It's been a long time since a man made us weep. The intensity of last night's recital left us close to blubbering. Baritone John Brancy's artistry is such that his exquisite technique has become invisible which leaves him free to connect with the audience and to bring his mature comprehension of the text directly to the heart of the listener.
This is not a showy performer; he uses an economy of gesture and a depth of feeling to bring us to the point of view of the poet. The instrument is an excellent one with a pleasingly mature resonance, but it is the story-telling aspect of the performance that one remembers best. And it's all done without any artifice whatsoever.
The recital was the initial event in what was formerly called "Marilyn Horne's Birthday Week", now under the auspices of Carnegie Hall. The intimate Weill Recital Hall was the perfect venue for a recital of this type and Mr. Brancy scaled his voice to the size of the hall.
The theme of the recital was music from around the period of The Great War; therefore most of the songs were a century old. At this time, the Free World is at war with Muslim Fundamentalists. It is indeed a very different type of war but the consequences are similar. There are premature deaths, separations from loved ones, privations and anxiety about the future. We can identify.
Mr. Brancy's astonishingly fine diction in English, French and German, accompanied by innate musical phrasing, made the words completely comprehensible, along with the message of the text. At times it seemed as if he were "tasting" the words he sang although "savoring" might be a better word.
Mr. Noda's sensitive and supportive accompanying made the piano part an essential part of the communication. There were instances when the poet was being, well, poetic but the piano revealed the anger and pain underneath.
We particularly enjoyed the six songs from George Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad with texts by A.E. Housman. The songs are about youth, nostalgia, aging, separation and death. Their power lay in their universality of message and the richness of the melodies. It was particularly painful to read that the composer died in the war shortly after composing the songs.
The quartet of song by Carl Orff were powerful and evinced a substantial heap of anger with their dissonant chords. A trio of French songs captivated us. Ravel's "Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis" utilized the colors of the French flag to symbolize messages from an absent lover. Debussy's lament for the children suffering from the consequences of war "Noël des enfants qui n'ont plus de maisons" was so effectively performed that we were way beyond dabbing our eyes with a tissue. We were close to sobbing.
There were also two songs by Charles Ives--the angry and dissonant "In Flanders Field" and the gently nostalgic "Tom Sails Away". "Popular" songs of the era (and how are they any different from "art songs" we may ask) included Ivor Novello's rousing encouragement to "Keep the Home Fires Burning" with Mr. Noda's piano contradicting the optimism. The prayerful "God Be With Our Boys Tonight" involved some lovely tender arpeggios in the piano. "Danny Boy" was a fitting and soulful final song, sounding quite different from when sung by an Irish tenor.
We have reviewed Mr. Brancy often, since he was an undergraduate at Juilliard. The seeds of his artistry were there from the start and we have revelled in witnessing the flowering of his talent. It is no wonder that he is achieving recognition worldwide and garnering prizes from prestigious institutions. His selection as the winner of the Marilyn Horne song Competition in 2013 was well deserved. It was a major delight to experience him in a new light. Truth to tell, some of those tears were tears of joy.
ⓒ meche kroop
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