Wednesday, May 27, 2020

While in Berlin

While in Berlin, Germany in 1909-1910, Gena Branscombe was studying piano, practicing five to six hours a day, composing, performing recitals of her works at the American Women’s Club of Berlin, gaining recognition for her talents with an article in the Musical America magazine in the United States and accompanying recitals for singers and instrumentalists. 

One such recital was at a dinner party given by the American Ambassador to Berlin, David Hill and his wife, whose honored guests were President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt.  Gena accompanied her soprano friend, Belle Forbes.  Late afternoon of the dinner party, the two musicians were invited to perform with a car picking them up at 9 PM.  Even with this late notice, the two ladies were ready which Gena described in her Thursday, May 12, 1910, letter to her future husband, John Ferguson Tenney:

“I was ready when the auto came, with Belle looking like a queen.  She had Harriet Illsey’s diamond tiara and Mrs. Shayne’s yellow gown and was the most beautiful thing you ever saw.  I wore my ancient – and honorable lace gown with one pink rose on the left shoulder and no “jools” except a pearl pin.”

Gena went on to describe their performance:

“In spite of Belle’s being so tired, she sang superbly, and they praised her so.  I came in for my share too, and Mrs. Roosevelt said so many sweet and kindly things…..”

“That night, Mrs. Roosevelt said, wouldn’t Belle sing something of mine, and Belle said what a pity it was that she had brought nothing with her.  As an advertisement, I could have had nothing better, and it was the place for it – they wanted English songs….”

“It would have been so easy for Belle to have done it for me, she knew all the stuff…”

“I settled it all about Belle and am perfectly happy and comfortable about her –have no feeling of resentment – and it’s all right.  It came over me that that was Belle’s chance, and that it was wrong of me to in any way detract from her complete and undivided success – which would have been the case had I appeared in the light of a composer, for that art is taken very seriously over here…. it was wrong for me to have wanted my things done,… Belle has gone through tortures over here, and all these lovely things were coming to her, and I mustn’t feel hurt or resentful, only glad for her.  And it’s all right, and I’m sunny again” 

A great disappointment for Gena became an opportunity to take personal stock of her role in the evening’s performance and she makes peace with Belle’s decision.  Gena’s personality trait of looking within herself, assessing the situation and finding a resolution with which she could live is what made her a great musician, colleague and leader of women throughout her career. 

What brought this blog to be written?  My friend and researcher extraordinaire, John Lyons of Picton, Ontario, Gena’s hometown, sent me a clipping from the May 21, 2020, Picton Gazette’s “Stories from the Past” section.  Noted there in 1910 is the announcement that Gena was to play at the American ambassador’s home for President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt.  It also mentions that the Emperor of Germany was to be in attendance.  Unfortunately, King Edward of England had died and the Kaiser traveled to England for the funeral. 


Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Gena Branscombe Project 2020 Scholarship Winners

The Gena Branscombe Project announces their 2020 scholarship winners. Congratulations to these talented winners who will carry on Miss Branscombe's legacy of high musical standards, leadership, equality and inclusivity.


Genevieve Welch

Catherine Willingham

Sydney Pepper


Michaela Gleason


Friday, May 15, 2020

Always a student

The scene – the summer of 1978 in the ballroom of the Holiday Inn in Pendleton, Indiana.  On an out-of-tune upright piano my friend and colleague, George Daugherty, is accompanying me as  I am singing for Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano, Rosalind Elias - a private master class with this wonderful singer. 

I finish an aria, Miss Elias corrects a few things, makes suggestions and gives compliments.  George and I then launch into a second aria and when finished Miss Elias again offers a critique and praise.  She is gracious, honest, kind and proffers professional advice.

Miss Elias asked where I was going to school and I respond that George and I are students at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati.  Immediately she asks, “Do you study with Italo Tajo?”  Yes, I had been directed by him in the opera La Cenerentola and had taken his opera characterization class. 

In our continuing conversation, she states that Italo is a great teacher and colleague.  A year or two earlier, Miss Elias had performed Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Mr. Tajo directing.  Watching her face light up while she described the experience indicated the joy she had working with him. She had sung the role of Rosina many times before working with Italo.  Rosalind recounted how he had opened her eyes with new insights into Rossini’s music and his staging brought her a whole new perspective on the character.  The opera had come alive like she had never experienced previously.  She poured compliments on the great Italo Tajo as a teacher, director and colleague.  She then said I should make sure to listen to all he has to offer as Italo had a deep connection to an operatic era that must be kept alive.

Adding to her Italo Tajo story, she went on to recount her recent performances of Charlotte in Werther with tenor Alfredo Kraus in the lead role.  Again, her face lit up with the excitement of having worked with a wonderful colleague, someone who also taught her something new.  Each evening as Mr. Kraus sang the aria, “Pourquoi me réveiller” he held a letter in his hand and at the exact moment each evening, the letter floated out of his hand to the stage floor.  Miss Elias said that every evening her heart skipped a beat as the letter left his hand as it always took her by surprise.  It was organic, it was intense, it was a transcendental love sick poet moment where his emotions gripped his colleague’s heart.  She asked Mr. Kraus how he was able to recreate that moment every evening making it new and yet always the same.  His response was that the moment was in the music waiting for him to express it.  She held great respect for him as he taught her something new and something to add to her own musical knowledge.

As I listened to her stories I realized that though Miss Elias was an accomplished Metropolitan Opera star, someone who performed around the world, she was vulnerable, warm and always a student seeking out new ideas and ways to improve her craft.  Always a student!

How did this experience happen?  Well, my friend and colleague, George Daugherty, made it happen and I am thankful to him for asking Rosalind Elias if she would take the time to listen to me sing.  All these years later, I remember her warm and encouraging spirit.  Thank you, George.   

George was the founder, conductor and director of his own Pendleton Festival Symphony in his hometown of Pendleton, Indiana.  That summer Miss Elias was his featured soloist with his orchestra and the Harvard Glee Club.  George invited me to be Miss Elias’s understudy -  learn her arias and the Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, then rehearse with the orchestra and George the night before Miss Elias arrived.  What an honor and privilege to work with George and his fine orchestra.  And, I learned a great deal from the experience - always a student. 

Ever the student and not one to pass up a new opportunity to perform …. in 2011,  Miss Elias made her Broadway debut at the age of 81 in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies!  Sadly, Rosalind Elias died on May 3, 2020.  I’m sure she continues her quest of always being a student!


Wednesday, May 13, 2020

WNYC - The Branscombe Choral

Found in the New York City Municipal Archives was a March 15, 1949 recording of the Branscombe Choral performing on WNYC.  The women’s chorus was led by “one of America’s foremost woman musicians,” Gena Branscombe. 

The four pieces featured on this broadcast were arrangements of folk tunes about the out-of-doors and the beauties of nature:

1.      “Girls in the Garden” -  arranged by H.A. Schemerling
2.       “O River Flowing Dark and Wide” – A Czech folk tune – arranged by Gena Branscombe
3.      “The Soldier” – a Kentucky folk tune – arranged by Katherine Davis
4.      “Murmur on, Sweet Harp” – a newly discovered Stephen Foster song – arranged by Gena Branscombe

The year 1949 marked the 15th Anniversary of The Branscombe Choral with members celebrating at an anniversary dinner.  They began the year performing on WNYC, then Town Hall in May and completing the year with their annual Christmas concert at the Broadway Tabernacle Church in December.  

Scroll to the bottom of this  hyperlink and you will find the 13 minute performance.  Another blog posting will feature Pilgrims of Destiny.

Enjoy listening to the broadcast which is Courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives.