Friday, December 28, 2012

The Gift of Emily Dickinson

Friends will surprise you with the most wonderful, thoughtful gifts.  During a visit with Ina Torton, friend, massage therapist extraordinaire and real estate agent, she handed me a beautiful volume of Emily Dickinson poems. 

Gold lettering, white lilies with gold stems and a bee on a turquoise blue cloth cover.  Beautiful, just beautiful.  Having gone through her bookshelves, Ina came upon this volume of Emily's poems and gave it to me. 

What an appropriate gift as Ina knew that along with my friend, Barbara Dana, our Emily Dickinson show, “A Voice of Her Own” had just had its second reading here in New York City. 

In November 2011, “A Voice of Her Own” had its first reading for an invited audience. See my blog posting of February 24, 2012.  My ending statement was that the show was a work in progress and indeed over the past year, we have worked hard as a team….Kate Bushman, Barbara Dana, Martin Hennessy, Amelia Campbell Arkin and me.

Barbara revised the script numerous times, we read through the scripts after each revision, rehearsed songs, Martin wrote more and more wonderful incidental music that bound the show together. Kate, our director, made suggestions for the flow of the show and character development. Amelia joined our group to read the part of Emily so Barbara could be in the audience experiencing her own writing.

On Sunday, December 9, 2012, “A Voice of Her Own” had its second reading in the exact same rehearsal room as in November 2011. The invited audience included people who had attended one year earlier. In 90 short, fast moving minutes, Emily Dickinson’s life came alive from Barbara’s passionate script. So filled with the depth of Emily’s convictions about her writing, her observations of life and others, the performance soared with Amelia’s deep understanding of the ardent poet. Dialogue flowed into song flowed into dialogue without interruption and the incidental music underscored emotional passages binding the story together.

Touching the hearts of performers and audience members alike, Emily Dickinson was the star and the gift to all on that day. And, our show “A Voice of Her Own” continues to be a work in progress until our next reading in June 2013.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Singers of the Era

Having composed 150 art songs during her long career, Gena Branscombe’s vocal works were performed by renowned opera singers of her era who gloried in singing beautiful, romantic music. A famous person putting forth her music in concert meant audience members might seek her out, then purchase her sheet music!

In addition to the well-known singers, there were voice teachers, Broadway and Vaudeville performers, oratorio and recital specialists and even church choir members who promoted the expressive and lilting songs by Miss Branscombe.

During a number of our talk-backs after performances of “Life! Love! Song! A Visit with Gena Branscombe,” Martin and I have answered questions about Miss Branscombe’s life, family and music, our work together and much more. One of the questions that seems to recur is, “Who sang her songs during her lifetime? And, where did they perform them?” Now for the answer to those questions.

Recently I purchased a copy of her song, “The Morning Wind” and found on the back cover of the sheet music a list of sixteen of Gena’s songs with names of singers who had performed them.  Madame Frances Alda, Paul Althouse, David Bispham, Herbert Witherspoon and Lillian Nordica jumped out at me …all Metropolitan Opera stars.  Common during the early 20th century were cross country recital tours by famous singers  who appeared at local concert halls and opera houses.  Presenting a wide variety of French, German and Italian repertoire, these singers also included songs of living composers and Gena was one of them.

In David Bispham’s collection of music held at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is the sheet music for Gena’s song, “Serenade” inscribed to him. When I discovered this sheet music of “Serenade,” I made a copy and from it I learned the song and recorded it for my CD.  Mr. Bispham also performed “Hail Ye Tyme of Holiedayes” and “Sleep Then, Ah Sleep”.  Known for his commanding operatic performances throughout Europe and at the Metropolitan Opera, Mr. Bispham enjoyed the comfort of his own railway car taking him to his concert appearances.  How he and Gena met is a mystery yet audiences in concerts across the country heard him sing her songs!

How thrilling it must have been for Miss Branscombe to be an audience member when in 1908 soprano Lillian Nordica presented a recital in Seattle.  This great artist had taken the stage at Bayreuth, the Royal Opera and at the Metropolitan Opera and there she was singing the composer’s “Hail Bounteous May.”  Again, the same questions arise as to how they met, how did Gena’s song reach someone so famous and did they possibly remain in contact? 

