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John Brancy & Peter Dugan Musically Mark Armistice Centennial with Consummate Sensitivity
by Bruce-Michael Gelbert      |   follow us...

   
photo by Gerard Collett
John Brancy & Peter Dugan
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World War One ended 100 years ago this coming November, and on April 5, at Alice Tully Hall, thanks to the Juilliard School, two sensitive young artists, warm- and smooth-voiced lyric baritone John Brancy, well known to followers of the New York Festival of Song and Juilliard Opera, and on the Yamaha, pianist Peter Dugan, both sporting remembrance poppies in their lapels, connected with that centennial with a compelling program of art songs and other related music.
Dugan provided a prelude to this Alice Tully Vocal Arts Recital by playing his own jubilant arrangement of Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity,” from “The Planets” (1918), with its folksong-style central chorale, basis for wartime hymn “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” and its triumphant ending.
A featured highlight of the evening was a world premiere, “I Have a Rendezvous With Death,” a Juilliard commission and something of a family affair, with music by Leonardo Dugan, the pianist’s older brother and mentor, and text by Alan Seeger, an early American casualty of the war, as a member of the French Foreign Legion, whose brother and sister-in-law, Charles and Constance Seeger, were members of the Juilliard faculty, and whose nephew was songwriter Pete Seeger. The new song proved solemn and haunting, its mentions of “Spring,” “apple-blossoms,” “meadow-flowers,” and “silk and scented down” scarcely softening the ultimate, inevitable blow. Brancy’s thoughtful rendition of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” the popular protest song that we used to sing in the 1960s, followed. Brancy began it, with immediacy, a cappella, then Dugan added a simple, spare, and appropriate piano line.
The triumphal mood established with “Jupiter” continued with Americans Oley Speaks and John Hay’s anticipatory and celebratory “When the Boys Come Home,” written before the war was over. Brancy gave us a striking diminuendo at the end of the penultimate verse, which led into a contemplative final one, with a musical quotation from the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Ralph Vaughan Williams, who enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps and then the Royal Artillery, wrote his first eight “Songs of Travel,” settings of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, between 1901 and 1904. “The Vagabond” is very much a song of the open road, whatever it may hold. “Let Beauty Awake” is a sweet paean to the wonders of Nature, which Brancy brought to a beautiful, quiet conclusion. The remaining songs were a rhapsodic “Roadside Fire;” nocturnes “Youth and Love” and “In Dreams,” the former brought to a close by the singer in a high voix mixte, the latter also a reverie; “The Infinite Shining Heavens,” an ode to the crystalline stars, “Dumb and shining and dead,” but also omens of hope; “Whither Must I Wander?” acknowledging the call to adventure, but also to home, both beckoning; and “Bright Is the Ring of Words,” finale of the cycle, brought to a peaceful close.
Brancy and Dugan’s German Lieder group paired Romantic-era songs by Franz Schubert with those by Rudi Stephan, who was killed in the war. From the open road, we went on to the storm-tossed open sea, in Schubert’s “Der Schiffer,” to Johann Baptist Mayrhofer’s words, in Brancy and Dugan’s turbulent account, followed by Stephan and Johann Christian Günther’s “Am Abend,” an extremely somber nocturne. Schubert’s “Der Wanderer” considered both the bleakness and the beauty that the wanderer finds, its question, “wo?/Immer wo?” (Where? always where?), lightly voiced, its answer, “Dort, wo du nicht bist, dort ist das Glück” (There, where you are not, there good fortune lies), considerably darker. Stephan and Friedrich Hebbel’s “Memento Vivere” was an earnest memorial to fallen comrades, contrasting with Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh,” gentler and more consoling, with Brancy’s floated ascent near the end.
Sergei Rachmaninoff fled war-torn Europe for America in 1918 and heard here were his “Ja zhdu tebja” (I wait for you), with poetry by Maria Avgustovna Davidova, an impassioned outpouring, which Brancy crowned with a glowing high note; “Zdes’ kharasho” (Here it is so fine), setting Glafira Adol’fovna Galina’s poem, peaceful, with a perfect floated high note in the last line; and the familiar “Vesennije Vody” (Spring waters), to Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev’s text, another passionate address, with a ringing top tone near the end. Irving Berlin, whose family fled from Russia, served in the American army, and in “Goodbye, France,” which quotes from “Over There,” happily bid fond farewell to the country and the war there.
Ivor Novello served in the Royal Naval Air Service and his songs, which Brancy and Dugan offered, written after the war, were “The Land of Might-Have-Been,” with words by Edward Moore, lyrically exploring possibility and impossibility, and “Shine Through My Dreams,” to Christopher Hassall’s poetry, burning brightly with promise, and coming to a lustrous climax. Rounding out the recital were a ninth one of Vaughan Williams’ “Songs of Travel,” “I Have Trod the Upward and Downward Slope,” discovered and published posthumously, with the wanderer weighing in now optimistically, then pessimistically, and as an encore, a hopeful and touching “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” with Brancy’s powerful ending and Dugan’s pianistic allusions to Holst’s “Jupiter.”


 

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