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.

Saturday, February 6, 2016


John Brancy and Peter Dugan

What does one say when one has run out of superlatives? The recital we heard last night at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall set the bar really high for a song recital.  As many superb recitals as we have seen this season, nothing approached the musicianship, artistry, and dramatic intensity of this one. We have followed the careers of baritone John Brancy and pianist Peter Dugan for several years and have seen them fulfill their initial promise.  We can think of no greater thrill.

One of the features that ensured the success of the recital was the flow of collaboration between the two artists. Although we are sure that a lot of hard work went into the planning and execution of the recital, the overall effect was one of naturalness and ease. We don't often get to hear recitals with a compelling theme, so the selection of "Fantasy" as a theme struck us as original and compelling.

There be fairytales, there be dragons, there be princesses in towers, there be elves and dwarves, there be satyrs, nymphs, nixen und hexen. Subjects of the texts meet their ends in horrifying and grisly ways. For two hours we were transported to a strange world that was immortalized by all the great composers. The first half of the program comprised lieder that were totally familiar to any recital goer.

Schumann's "Aus alten Märchen" was the introductory piece and it set the stage perfectly for what was to follow. Texts for the five songs in the Schumann set used texts by the young composer's favorite poets--Heinrich Heine and Joseph von Eichendorff. Of the five songs, our favorite was "Waldesgespräch"in which the courtly speech of the rider is hiding some not-so-courtly intentions; he is quickly dispatched by the Hexe Lorelei.

The set of lieder by Schubert was equally impressive with his debut entry as a teenage lieder komponist--"Erlkönig" with text by Goethe--being our favorite.  In this case, the tragic death belonged to a small child with the perpetrator being the nasty and seductive king of the elves. From both pianistic and vocal standpoints, this was an incomparable performance.

The entire first half of the program was marked by intensely dramatic storytelling. Neither artist has the slightest reservation about using every color on his palette. Both of them seemed completely immersed in the texts, drawing us into their fantasy world.

If we had one tiny suggestion for Mr. Brancy to take his performance from a 99 to 100, it would be to allow a different color in his voice for the Hexe in "Waldesgespräch", perhaps a more feminine tone, and a more feeble color for the sickly child in "Erlkönig".  Clearly his resonant and firmly grounded baritone is more comfortable in the parts of the rider in the first piece and the narrator, father, and Elfking in the second. But we longed for a bit more contrast.

The passionate piano playing could not have been improved and swept us along in a tide of excitement and wonder. In a most welcome addition, Mr. Dugan performed two solos in the second half of the program.

He played Debussy's "Pour invoquer Pan" from Six épigraphes antiques, reduced from the original flutes, harps, and celesta, all of which we could hear in the piano. The notes and their overtones seemed to hang in the air.  But it was his arrangement of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Peer Gynt that brought down the house. We have never heard the like! The house was electrified. Abrupt changes from major to minor and the rumbling in the lower reaches of the piano were unsettling.

The artistic coupling continued to delight and mystify throughout the second half of the program with songs by Debussy, Fauré, Grieg, and Sibelius.  Only "Le tombeau des naïades" from Chansons de Bilitis was familiar, although we have never heard it sung by a man. What a treat to hear a song by Sibelius sung in Finnish, strange and beautiful to the ear. In Grieg's "Prinsessen" we could hear the sweet song of the boy playing the horn.

We even enjoyed the songs in English, due to Mr. Brancy's impeccable diction.  Not a word was lost! We loved David Long's setting of "Misty Mountains" (text by Tolkien) in which the simple melody and strophic organization were given a variety of moods in the artists' own arrangement.

Britten's arrangement of a French folk song "The king is gone a hunting" was delightful.  The English language lends itself so well to short punchy phrases that rhyme and scan.

Wolseley Charles' amusing "The Green Eyed Dragon" allowed Mr. Brancy to give full rein to his storytelling skills and was pure delight.

The welcome encore was "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha by Joe Darion/Mitch Leigh.  It is obvious that all of Mr. Dugan's and Mr. Brancy's dreams are more than possible! It was the perfect end to a stunning recital. The thunderous applause and the standing ovation were well deserved.

The two artists are far more than collaborators on vocal recitals. They both have impressive international careers in many aspects of their art. Clearly, their experience in the art of opera and cabaret and collaboration with other artists has informed their artistry. Still, if we had no knowledge or experience of their diverse talents, if this recital were all we had to go on, we would still select them as stars of the musical firmament. If the recital were repeated today we would be there. They left us satisfied but somehow wanting more.

(c) meche kroop

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