The music is not something I prepare and bring for people to look at, it’s an exchange of energy in the space.” ~ Melanie Conly

General ($20) / Student ($15) at BeMused Network

This Sunday (date changed from Thursday) evening at the Heliconian Hall, soprano Melanie Conly and pianist Kathryn Tremills will be presenting a program of Samuel Barber, Hector Berlioz, Henry Purcell, George Gershwin, and Kurt Weill in her aptly titled recital, “Summer Nights: Languor and Longing”.

Conly has chosen songs with compelling stories about the composers and writers, in the hopes that audiences will be able to make their own connections with the pieces in an intimate setting, where acrylic paintings on wood by Laleh St. Pierre will also be on display.

We had a chat over coffee about the deep connections she has developed with these works over the years, connections that she hopes audiences will also be able to make.

A huge fan of Barber—one of the major American composers of the 20th century—Conly loves introducing audiences to his work. She recently performed one of her favourite pieces, Hermit Songs, at the Syrinx Concert Series in Toronto and later in Ottawa.

“Barber picked texts written by 8th-13th century monks and scholars in Ireland.” Explains Conly. “These are notes from the margins of books, thoughts and ponderings. Some are serious, some more moving, some are funny, but they all express the simplicity of their lives and how closely they lived in nature.”

These texts are inspired by the monks’ religious practice, a choice that Conly finds curious, seeing as how Barber was not particularly religious himself.

“I look at these songs, and the big question I have is why he picked those particular texts and what they meant to him. I want to talk to him, and obviously I can’t do that. I want the audience to wonder that too.”

The music of Barber is in the classical tradition, even though it doesn’t sound much like Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. Fans of Barber always welcome the opportunity hear his works live in performance, but bringing new audiences into the fold takes more than the typical introductions in recitals.

“I realize that on a first listen, Barber is not always easy to listen to, and after the Syrinx concert it was clear the music didn’t land for the audience. Other songs I sang were more cabaret which is really immediate and what they remembered most.”

The next chance Conly had to perform Barber was in Ottawa, and she took a risk to share more of her insights and experience with the composer, which felt like a more meaningful way to engage the audience with his Hermit Songs.

“It feels scary to share that because you are entrusting people with the meanderings of your brain and your feelings. I said a little bit more about what Barber made me think, made me feel, and it made a huge difference.”

The imagery in Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 struck a chord with Conly. At first it was the rich imagery of lazy summer days from the perspective of a child and the recollections of an adult which reminded Conly of her own summers at Lake Winnipeg with her grandfather.

“It reminded me of playing cards all night, soft ice cream around the corner, it brought it all back to me. I am very nostalgic by nature, and in a very visceral, immediate way I connected with the imagery.”

After some research, she discovered a deeper personal connection with the piece: the grief associated with the loss of a father, a moment that Samuel Barber, James Agee and, ultimately, Conly, shared over this work.

Knoxville switches back and forth between this man remembering, and a child experiencing.” Recalls Conly. “Agee wrote this in response I think to grief that he was processing much later in life over the death of his father in a car accident, when Agee was very young.”

“Barber found this text when he was dealing with the imminent mortality of his father, and I found Knoxville when my dad was quite sick.” continues Conly. “What’s interesting was how much Knoxville resonated with me even before I knew all this background. I could just feel it.”

Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été is the other major work on the program. The piece is a French song cycle set to poetry by the composer’s contemporary, Théophile Gautier. Conly speaks about the works with an infectious affection.

“I am finding kernels of ideas in the Berlioz. The second song is called The Ghost of a Rose. It’s the greatest love story every written. A rose is talking to a sleeping woman on whose breast it died the night before.”

“It isn’t a sad song at all, even though it’s about love that came and went away. The rose is dead, but it’s not longing to be back; instead it’s remembering the fullness and joy. It’s the secret to life: having the moment and letting it go.”

All of this reflection isn’t just self-indulgence. It’s diving deep into the universal human experiences that we all share, and connecting with an audience over that as the common ground, rather than the formalized frame that classical music is often presented in.

“One of the things that I’m after more and more is to be an interface between this great music and the audience. Less about the biographical facts, more about that essence that makes life meaningful,” shares Conly.

“That’s what I want to ground into during the concert. The music is not something I prepare and bring for people to look at, it’s an exchange of energy in the space.”

It’s admittedly an experiment, but this is what making art is about. Every audience is different, and engaging each of them requires an artist to be really present and reaching out to make a connection with the people in the room.

“I want the audience to experience Barber and Agee in a more real way,” stresses Conly. “That’s what I want to experiment with. Maybe I say too much that time and I have to dial it back, but I would rather say too much and have people connect.”

Songs by Purcell, Weill, and Gershwin will also make an appearance on the program, offering a nice contrast to these intense pieces, and also a nod to Conly’s early training in music theatre.

Join Melanie Conly this Sunday (date changed from Thursday) in Yorkville, for a summer night that will certainly leave you all the richer. Advance tickets ($15/$20) are available on BeMused Network.