Baritone John Brancy answers our questions on his connection to the music of Kurt Weill and how he created his much acclaimed recitals about WWI. John returns to NYFOS on November 19 in a concert versions of Marc Blitzstein’s No For An Answer & Kurt Weill’s Der Silbersee.
We are especially thrilled to have you, a recent Lotte Lenya Competition winner, in our Weill/Blitzstein cast next month. What draws you to the music of Kurt Weill?
Kurt Weill’s music has had a long standing presence in my life as a singer. Steve Blier first introduced me to this special composer when I started at Juilliard. Steve and I performed a program of “standards” and classics from the American Songbook at Caramoor when I was 18. I’ll never forget that experience, and always remember “Love Song” by Weill. “Love Song”, which comes from his work Love Life, is a big starry ballad sung by the Drifter character. As a stand alone piece its most effective as an 11 o’clock number or when you’re trying to drive home a specific message. That love is all we need and without it, what are we anyway? I’m drawn to the music of Weill because it doesn’t always need to be pretty or lush — most of the time it’s gritty, real and to the point. I can deeply appreciate Weill’s political angle and I respect that aspect of his music and work.
You, along with pianist Peter Dugan, have created two popular recital programs centered around World War I and its aftermath. How did you and Peter conceive of these programs?
The key to developing these programs was through the discovery and ultimately the deep love for the repertoire and composers of the time. The more we dug into the music and history of composers like George Butterworth, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, and Ralph Vaughan Williams (to name a few of the famous ones who fought) we found pieces and/or cycles that either were written in response to the conflict of WWI or in some unique way, prophesied its coming.
When we discovered some unsung works by Carl Orff, Rudi Stephan and Oley Speaks, we were inspired further to consider more adventurous programming. Ultimately our programs were made up of 90% 20th century music and almost all of the composers experienced conflict from WWI in some way. When we began touring these programs (A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song and The Journey Home) we never thought we would have accomplished what we did. Over the four years commemorating the centennial anniversary of WWI, Peter and I performed at the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, the Smithsonian Insititute, the US Naval Acadmy, West Point Academy, and Arizona Opera, just to name a few of the highlights.
We performed for veterans and their families along the way, as well as disabled veterans. This was the real purpose of this tour, to connect with the people who have sacrificed their lives for a just cause and remember the fallen.
What was your collaboration like as you selected the repertoire and fine-tuned your interpretations?
Peter and I match one another really well throughout the programming process. Normally, I’ll throw a whole bunch of songs in the mix and get super ambitious with the programming. Peter definitely brings us back down to earth and ultimately helps to fine tune final programming.
All of our programs feature original arrangements of popular tunes, as well as solo piano repertoire. This is quite a task for Peter, however he really shines in this area. We frequently get asked for Peter’s arrangements of Danny Boy and Where Have All The Flowers Gone? And Peter even starts The Journey Home with a solo piano arrangement of Holst’s Jupiter!
We were really able to grow together as a collaborative duo throughout the four year long journey. There were certainly stressful and intense times along the way, but it taught me that Peter and I are meant to have a life long collaboration in song and original, adventurous programming.
What advice would you give a young singer trying to build more recital work into their careers?
As a singer, I think there are a few really important points to consider if you want to begin working on more song repertoire and make it a consistent part of your career. First and foremost, it is key to be a good collaborator and listen a lot, not only to the music but also what the pianist has to say about their interpretation and ultimately how the song should be paced. I don’t think a Song partnership is a static, one size fits all sort of thing. Every relationship will be different and you may have several pianists you like to work with. The most important thing to bring to the table in any situation is listening!
The other point to really consider is original, adventurous programming. I learned this from the master himself, Steve Blier. Now I implement it every opportunity I get to perform song. Don’t get me wrong, I encourage all young singers to explore the tried and true cycles. But what’s harder, and ultimately even more rewarding (both from a financial standpoint and an artistic one) is to devise programs that are entirely unique to your experience, what you believe. Another way of approaching the programming is to deliver it for a hyper-specific audience. If you can find a way to program songs for groups of people, that resonate with the overall thematic material, then you’ll set yourself apart from the crowd and find unique opportunities to share. It may seem scary and difficult at first to go down this road, but I encourage all young singers to do it!
You seem very attuned to the non-musical aspects of building a career in music, such as networking and marketing your work. How do you think about investing in these elements of the business?
As a performer, presence is everything. In our field, it’s not easy to stand out and it can also seem a bit daunting when trying to build the image you want to convey to the world. Social Media can be a great tool, but it can also be a means of distraction and confusion. I have aimed to make my social media experience about my artistic pursuits and occasionally I like to throw in bits and pieces of my personal life and journey as well. One thing that has really helped me market my work has been to try and see my life before it happens and develop a plan for content. I know now that you can’t predict what life will throw at you day to day. But, you can aim to try and produce things in advance, which will hopefully give you something to anchor into when it comes time to promote your work. For me, excellent video content is a very important and essential item to have, and is definitely something worth investing time and resources into.
Like many of our artists, you are on the road more often than not. What are your travel must-haves?
One of the hardest aspects of living on the road is needing to stay healthy come performance time. One thing I must have with me are my Host Defense Immune boosting supplements, very high count live probiotics and 50,000 IU D3. These three supplements taken together have been so effective at warding off colds and sickness the past two years. Knock on wood… but I haven’t had a cold in almost 2 years!
What helps you feel at home when you are away for weeks or months at a time?
Something that really makes me feel at home in the apartment I’m renting is burning palo santo incense and playing singing bowls on YouTube. I get into a meditative, easy mind set and can feel like I’m in a safe and familiar place. I also like to make it a priority, from Day 1 to find a gym and yoga studio. I make movement a priority in my life, it brings mental clarity and helps me with my breathing and focus.
What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?
I recently saw and heard Christian Gerhaher and Gerald Huber at Alice Tully Hall perform songs of Mahler. After this concert I’ve been listening a bit to the Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen which I hope to someday get the opportunity to perform with an orchestra!
When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?
I always enjoy yoga, working out and cooking as daily activities. But I’m also very keen on developing projects and creating new opportunities for future collaboration with my friends. I love to work with my super talented friends on exciting new projects and explore what is possible in music and content creation. I’d love to be involved with the creation of new work and maybe even something that can be streamed online or at home on your TV.
Are there any upcoming projects on your calendar that you are particularly excited about? (Other than our Blitzstein/Weill double bill, of course.)
I’m excited to return to Opera National de Bordeaux to perform the Brahms Requiem, as well as sing Handel’s Messiah at the US Naval Academy in December. I’m also slated to return to Pacific Opera Victoria in one of my favorite modern operas — FLIGHT by Jonathan Dove! I have more exciting projects to announce very soon as well.
NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you?
Song is what keeps the world sane. To me, singing and song are what keep us going, especially in the darkest of times. I hope that as I continue to perform songs and present them to audiences throughout my life, I can help people in their dark moments, lifting them up. I also hope to bring new and exciting works into this crazy world.
What is your favorite song? (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)
This is an incredibly difficult question to answer. But as of recently, my favorite song is by a young composer and solo artist Jacob Collier. The song is called “In the Real Early Morning”. I believe Jacob Collier is one of the greatest composers living today and his music maybe very well by as important as the likes of Paul Simon or perhaps, Schubert.