music and words in a more profound way. His knowledge and ability to teach musical style and languages are a singer’s dream of an accompanist!

Then, ten years ago I came to Martin with the first songs of Gena Branscombe’s that I had found. We read through the songs and immediately Martin said, “Who is this woman?” and “You need to record these songs.”

Truthfully, if it had not been for Martin’s encouragement I doubt I would have begun work on Gena’s music. He seemed to know that this project would change my career and give me a direction to use all of my creative abilities from researching, preparing and recording music, the business aspects of promotion for such a project, to writing and performing a one-woman show. Yes, Martin knew, encouraged and cheered me on. He had a vision of the dress I would wear for the CD cover pictures and was able to describe it in great detail long before the dress became a reality. Yes, he knew!

As I discovered that Gena wrote 150 art songs and a multitude of piano works, the whittling down of repertoire for the CD became important. With Martin’s help we made artistic decisions as to which songs would create a complete picture of Gena’s stylistic output. Martin offered to record four of the piano works written for Gena’s daughters. To sit back in the recording session and experience the heart and beauty of his playing touched my soul. Listen to the CD and you will understand.

Martin had previously recorded at Town Hall and recommended we record there using David Smith as our sound engineer. Recording is an animal in and of itself yet with Martin’s support and David’s expertise we produced a beautiful homage to the music of Gena Branscombe. During sessions though we were concentrated on doing a good job, Martin managed always to see the bright side and kept us laughing at our mistakes. We did need to lighten our attitudes even in the midst of intense work.

Albany Records picked up our recording for publishing and distribution. We were honored. Our CD, “Ah! Love, I Shall Find Thee: Songs of Gena Branscombe” was released late 2003 and signaled the beginning of our work on the one-woman show.

There was Martin encouraging me to continue down an unknown creative pathway. He carefully nudged me on to build a complete woman’s music project. He gave me strength and courage to face it all. Where does this incredible man find the depth of spirit to shout his approval of a woman composer from the past and a female singer fashioning a whole new world of women’s music for her career?

As we went into rehearsals for the premiere of “Life! Love! Song! A Visit with Gena Branscombe,” Martin embraced being musical director of the show and also participated as a dramatic character. He suggested and created his entrance to the stage which has purpose and it works beautifully. Martin improvised, played fillers and eventually was given a singing solo! He has done all this work with a great professional quality and a passion every singer should have the joy to experience.

There was never a doubt in my mind that Martin was there for me at every note, beat, dramatic moment or my personal ups and downs. He is always at my side, front and center! Every singer should be blessed with such an accompanist as Martin.

We began taking “Life! Love! Song!” on the road. Performing partners do not always travel well together. Not us…..we have the best time laughing, driving, flying and enjoying one another’s lives and hearts. I always have the feeling Martin is taking care of me while we travel, concerned that I am OK and have all the necessary encouragement to perform at my best.

Martin will now join my colleague, Barbara Dana, and I as music director of our Emily Dickinson show, “I Told My Soul to Sing.” His acting abilities will be tested and we know he will love the challenge! His pianistic and collaborative qualities without a doubt will be the best he has to give us.

I admit to having waxed poetic about Martin yet every word is true. Still there are many facets to his personality and life. On occasion I refer to him as my Irish leprechaun as he does have a devilish and deliciously wicked sense of humor. His smile and personality light up our lives and the stage where he performs with us.

His knowledge of wine, well, contact him and he can give you terrific, tasty suggestions with most of them under $15. He’s a fabulous cook, a gracious host, loving, crazy and generous to those of us lucky enough to work with him. You will hear Martin talking about and promoting nearly every one of his colleagues with whom he works. How lucky we are!

He is a composer whose music reaches such depth of soul whether it be his songs, piano or instrumental works. His music will be remembered for many decades to come.
So, this is my accompanist, dear friend, cheerleader and the reason my Gena Project has become what it is. Thank you dear, dear Martin.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Gena Sis

Satin covered buttons attached to the back of a hand sewn lace dress, snaps lovingly fastened under those buttons to ensure the lace does not tear. Small even stitches join the silk lining to the bodice of the dress. Yes, the dress was made by Gena Branscombe! We surmise she wore it to perform.