A voice teacher’s impact on their students lives and repertoire can be amazing!  Tenor Paul Althouse performed works from Gounod to Wagner at all the major opera houses world-wide.  During the 1920’s he was renowned for his concerts and oratorio appearances.  When he retired in 1945, he taught such well-known singers as Richard Tucker, Eleanor Steber and Leopold Simoneau.  Among his many other students was soprano Mary Bothwell who presented recitals at the Hague in the Netherlands and Town Hall in New York City where she sang songs of Miss Branscombe’s.  Teacher and student were known for performing Gena’s “Three Mystic Ships.”

Two vaudeville performers, Llora Hoffman and Constance Purdy performed, “Heartsease” and “A Lovely Maiden Roaming” the latter which was dedicated to Gena’s nearby neighbor, soprano Gladys Buckhout. 

Peabody Conservatory educated and daughter of President Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Woodrow Wilson was an independent, talented and passionate woman of her era.  She was a suffragette and a famous concert singer. During the First World War she traveled around America performing to raise funds for the Red Cross.  With great courage she sang at the front of war-torn France giving her support to our troops.  She honored Gena by singing the song “The Morning Wind.”

Famous and not-so-famous singers have performed Gena’s beautiful, romantic songs.  How thrilled she must have been each time she was informed that her music was being presented in concert.  My hope is that there will be a resurgence of performances of her 150 art songs, not just by me, but by singers across the country!

Here are pictures of additional singer who performed Miss Branscombe’s songs

Monday, August 20, 2012

Mary Jo Steebner

March 12, 2012, an e-mail from Melissa Maize, Director of Resource Development at the Good Samaritan Society Quiburi Mission in Benson, Arizona,  I believe that one of our residents, Mary Jo Steebner, is in your photo! Please contact me.”

The photo mentioned is of the Branscombe Choral performing at Town Hall in 1949 and is posted on my website.

Of all the stories I could recount about my contact with former Branscombe Choral members or their family members, the one that touches me the most is Melissa’s.  A resident in their dementia unit, who though not very communicative, had told Melissa she had sung with the Branscombe Choral.  There were no family members or friends to corroborate Mary Jo’s life journey.  Melissa asked if I would have any information that would help her engage her resident to tell her story. 

My response was that Miss Steebner had been a member for only one concert, December 1954, the final concert of the Choral’s existence.  I had no knowledge as to how or why Mary Jo sang with the Branscombe Choral yet for four months of her life, she rehearsed and sang with Gena Branscombe.

Over the past five months, Melissa and I have exchanged numerous e-mails. Though I could offer little background information, I did have pictures of Miss Branscombe and the Choral. In addition I have a few individual pictures of the Choral members from 1954 that I sent to Melissa. Together we hoped these photos would jog Mary Jo’s memory. Indeed! She recognized the picture of her beloved conductor, Gena Branscombe.

A copy of my CD was ordered in hopes that playing it for Mary Jo the songs would bring back memories of her singing past.

Finding this research, our on-going discussions and the Branscombe Choral pictures intriguing, Melissa Maize took it upon herself to write an article for the Good Samaritan News and Events online publication.  Mary Jo’s story of being a member of a renowned New York City women’s chorus came to life.

Now it has been my turn to tell Mary Jo Steebner’s story…..a member of the Branscombe Choral.  There are no pictures of Mary Jo in the Choral scrapbooks though her name appears in the one program of December 1954.  We know little else about Mary Jo’s life and yet her most vivid memory is that of being a Branscombe Choral member.

Mary Jo Steebner’s name appears on my website, this, my newest blog entry and in Melissa’s online article.  Our hope is that a friend or family member will search for her on the internet and find her name mentioned.  Then, maybe then, Melissa and her staff will be able to fill in additional details of Mary Jo’s life. 

One thing is for sure, she will always be a Branscombe Choral member!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Mountain Lakes, New Jersey

Aross America in the early part of the 20th century planned communities were being created to satisfy the need for urban areas and new housing.  Rural lands were forfeited to development.  Imagine Mountain Lakes, New Jersey in 1910;  a woodland locale with pristine terrain, rolling hills, woods and boulders and then a mere 10 years later in the 1920s, it was a full-fledged and developed community.  New residents were escaping from New York City and learning to commute to their jobs in the city on the newly completed train line.

