Music and Beyond: Caroline Leonardelli and Julie Nesrallah reunite for the love of Italian art songs

Caroline Leonardelli and Julie Nesrallah are releasing a new CD this week.

Ottawa-based harpist Caroline Leonardelli is launching a new CD called Un Sospiro (A Sigh), a compilation of Italian arts songs, with her friend and colleague Ottawa mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah on July 7 and 8 as part of the Music and Beyond Festival. Before the launch, Leonardelli answered some questions from ARTSFILE about her career and her new album.

Q. Tell me a bit about your history in music?

A. I am from southwestern France and started my studies at a very young age at the Pau Conservatoire.  It was about an hour drive from where we lived and I went three times a week.

At 13, I auditioned for and was accepted into the Paris Conservatoire.  At that time I left home and lived relatively independently in Paris.  The education process is quite a bit different from North America.  The closest that people here would be familiar with would be the Curtis Institute of Music. The program at Paris specifically set up to train soloists. In the harp program they typically only accepted a couple of students each year.  When I came to Ottawa and decided to continue my performing career I wanted to expand my education in chamber and ensemble performance at the Schulich School of Music at McGill.  The harp program was just being started there and I was in the first student to enrol. For the past 20 plus years I have been performing and teaching.  Recently with the assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts I have been working with Kathleen Bride at the Eastman School of Music on new programs.

Q. Why the harp? 

A. I come from a musical family. My mother was a harpist and an organist. Her teacher at the Paris Conservatoire was Lily Laskine who was one of the most prominent harpists of the 20th century and the first female member of the Paris Opera Orchestra.  There was always music in the home. In the summer my mother would invite Lily and her school friends to visit our home. Where we lived in southwestern France is a very nice area for summer retreats. A few times Lily brought her flute player and partner in crime Jean-Pierre Rampal along. There were great parties, food, and lots of music. I was very young but the exposure to all these musician influenced and inspired me.

My mother made harp lessons part of our core education.  My brother, sister and I all took harp lessons however I was the only one to continue.

Q. What kind of harp do you play?

A. I perform on the classical concert pedal harp. My preferred instrument is a Lyon and Healy Style 30 that I purchased in 2003.  We are inseparable. The concert harp has 47 strings and double action pedals for each octave to adjust for sharps and flats. There are countless different types of harps. Typically people are most familiar with the celtic lever harp that has fewer stings and uses levers at the top to adjust for sharps and flats. There is a renaissance type harp which has three rows of stings that cover off all the requirement for sharps and flats. My former student Antoine Mallette-Chenier has become an expert on this type of harp along with the pedal harp. There are lots variations on the harp by cultural area, in South America, for example, the Paraguayan harp is extremely popular.

Q. Why did you come to Canada at age 18?

A. When I finished my education at the Paris Conservatoire I went through a period where I did not want to perform or be involved in music. It was all that I had known and I wanted to explore other things in life. I did some travelling including Canada. I liked it so much I decided to stay.

Q. You are well established in Ottawa now. Has it been a positive choice? 

A. Ottawa has been great to me. The audience support for classical music scene here is very strong. I cannot think of another city where there are two major summer festivals that promote classical music. There are a number exceptional choirs and ensemble groups.  I had the opportunity to meet and perform with artists like Julie and Matthew Larkin. I have had the opportunity to teach some exceptional students. Lots of positive things have come out of this. 

Q. You have recorded a CD with Julie Nesrallah. Do you two go back? 

A. I met Julie at McGill University. We were both students there so it has been a while ago to say the least. A number of years ago I decided that the best way to create awareness of my performances and advance my career was to do recordings. The first effort was a duet with harpist Caroline Lizotte released in 2004. I have always loved to work with vocalists. So for my next project I approached Julie. We released Panache in 2005.  It was a mix of French, Italian and German repertoire. We have had a great time performing the songs over the years. A couple of years ago we did a Christmas recording of a program that we had been performing for a few years. It feels like we have performed everywhere over the years. Lots of great audiences and stories!

Q. Un Sospiro is all Italian art songs. What is the appeal of this music for you and Julie?

A. I come from a French and Italian heritage. For a number of years I have been focused on French repertoire. I feel I have taken the French program as far as I can. For my next phase it felt natural to gravitate to Italian music. There is so much great Italian music and I am finding more all the time.  I love Julie’s voice on the Italian songs. It is a great fit. Julie was very open to the program suggestion. Most of the songs are from the late 19th and early 20th century.  This was the peak period for art songs. They were the pop songs of that era with Ruggero Leoncavallo and Paolo Tosti being extremely popular.

Q. Choosing songs is always difficult. How did that work? 

A. For me, the selection of a program is an iterative process. I come up with a list, but once I get into the process I find new music and when I look at the initial music I find things that I am not happy with. There is a lot of research as I want the program to be unique and not just the typical standards. There is a lot of  research for me because I am arranging the material for harp. Art songs are written for piano and not all piano parts perform or sound well on the harp. I spent many nights searching on the internet and listening to clips of recordings and live performances. A couple of the pieces were written for a different voice type. Fortunately we had the kind assistance of composer Kelly-Marie Murphy to transpose the music so it would work for us.

There are always a couple of must include pieces from each of us.  Each of us managed to add one at the last minute. I am happy with what we ended up with. I hope the listeners enjoy the result.

Q. It’s interesting to me that the City of Ottawa got behind this project. Explain their involvement.

A. The City of Ottawa has cultural funding program that includes a section for professional artists. Artists that have a project can apply to the program for a grant.  I have received support from this program for several of my recordings including El Dorado which received a JUNO nomination. I am an independent artist and programs like those at the City of Ottawa enable me to be successful. I have artistic control over the project which is very important to me. Without the City of Ottawa the financial burden of recording would have rlimited what I have been able to achieve. The Ontario Arts Council too has a great classical music recording program that has assisted me in the past and is assisting with my next solo recording. The completion date is planned for 2019. I have all the repertoire picked out now and have about half the material recorded.  I am very excited about how is it turning out.

Q. I know you are launching the CD at Music and Beyond? What’s next?

A. Julie and I have a bunch of concerts scheduled this summer. We are approaching festivals and series for next year. 

Un Sospiro featuring Julie Nesrallah and caroline Leonardelli
Music and Beyond
Where: National Arts Centre
When: July 7 at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.; July 8 at 3 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.