We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


Mario Antonio Marra and John Brancy
When the judges of the Marilyn Horne Song Competition chose baritone John Brancy and pianist Mario Antonio Marra as their 2013 winners they chose extraordinarily well.  This pair made magic yesterday in their recital at the National Opera Center.  When Mr. Brancy performs Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe at Carnegie Hall (no doubt he will have that opportunity), we will sit there smugly knowing that we heard it in the intimate environment that the work demands.

Mr. Brancy is a born storyteller and sings from a place deep within; he sings in an expressive manner that never panders to the audience but rather invites the audience to join him on his profound inward journey.  Unlike Schubert's song cycles, Dichterliebe is an inner journey.  There is no leierman, no miller, no brook, no frost on the window.  There is just the singer and his tale of a love lost, indeed lost rather early in the cycle. 

The remainder of the cycle relates the varying emotions he feels as he works through the loss; we experience with him the stages of anger, grief, bitterness, despair and ultimately acceptance as he confines his old songs to an hyperbolic coffin given a burial at sea.  Mr. Brancy and Mr. Marra plumbed every emotional depth leaving us feeling emotionally wrung out but artistically satisfied.

We welcomed the respite of intermission to restore our equanimity.  Three songs by Dvořák followed and we recalled an evening at Juilliard when we spent an evening listening to and growing accustomed to the sound of the difficult Czech language.  The effort spent in learning to sing in Czech yielded a big bonus for the listener since the songs are beyond lovely.

The first two were settings of Greek poems about mothers and sons.  In the first, a woman is learning of her son's successes in destroying Turkish pashas and armies and the second related the tale of a shepherd who disobeys his mother's advice and plays his pipes for the Nereids.  A third song entitled "Cypresses" was about the pains of love and had some gorgeous melodies typical of the composer's nationalistic bent.

Following this we heard the premiere of Force, an impressive work commissioned by Gary Portadin--a collaboration between composer Chris Kapica, poet Robert Corsini and Mr. Brancy.  In a universe of ugly and meaningless contemporary poetry which has been set to equally ugly and meaningless music, this work shines as brightly as Jupiter in the night sky.  The theme of man overcoming a mechanistic world and achieving identity through creative self-definition is a worthwhile subject for exploration.  Mr. Corsini's poetry rhymes (!) and scans (!!) and Mr. Kapica's music expresses and augments the ideas both the mechanistic ones and the spiritual ones, challenging the listener without hurting the ears.  Mr. Brancy's performance seemed to come from a very profound place.

The program concluded with three 20th c. American songs that were given the same attention and respect as lieder.  In each case Mr. Marra played with the songs in his own superb arrangements that tickled the ear.  In Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You" Mr. Brancy's beautiful baritone caressed each word as Mr. Marra's digits caressed the keys of the piano.  We heard some truly gorgeous floated top notes.

Jerome Kern's "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" was given a jazzy treatment by Mr. Marra in beautiful counterpoint to Mr. Brancy's sincerity.  Cole Porter's "Night and Day" offered a fine sense of fun with twinkles in the eyes. 

As an encore, Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" was sung in tribute to Marilyn Horne.  How many times we have listened to her sing this treasure on You Tube!  It was the perfect end to a magical recital.  We will fall into bed with some beautiful dreams of a well-spent evening.

© meche kroop

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