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Francis Poulenc: Priez Pour Paix

Just a month ago at the Moab Music Festival we opened the season with a program about war. The original inspiration came from John Brancy and Peter Dugan who toured extensively with a beautiful program celebrating the centenary of the end of WW 1 (the armistice). I borrowed a few of their ideas and included composers they didn’t. Mahler, Blitzstein, Shostakovitch, Bernstein. But the subject matter seems timely, and the sensible idea of the obsolescence of war just hasn’t come into maturity. So the discussion needs to continue. World Peace seems to have become a punchline for things that are unachievable. I’m not so sure.  Let’s start the week with some hope and beauty. Here are Mssrs. Brancy (voice) and Dugan (piano) in Francis Poulenc’s “Priez Pour Paix”. John Brancy will have a leading role in our next NYFOS concert at Merkin Hall on Nov. 19. Music by Marc Blitzstein and Kurt Weill

Danny Boy, sung by John Brancy

Steve Blier introduced me to the 19 yr. old John Brancy ( a Juilliard underclassman) about a decade ago. Since then, we’ve helped, and watched “Brancy” (he’s become a one-name star) go from success to success. Most recently, he won a number of prizes in the biggest competition I know of—in Montreal, including the 1st place art song award. I’m amazed, with all the focus on opera, that such a thing even exists. Brancy is going through a rapid transition from “emerging” star to just being a star. Here he is four years ago (!) singing “Danny Boy.” If you have a little imagination, use it to wonder what he sounds like now. His partner at the piano is Peter Dugan, who is a star in his own right. Their recent recital at Alice Tully Hall (or whomever has the naming rights) was searing and breathtaking in its depth and artistic gravity. So here’s to Brancy and Dugan. Long may you boys wave.

Danny Boy

Arguably the most well known song ever, Danny Boy has swiftly become a very favorite of mine since I became intimately acquainted with it a few seasons ago. I mentioned in a previous post that pianist Peter Dugan and I will be launching our album A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song this year. When we were first thinking of concepts for how to organize the program, we knew we wanted it to end with something memorable, powerful and original (to a degree). Peter came to me with his arrangement of “Danny Boy”, which I truly feel is the best piano-vocal version out there. Just to back up that claim, we have been asked many times if the arrangement is available for purchase. We have even been asked by pianist Julius Drake for a copy as well—don’t worry a copy is on its way soon!

Instead of going too far into the depth of the story and the origin of the song. I feel like this one really speaks for itself, and this arrangement gets right to the heart of what the song is all about.

Billy Joel: And So It Goes

I was first introduced to this song when I was just 13 years old. Back before I knew I wanted to be a professional singer, or a professional anything for that matter. I remember being drawn to the simple melody and the lovely poem. We had sung it for our troubadour choir and competed in many choral competitions with it. It wasn’t until my first real breakup and heartbreak in high school that I realized the depth of the words in this song and where Billy Joel was going with it. Anyone who has experienced the break of a long term, love filled relationship will understand and feel the meaning in these words all too familiarly. I found myself singing this song from time to time to remind me of this feeling and to know that when you do give your love to someone, there is always the chance it could end in tears and a broken heart.

I’m not going to lie to any of you, life can be hard at times, and emotions can take over everything you do and are. Things change between people, sometimes one person might recognize it, other times it goes unsaid and years later, the unthinkable happens. I’m writing so explicitly here, because I’m reaching out to that part of you. The part that holds your heart in your hands and feels the very essence of this song: if my silence was my mistake, I will speak, if I spoke too much, I will listen, if my actions weren’t right, I will change course, if you needed more of me, you can have every bit.

Love is the most powerful energy on our planet. It has the distinct ability to simultaneously make one full of happiness and sadness. It strikes you with beauty, truth, honor and devotion. When love is lost, confusion sets in, taking its place causing you to retreat and recoil inwards until you cannot go any further. Billy Joel tapped this feeling in And So it Goes and his music and words have calmed the hearts of many who have experienced serious lost love.

Take a listen, remember or feel that moment, and don’t forget, this is life. It’s worth living every minute of it just to remember the happiest moments and maybe, just maybe, feel loved like that again.

In every heart there is a room
A sanctuary safe and strong
To heal the wounds from lovers past
Until a new one comes along

I spoke to you in cautious tones
You answered me with no pretense
And still I feel I said too much
My silence is my self defense

And every time I’ve held a rose
It seems I only felt the thorns
And so it goes, and so it goes
And so will you soon I suppose

But if my silence made you leave
Then that would be my worst mistake
So I will share this room with you
And you can have this heart to break

And this is why my eyes are closed
It’s just as well for all I’ve seen
And so it goes, and so it goes
And you’re the only one who knows

So I would choose to be with you
That’s if the choice were mine to make
But you can make decisions too
And you can have this heart to break

And so it goes, and so it goes
And you’re the only one who knows.

Rodgers and Hammerstein: Some Enchanted Evening

There is a time in one’s life, if they have been loved or felt love for someone, when music speaks truth beyond that of words alone. Holding you in a dark hour, and teaching you where to put your feelings. Lifting you to a higher place, where confusion and doubt are replaced with honesty, solace and joy. I’m blessed to have music as a constant partner in my life; its melodies and poetry dynamically inspiring me to communicate, to learn and ultimately come to understand the delicacy of our time here. “Some Enchanted Evening” is a piece that captures the very essence of what I’m getting at. A song I’ve sung in many settings, for all different kinds of people that always seems to elicit the same result.

