OCTOBER 12, 2012
Jim Bratcher, a highly respected musician, arranger, mentor and driving force in the Albuquerque musical community, died on August 14, 2012 in Albuquerque. He was 77. He was a member of the University of New Mexico John Donald Robb Musical Trust board of directors from 2003 until his death, contributing his exceptional skill at editing and arranging music, and his musical vision as chair of the board’s Performance and Education Committee.
A Nov. 10 memorial service honored Bratcher’s exemplary role in enriching the cultural fabric of our community. During the service, musicians and lovers of music from across Albuquerque performed a choral tribute of some of Bratcher's favorite music.
Bratcher, along with renowned conductor Kurt Frederick, was one of the originators of Opera Southwest, which got its start in 1972 as Albuquerque Opera Theatre. Bratcher was its longest tenured artistic/music director, serving from 1979-1987 and again in the mid-1990s. He was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts grant (Western Division) in 1974 to form the New Mexico Symphony Chorus and served as assistant conductor of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra.
A natural musical proficiency
From an early age, Bratcher demonstrated a natural musical proficiency. When he was 15, he won the Albuquerque Civic Symphony young artists’ competition and appeared with the orchestra as a piano soloist. Six years later, he won the competition again, this time performing with the orchestra as a vocalist.
He earned three degrees from the University of New Mexico: BFA in voice and organ, MA in education and a master’s of music in voice. While a student, he was actively performing in musical productions across Albuquerque. While serving in the Navy in the late 50s, he was the organist and choir director at the U.S. Naval Base at Newport, RI.
“I first met Jim when he was selected to accompany me on my senior viola recital at UNM,” said Jim Bonnell, chair of the UNM Robb Trust. “His consummate skill on the keyboard increased my confidence, and his subsequent support and encouragement empowered me as a performer. Jim did the same for hundreds of musicians through the years.”
After completing his master’s degree, Bratcher moved to New York City where he enrolled in the Union Theological Seminary. He also continued his music education, studying privately in the areas of conducting, voice, musicology and coaching with top-tier teachers. Bratcher, an accomplished tenor, performed with the original Robert Shaw Chorale and as a soloist in concerts with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, among others, and under the baton of many luminary conductors including Leonard Bernstein. In 1959 alone, he performed 11 leading roles in contemporary operas with the American Opera Theater. He also toured nationally as a freelance singer and musical accompanist.
“In New York City, where so many singers could not find work, Jim was always busy because he read music so well, and conductors knew he was reliable,” said Justine Opel, administrative adviser for Opera Southwest, and a longtime colleague and friend. “As an opera performer, he was always cast as the lead tenor because of his voice, but he preferred to do the comic comprimario roles.”
In the mid-1960s, while traveling and performing in Europe, he was organist/choirmaster at the U.S. Air Force Base in Rhein/Maine, Germany. He then returned to the United States to work as a professor at Bethel College in Tennessee and Columbus College in Georgia. Because of the illness of parents, he returned to Albuquerque in 1970 and for the next 14 years produced outstanding choirs and taught English at Eldorado High School. He also resumed his longstanding relationship with churches and synagogues across the city, serving as tenor soloist or choirmaster and organist until his death.
In the late 1980s after his mother’s death, Bratcher joined a Lutheran Benedictine monastery in Michigan and contributed his musical passion to that community. When the order became cloistered, he moved to Orlando, FL, as a Franciscan monk. There he established a home for AIDS patients and homeless men.
He returned to Albuquerque in 1995 to once again resume artistic leadership of Opera Southwest with Justine Opel. In addition to his role as artistic director of Opera Southwest, Bratcher trained the chorus, played for rehearsals, and designed, tailored and sewed most of the company’s costumes, often finishing the last stitch minutes before the opening downbeat. He also operated a catering business.
Dedicated to the Robb Trust
For the UNM Robb Trust, Bratcher contributed his musical editing and arranging skills in preparing for performance John Donald Robb compositions and traditional Hispanic music. His most recent project was editing Robb’s Requiem for its April 2012 debut by the Bach Society of Saint Louis.
He was instrumental in editing compositions for publication, as well, and was completing manuscripts for the second edition of Robb’s Hispanic Folk Songs of New Mexico at his death. In his role as chair of the Performance and Education Committee, he played key roles in Robb concerts. He staged Robb’s folk opera Little Jo at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in 2005 and designed the program for a February 2012 Robb Concert, which culminated in Bratcher leading the audience in singing “O, Fair New Mexico,” in celebration of the state’s centennial.
In 2004, Bratcher received the Albuquerque Arts Alliance Bravo Award for Excellence in Music, one of the city’s top awards for contributions to music.
Gifts in memory of James E. Bratcher may be designated to the UNM Robb Trust in support of the Robb Trust Graduate Assistantship, Opera Southwest, Animal Humane New Mexico or Watermelon Mountain Ranch.