Ottawa’s Kelly-Marie Murphy to hear her Azrieli prize-winning music performed in Montreal

Kelly-Marie Murphy. Photo Alan Dean Photography

Monday night in Montreal will mark the culmination of a very long run of good fortune for Ottawa composer Kelly-Marie Murphy.

The piece that won the $50,000 Azrieli Prize for new Jewish Music will be performed in concert at the city’s Maison symphonique.

En El Escuro es Todo Uno which means In The Darkness All Is One is based on a Ladino proverb. The composition features a rare duet of harp and cello with chamber orchestra. The McGill Chamber Orchestra will be conducted Monday by Yoav Talmi

The harp soloist is Erica Goodman and the cellist should be well known to patrons of the NAC Orchestra. Rachel Mercer, NACO’s principal cellisr will be performing. The orchestra will have double winds, a couple of horns, trumpets, two percussion and tympani along with strings.

Murphy was introduced to the music of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 by her daughter’s Jewish singing teacher Catherine Palmer. At the time she was looking for an idea that she could enter into the Azrieli competition.

When she won more than a year ago, it was a stunner.

“When I got the phone call I was, ‘No way. I’m having a Walter Mitty moment. I listened to the message again and it was the real thing,” she told me at the time.

Her lucky run included a commission to write a piece of music in honour of the 85th birthday of Glenn Gould for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra called Curiosity, Genius and The Search for Petula Clark. She was also commissioned by the Women’s Music Club of Toronto to write an unusual piece for eight cellos and she won the first ever Symphony Nova Scotia Maria Anna Mozart prize for women composers worth $10,000 and another commission.

The “wins” couldn’t have come at a better time for Murphy, who had had a tough couple of years preceding these announcements.

Winning a prize for Jewish music doesn’t faze Murphy. She told me that “composers study everything, at least I think we should be. You can’t grow without that (curiosity). As soon as you scratch the surface of any music you will find ” a myriad influences.

Without that curiosity, Murphy, who was born in 1964 on a NATO base in Italy and is a self-confessed Canadian Forces brat, believes the creative process would stagnate.

“I think it’s beautiful that somebody like me growing up on bases across Canada. How would come to know and love the music of Blind Willie Johnson and Bulgarian women’s choir music. This stuff affects me and touches me.

“When you write a proposal, you are talking about an imaginary piece. I put together this proposal about Sephardic music, thanks to my daughter’s singing teacher who is Jewish.

“I said: ‘I want to put together a proposal’ and she said: ‘You have to study Sephardic music, it is the most beautiful music.'”

The teacher sent Murphy some links and she was captivated.

“We are talking about a culture that has been expelled from everywhere. I can’t reconcile that. My job here is to be observant of the music and put it into something that is new.

“I finished the proposal and thought it would be so cool to write this piece.”

Lo and behold, good things come to those who work hard at their craft.

Why the harp? “I really wanted to do that. I like a challenge.”

Murphy says she learned how to write for the harp from Judy Loman, the former principal with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

“The harp can be sort of a guitar bringing in Spanish influences. It can by rhythmic… It can be everything.

“The harp can add so many colours and the cello is that emotional voice to make connections.” The audience will find out Monday night.

Going forward, Murphy told me in another interview that she hopes to build on her successes.

“Musically there is always something to improve upon. If you stop, it’s hard to get going again.”

She doesn’t worry about the lack of opportunities for female composers.

“I just write music. I am me and I express myself in this way. I am not doing it to thumb my nose at music tradition.  I don’t know what right side of the argument is.” But she also says that putting a woman’s work on a program just to tick a box is wrong.

“That’s wrong. If your job is to explore contemporary music you should be aware of everything and everybody.

In her music Murphy said she is very interested to make connections between real life and music. To make an emotional and personal connection, you have to have a language that speaks and resonates. There is going to be this lyricism that makes you feel something. There is going to be that tension with the rhythmic stuff that makes you feel anxious because the stories I choose are strong.

“What is my job if not to interpret our experience as Canadians.”

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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.