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 daughter’s 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.

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