This song is said to have been the single biggest popular hit to come out of any Rodgers and Hammerstein show. In this three verse solo, Emile, the main male character from South Pacific, describes seeing a stranger, someone he feels pulled to. He knows that he will see her again, and her laughter will sing in his dreams. He sings that when you find your “true love”, you must “fly to her side, and make her your own”. This is an age-old message, but when mixed with the depth of the human voice and Rodgers’ music, its true message is delivered.

I have been collaborating with Steve Blier for going on ten years now. We met at Juilliard and his coachings were some of the most memorable and informing for my development as a young artist. I asked Steve if he would allow me to sing one of the great Richard Rodgers ballads on our upcoming program Rodgers, Rodgers and Guettel (Nov 1st and 3rd at Merkin). He selected this great song and I’m happy to be sharing its magic with my NYFOS family next week. Remember to bring some tissues and be open to all feelings.

Speaking of ‘legit’ sounds with spin, line etc etc, check out Ezio here, an opera singer who originated the role of Emile with a stunning bass-baritone voice, with a caramel tone, perfectly even vibrato and style.

Francis Poulenc: Priez pour paix

The transformative world of Francis Poulenc’s music lends itself well to any song recital program. Two seasons ago, after graduating from Juilliard, I chose to add “Priez Pour Paix” on a recital program I had concocted with pianist Peter Dugan for our first professional tour together. This program is called A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song. It is designed to commemorate the centennial of WWI by illuminating the lives, music and poetry of many composers who lived, fought and died during the Great War. Our program begins with music from England and Germany, after the intermission it moves through to France and America; representing some of the countries who were involved in the conflict. Many of the composers on the program, like George Butterworth and Carl Orff, fought in the war and saw battle, with the talented Butterworth losing his life to a sniper’s bullet. Poulenc, however, was only 15 years old at the outbreak of the war. Although young, from January 1918 to January 1921, Poulenc was a conscript in the French army in the last months of WWI and the immediate post-war period.

In the context of a program such as A Silent Night, “Priez Pour Paix” serves the purpose for which it was originally intended: to offer a moment of prayer and solace to those who have been affected and disturbed by the unending wage of war. The five lines of text are taken from a fifty line french ballad by a medieval prisoner of war. Poulenc spotted the poem on September 29th, 1938, at the outset of WWII in Le Figaro, a french magazine during the time. The five lines were perfect for Poulenc’s purposes and work flawlessly in the context of his haunting melody. There is no word or note out of place in this perfectly simple and powerful song.

Here is a video of pianist Peter Dugan and myself performing “Priez Pour Paix.” Our album A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song will be completed hopefully by the end of this year. It is our hope that many people will hear the music of these great composers and be transported to a time when music and poetry carried a strong message full of history and depth of soul, encouraging listeners to remember those who have been affected by this unceasing, unending force against humanity and nature.

Rodgers and Hammerstein: Soliloquy from Carousel

I felt it necessary to write about the power and magic of “Soliloquy” from Carousel as my first Song of the Day. This epic monologue ends the first act of Carousel, creating suspense and emotion like no other piece I’ve ever performed. Carousel, written in 1945, was the second work by the illustrious creative team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. This story is about a carousel barker Billy Bigelow, who falls in love with a millworker, Julie Jordan. Their love and lives aren’t perfect and together, due to economic strife, they lose their jobs. Billy’s fear of failure and lack of self-worth pushes him to commit a robbery to provide for Julie and their unborn child. After it goes wrong, he’s given a chance to make things right. Richard Rodgers later wrote that Carousel was his favorite of all his musicals. “Soliloquy” describes feelings, dreams and the inner plight of a man who wants to be good, but is hamstrung by his failures and projected self-worth.  Singing “Soliloquy” is not only a musical performance, but an entire life’s journey in one song.

My first introduction to this piece was when I was 18 years old. It was my senior year in high school, and my choral director chose me to play the role of Billy. I was afraid to memorize all of the text and did not know how to understand this complex character. Following weeks of rehearsals and deep soul searching, I found it wasn’t so difficult to become Billy. Through Rodgers music and Hammerstein’s words, I experienced the power that true drama and the human voice can have from the stage. “Soliloquy” taught me the depth of my voice, its strength, sensitivity and ability to connect to an audience. It also taught me that I had something more to offer as a singer. I remember the sound team having to turn down the microphones to accommodate my full voice towards the end on the sustained high notes; Clearview Regional High School’s auditorium got a serious dose of opera singing that night.

In much of the ‘Golden Age’ of musical theater, the singers didn’t use microphones. They sang with chest voice, spin and line. When approaching this repertoire, singers should embrace the style of that era, adapting slightly for our current audience’s ear, but not too far off course. “Soliloquy” and the role of Billy Bigelow requires this sound and pathos to be effective. Today opera companies are doing more productions of these great works because they carry such powerful, relatable stories and dramatic, beautiful music.

I’ve chosen a recording of John Raitt as an example of the ‘Golden Age’ sound that I strive for when I sing this repertoire. He was the original Billy Bigelow. He had a ringing baritenor voice that never sounds over covered or manufactured.

I’ve performed this great song dozens of times since high school in recitals. I am hoping to one day have another chance to sing it in its original context; bringing this character back to life and telling his story through my own story and voice.

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