What has Mountain Lakes, New Jersey got to do with Gena Branscombe?  Well, I’m glad you asked.

Leaving their residence at 1 West 82nd Street in Manhattan in the summer of 1922, Gena Branscombe and her husband John Ferguson Tenney moved their family of three girls to Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.  Eldest daughter Gena had developed asthma which made the move necessary.

For two years the family would make their home at 166 Laurel Hill Road and became active members of the Community Church.   

Relocations such as this one can be difficult for the adjustments to new schools, leaving old friends, making new friends and the unknown of what the future will bring to you in your new setting. John began commuting into the city for his job.   

Little did Gena Branscombe know that this move to Mountain Lakes would bring a new facet to her musical career.  Up to this time she had been known as a pianist, accompanist and composer.  Soon, she would add conductor to her many accomplishments. 

In the Fall of 1922 Gena was invited to conduct the MacDowell Choral and thus began her conducting career.  To further educate herself in the art of conducting, Gena began taking conducting lessons in Manhattan from Chalmers Clifton of the American Orchestral Society and with Albert Stoessel at New York University. 
By April 1923 the MacDowell Choral was broadcast live on WJZ in Newark.  Gena had been hard at work promoting her new career as conductor. 

The MacDowell Choral was connected to the local chapter of the MacDowell Club and tied to the MacDowell Colony of Peterborough, New Hampshire. Twice this local MacDowell Club sponsored Gena for one-month stays as a composer fellow at the MacDowell Colony. Her connections to New Jersey ran deep! After leaving her position as conductor of the MacDowell Choral during World War II due to gas rationing, Gena returned on several occasions to be honored for her dedication to the group.

In all my years of working on my Gena Branscombe project, it has never ceased to amaze me as to the dedication that her Choral member had for her. Women from the Mountain Lakes chorus travelled into New York City to participate in rehearsals and performances of the Branscombe Choral. They followed their beloved conductor and mentor to continue making music with her.

Composing continued to be a priority in her life and during these two years of New Jersey residence she wrote “Sonata Canadien, a large-scale work written to show her deep love of Canada.  Her most famous and best selling work “Hail Ye Time of Holiedayes” was published in 1924.  Her choral pieces “Spirit of Motherhood” and  A Wind from the Sea”  were written and performed during this time.  In addition, songs for her daughters were composed – “Over Dreaming Children” and “Three Unimproving Songs for Enthusiastic Children”.   This was a woman who was never idle!

A few doors down from the Tenney household resided Canadian author, screen writer, poet and playwright, Arthur Stringer.  The Stringer family had three young sons who were playmates to the Tenney girls.  During my conversations with Gena Tenney Phenix in 2001, she recounted play dates with the Stringer boys and family dinners together. 

Whether Gena Branscombe had personally known Arthur Stringer before residing near one another in Mountain Lakes is not known.  These two Canadians now living in the United States became family friends and colleagues.  As collaborators they wrote a tribute to their native Canada in the 1945 song, “Blow Softly Maple Leaves,”  and also produced the songs “Ould Doctor Ma’Ginn,” “An Epitaph,” and  “Of My Ould Loves”.  I recorded “Maple Leaves” and “Doctor Ma’Ginn” for my CD. 

In the Fall of 1924 the Branscombe/Tenney family returned to New York City and their busy life marched on. The two years of residence in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey was a professional turning point for Gena Branscombe. The conducting of choruses became a main-stay of her career and the composing and arranging of choral works a force of her compositional output until her death in 1977.

Change is good for us all and when we open ourselves to new opportunities and experiences wonderful things can take place. From pianist, accompanist and composer, a move to New Jersey produced a conductor of charismatic quality. What a lesson for us all.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Celebration of Women in Music – Brattleboro, VT

Community music organizations are the backbone of classical music in the United States.  Whether you have a community concert series that presents well-known artists, a local symphony orchestra or chamber music society, area choruses or a grass roots group that presents concerts on a year-round basis, all are promoting and presenting great music to their local people. 