In March 2002 my colleague and friend Laurine Elkins Marlow gifted me this dress because, “You need to have the dress near you.” A beautiful and treasured item!

What does this dress represent?….a ten year friendship that has meant the world to me and born out of my Gena Branscombe project. It is now time for me to tell the story of people behind the scenes.

For three continuous days after Gena Branscombe’s death in July 1977, Laurine labored in Miss Branscombe’s apartment to organize and catalogue her original manuscripts and published music. Gena’s music was everywhere …..on top of the piano, under the piano, on the floor, on tables, under tables…….piles of music needing attention. Months later the collection was donated to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Laurine was given access to Miss Branscombe’s correspondence, calendars, news articles, programs, recordings and much more. Gena’s daughters gave Laurine the tea cup she used during her interview sessions with the composer and, Gena’s lace dress was a gift to her.

She has regaled me with Gena stories in such detail that I felt as if I were in the room at that very moment being described. Laurine spent 18 months interviewing Miss Branscombe, taking notes, looking at this woman’s life story, her career in music and deciding it needed to be told to the world. Then, imagine it is 1975 and you appear before your Doctoral committee proposing a dissertation on a living woman composer. Unheard of even in the liberal days of 1975! Yet Laurine with the help of her advisor persevered and thus her dissertation.

Dr. Laurine Elkins Marlow, college professor at Texas A&M, researcher bar-none and author of “Gena Branscombe: American Composer and Conductor, A Study of Her Life and Works; Doctoral Dissertation.” She is the authority on Gena Branscombe.

Her lilting Southern accent, her friendly no-nonsense way and her warmth flowed through the telephone lines the day we first spoke. In the ensuing years we have had countless phone conversations, meetings and e-mails. Laurine dubbed me her “Gena-sis” and she has been there for me ever since!

Generous of spirit, Laurine saw to it that I received copies of songs not in the library, a copy of her dissertation, access to her at all times when I needed help with song interpretation or she patiently listened as I peppered her with questions about Gena, her personality, what drove her, her daily routine, her music, her background, her children, husband and family life. Details, details and more details . She allowed me to dig through her boxes of Gena research which included calendars, newspaper articles, and some correspondence. Her writing expertise and knowledge of Miss Branscombe shone through the liner notes she wrote for my CD. Thanks to Laurine, I have twice appeared at Texas A&M performing my lecture recital and one-woman show.

As a team we spent two days at the Library of Congress where they hold Miss Branscombe’s original score and orchestra parts to her oratorio “Pilgrims of Destiny.” Laurine read through Miss Branscombe’s letters to her publisher Arthur P Schmidt, while I researched the same publisher’s photos of Gena and the accounting of how she was paid royalties. We drove to western Virginia to interview Gena Tenney Phenix spending several hours questioning her about her mother. What a sweet and memorable time it was!

Together we presented a lecture recital at the Festival of Women Composers in Pennsylvania.

Laurine flew to New York for the premiere of Life! Love! Song! A Visit with Gena Branscombe.” Having her in the audience was a thrill and a four year culmination of her teaching me about Gena Branscombe.

My friend and colleague Laurine is a zany lady with a fun sense of humor, an unending curiosity and willingness to learn; generous and loving, open hearted and my Gena-sis! Without her Gena Branscombe’s life and music would not have come into the 21st century.

There is more to Laurine than her music career. All of her life she has been an avid horse woman. Owning up to three horses at one time, Laurine now shelters her one horse just outside College Station. Each morning and evening she drives out to feed and ride her beloved Roo. I have learned more about horses, their personalities, trading horses, horse paraphernalia, horse shows, horse vets and horse trailers from Laurine! Yet, all this speaks of who Laurine is…a caring, curious and nurturing person comfortable both in the classical music world and pitching hay to her horse.