These organizations rely on their year-round residents to sell or purchase tickets, promote the concert by word-of-mouth, make brownies or hors d’oeuvres for the reception and then be in the audience.  Creative concert planning is a must for in this day and age, it is a struggle to find interested audience members and volunteers, yet somehow concert societies persevere and the reward is great. 

For forty-six years the Friendsof Music at Guilford (Vermont) has been presenting concerts to the public in the Brattleboro area.  Starting with an organ recital in a rural barn in the 1960’s, the Friends return annually to that same farmstead for a two-day festival.  Over the years they have promoted chamber music, choral and orchestral music, contemporary music with premieres of over 400 works by New England composers and art song recitals.  Keeping new ideas flowing, the Friends introduced out-reach concerts for senior citizens and an enrichment program for the area schools.  New to their presentations has been a house concert devoted entirely to women composers.

We received an invitation to perform on the Celebration of Women In Music concert held, Sunday, April 29, 2012.  What a lovely experience we had!  Opportunities such as the one with Friends of Music at Guildford bring into my life the chance to meet music enthusiasts whose personal warmth welcomes you with open arms. 

Administrative Director Joy Wallens-Penford was a delightfully organized person with whom we discussed all the details of travelling to Vermont.  She arranged a collaborative pianist with whom I would work and coordinated our stay in the beautiful home of Ede Thomas. 

When I travel to perform and have the pleasure of working with a new and unknown pianist, I know their level of musicianship will be fine.  Then, I met my new Vermont collaborator, Julia Bady.  Our initial meeting was over the phone where we discussed my Gena Branscombe repertoire.  Having e-mailed the music, we discussed specific details to each of the songs we were to perform and Julia agreed to play one of Gena’s solo piano works.  To say the least, Julia and I had an immediate connection. 

Frequently with traveling to a “gig” such as this one in Vermont and working with a new, unknown accompanist, you may have two hours of rehearsal time and then, you perform.  As professionals we have all done our homework, yet there is that certain and inexplicable quality of collaboration in music-making that can sometimes just happen or it needs to be worked on for hours.  With Julia, it just happened!

In mid-March Julia and I had two days of rehearsal when she made a trip to New York City for piano lessons.  Focused and detail oriented was our time together.  We worked through songs, stopping frequently to make corrections or discuss what we needed from one another.  Julia was prepared and had obviously practiced these difficult accompaniments.  When I arrived in Brattleboro, we had another 2 days of rehearsing in the performance space.  Again, we worked diligently, trusting one another’s musical instincts.  

Imagine my surprise when looking at the Celebration of Women in Music program to discover the other women composers represented on the program were Amy Cheney Beach and Mabel Wheeler Daniels, two of Gena Branscombe’s closest friends.  Also included was Connecticut based composer Elise Grant whose piano work, “Etude: Anger and Nostalgia” was performed.  This was creative programming at its best!

The concert and reception were held in the beautiful home of Lesley and Robert Cotter.  
Pianist William McKim played two pieces by Amy Beach and Elise Grant’s work.  “Three Observations for Three Woodwinds” composed by Mabel Wheeler Daniels was performed by Zeke Hecker, oboe, Karen Bressett, clarinet and Michelle Huddy, bassoon.  To finish the evening’s music-making, Julia and I performed the Branscombe songs.  What a joyful concert and one that proved the word composer is genderless for a reason!  

Let me also mention the food at the reception was wonderful.  Hors d’oeuvres and desserts, (especially the peanut butter chocolate bars),  were delicious, every last one of them.  My congratulations to the food committee… are definitely foodies! 

Thank you to Joy, Zeke, the Cotters and particularly Ede who made us feel as if we were family in her delightful home.  Special mention - Brava, Julia….you were a dream collaborator.  We now have enlarged our family of music friends to include all of you in Vermont.  Lucky are we!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Surprise Treasures

As we walk down streets looking in store windows, display items can trigger memories of objects or people from our past. Several months ago The New York Times published a picture of a conductor’s baton lying across an opened music score. That picture jarred Pierre Biscaye’s memory. He signed on to his computer to look for any information he could find on conductor/composer Gena Branscombe. Why?

 As a child, Pierre knew Miss Branscombe who visited his family’s home and had dinner with them. She gave one of her conducting batons to him and one to his sister, Peggy. The baton and music in the Times’ picture reminded Pierre of that special gift from Gena Branscombe.

 Upon my return from performing in St. Louis last November, there was a message from Pierre on my answering machine. Searching for information about Miss Branscombe, he found my website, read about my project and then, contacted me. What followed over the next few weeks were phone conversations with journeys down memory lane for Pierre and his sister, Peggy Oury. How did Pierre and his sister get to know Gena Branscombe?

 Their mother, Ruth Eginton Biscaye and two aunts, Elaine and Geraldine Eginton had been dedicated members of the Branscombe Choral. And, I do mean dedicated members. Ruth sang with the Choral from 1934 to 1951 with only a few concerts off to have her children. Elaine was a member for six years and Geraldine for sixteen years.

Through their association with the Choral, a friendship developed between Ruth, her sisters and Gena and her family. And, yes, Pierre and Peggy accompanied by their father attended Branscombe Choral concerts in New York City.

 Brother and sister each recalled Miss Branscombe and her husband John Ferguson Tenney being at their home in Leonia, New Jersey. Living nearby was Gena Tenney Phenix and her family. Memories of knowing Morgan and Roger Phenix came forth. I relayed my conversations with Peggy and Pierre to Morgan and Roger. To say the least, they remembered the Biscaye family and were quite surprised by my new found friends that brought back great memories for them.

 In the years that I have worked on my Gena project, I have had numerous opportunities to interview or speak to people who have known Gena Branscombe. With no exception, everyone has sung her praises as a warm, caring person. She engaged children, teens, adults and older adults in easy conversation.  Her sense of leadership and responsibility to others shone forth at all times.

 Pierre and Peggy recalled being impressed with Gena’s sense of style and clothing every time she appeared in their home. Her husband, though quiet, was at her side; a strong and constant support system. Gena was warm and engaging… pleasant to have in their home.
Then, excitement and wonderment as only children can experience…..a conductor’s baton being handed to them. One can only imagine Gena bending down, presenting Pierre and Peggy with her batons, followed by an explanation of what that baton does! Pierre thinks he still has that baton nestled in his attic! Let’s hope so.

What has never ceased to amaze me while I speak with former friends and chorus members of Miss Branscombe’s is that they have held on to and have cherished items such as pictures, concert programs, autographed sheet music and personal letters from her. Many of these possessions are well over 70 years old. Why have these people held onto these items? My guess says that Gena Branscombe left indelible marks on people’s lives and hearts and that by continuing to hold these possessions they still have a part of her with them.

 Peggy is her family’s historian. After their mother’s passing, Peggy maintained the autographed sheet music, Branscombe Choral pictures and of all things, an original working manuscript. Gena was arranging a women’s choral setting of, “There was a King of Liang,” one of the songs I recorded. Miss Branscombe gave this manuscript to Ruth Eginton Biscaye and it was carefully preserved in the family home. Imagine….an original manuscript!!

We discussed these items and I asked/offered to have Peggy send them to me so they could be donated to the Gena Branscombe Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. These treasures are part of their family history yet Peggy consulted with her children and it was decided all would be sent to me. When the time comes, pictures, sheet music and the manuscript will be given to the library with a note saying they were donated by the Biscaye/Oury family.  Thank you so much for trusting me with your cherished family possessions.

 So, another surprise in my Gena Branscombe journey. New friends have been made via telephone conversations and personal memories of Gena Branscombe passed along to me. You have shared your valued family possessions which will be preserved for future generations to appreciate. Thank you Pierre and Peggy.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Branscombe Family Surprise

Arthur Branscombe, nephew of Gena Branscombe, passed from this life at age 93 on February 10, 2012. Arthur and his family were one of the surprises of my Gena project.

When I wrote my last blog, my opening sentence was about surprises that have come my way while working on my Gena project. As I said, the surprises are not daily or weekly yet they arrive and are a joy.

In mid 2011 I received an e-mail from Allison Branscombe…..another Branscombe yet someone I had not met nor had I known of her. Allison’s opening sentence said she was Gena Branscombe’s great niece and that her father Arthur, age 92, was Gena’s nephew. This was a surprise!

Over the past 12 years I have often wondered about Gena’s family especially her brother Clarence who was born August 15, 1871. He was 10 years older than Gena. I knew little about Clarence and wondered if he had children, and if he did, would there be a family connection for me to contact. Then, came Allison’s e-mail and a whole new connection to that side of the Branscombe family began.

Allison and I quickly scheduled a phone conversation so we could share our Gena stories. I listened to her side of the Branscombe family history and much, much more. Speaking for over 1 ½ hours our conversation flowed as if we had known one another all of our lives.

During our discussion I soon realized that it was important for me to interview Allison’s father, Arthur. I needed to hear his story, his relationship with his father and his Aunt Gena. On September 12th and 20th, 2011, I spent one hour each of those days speaking with Arthur and his lovely wife, Carla.

From my questions and reading, little seems to be known of the relationship between Gena and her brother Clarence. He sang in a church choir as a young man, attended military school, worked as an engineer, then attended seminary and was an assistant pastor at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Chicago. Clarence returned to his first career, engineering, working for the United States government designing buildings around the country.

Clarence married his second wife, Evelyn Perkins Branscombe, in either 1916 or 1917. They had two children, Arthur, born in 1918 and his sister Marge, born 1921. Their family life was one of continuous relocation for Clarence’s career.

By the age of six Arthur had lived in South Carolina, Texas, Georgia, Arkansas and in Los Angeles where his father built the Veteran’s Administration hospital. In 1926 the family moved to New York City where Clarence built the Customs House. And that same year was when Arthur and his sister, Marge, met their Aunt Gena Branscombe, her husband John Tenney and their cousins Gena, Vivian and Beatrice.

What Arthur remembered most about his Aunt at that time…..the wonderful apartment they lived in at 1 West 82nd Street. It was large, filled with dark, warm wood moldings, beautiful furniture and his extended family! Arthur maintained a life-long relationship with his cousin Gena Tenney Phenix.

Prior to his leaving for Africa during World War II, Arthur was in New York City. His cousin Gena Tenney Phenix invited him to the USO Show at the Broadway Tabernacle Church. This was the very show that her father was in charge of. (See my blog of July 7, 2011). At this party Arthur met his future wife, Bea Sutton. After the war he returned to marry her at the Broadway Tabernacle Church with his local Branscombe family in attendance. John Ferguson Tenney was Arthur’s best man.

Bea and Arthur eventually moved to Colorado where he wrote for the Denver Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. He was a community activist and wrote passionately about education and racial divides. Bea died in 2000 and Art married Carla Henebry in 2003.

Arthur did stay in touch with Gena Branscombe and Gena Tenney Phenix until their respective deaths. His memories of them were warm and filled with laughter. He remembered hearing the Branscombe Choral on the radio and writing his Aunt about the performances. His notes to her are in the Branscombe Choral scrapbooks at the New York Public Library.

Back to Allison and the story continues……with her father, Allison met her great Aunt Gena while on a trip to New York City in the 1970’s. Wondering if musical talent had flowed through this side of the family, I found out that one of Allison’s nieces plays cello and another is a singer. The family musical genes are carried forth into the next generations.

Allison is a young adult book author. Her great Aunt Gena has been a source of inspiration for her and she is planning to write a book about Gena’s life and career. For young adults this will bring the history of a working mother and musician alive. A biography like this will afford young readers an in-depth look into her life 100 years ago. It is our plan to collaborate on this book. Our combined creative abilities should make this tome a great read!

A new Branscombe family connection yet I feel as if I have known these people for the past 12 years. They have been welcoming and thankful for my dedication to Gena Branscombe’s life and music. I look forward to meeting Allison, her sisters Kim and Meredith and Arthur’s wife, Carla. Thank you for reaching out to me.

And, for all of you my followers, there will be a young adult book about Gena Branscombe a few years down the road. Stay tuned!