Kelly-Marie Murphy was initially “terrified” by the idea of entering a competition designed to encourage Canadian composers to create worthy Jewish orchestral music.
Although she’s one of the country’s most accomplished composers – having made music for the Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver symphony orchestras – Murphy felt she could not enter the Azrieli Music Prize contest when it was launched two years ago.
Other than a familiarity with Canadian Srul Irving Glick and Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov, who draw inspiration from their Jewish identity, Murphy was not well versed in what might be termed “Jewish” music.
But when the call went out for the prize’s second edition, Murphy did not hesitate.
On Sept. 5, the Azrieli Foundation announced that Murphy has been awarded the 2018 Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music, which is worth $50,000 and is described as the largest composition prize in Canada. Originally from Calgary, she is an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s school of music.
Murphy was selected by a blue-ribbon jury from a significant number of entries on the strength of her proposal for a double concerto for cello and harp, which will explore Sephardi music. Specifically, it will pay tribute to its impact on the cultures of the countries the community settled in, such as North Africa and parts of Europe.
The work will premiere at a gala concert on Oct. 15, 2018, at the Maison symphonique, performed by the McGill Chamber Orchestra (MCO) and choir, under the baton of the Israeli Yoav Talmi, former conductor of the Orchestre symphonique de Québec from 1988-2011.
Murphy gives credit to her daughter’s Jewish swim teacher, who has a Ladino band and wants to do a PhD in Sephardi music.
Murphy, 53, can relate to a peripatetic lifestyle. Born into a military family, she spent her youth moving every few years, and her career has also meant changing addresses often.
“What fascinates me is how music travels and how it can subtly influence cultures throughout its journey,” she said.
Once introduced to the richness of Sephardi liturgical and folk music, Murphy sensed a kindred spirit, marvelling at a 2,000-year Diaspora that has retained its identity wherever it went.
“It speaks to everything music has been in my life,” she said. “Music has been at the core of my whole life wherever I’ve gone … it’s what held me together, first with piano and, later, voice lessons.”
She expects that considerable research will go into the creation of the work and that she will “grow as a composer, as a result of the experience.”
Azrieli Foundation board member Sharon Azrieli, who created the prizes, is flexible in the definition of Jewish music and who can make it.
She has no issue with “cultural appropriation” – anyone can vie for the prize, whatever their background or stage of their career. The main criteria are that the music expresses an aspect of the Jewish experience and is of the highest calibre.
Azrieli, an operatic soprano and scholar of Jewish music, believes that a significant contribution to the Jewish repertoire enriches music in general.
She hails Murphy as “the next vital and integral partner to my vision of sustaining the glorious continuity of Jewish music and our culture.”
With the prize’s prestige established, more entries were received this year than the first time around.
Murphy is sensitive to the appropriation debate. She says that by building on the Sephardi tradition, she hopes to be “a respectful attendant and contributor to a vibrant, living culture.”
Murphy’s distinctive music has been described as “Bartok on steroids.”
The jury is composed of MCO artistic director Boris Brott, Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Aaron Jay Kernis, musicologist Neil Levin, American conductor Steven Mercurio and award-winning Université de Montréal composition professor Ana Sokolovic.
The inaugural winner of the commissioning prize in 2016 was also not Jewish. Brian Current’s The Seven Heavenly Halls, an epic oratorio inspired by the kabbalistic Zohar, had its debut in October of last year at the inaugural Azrieli music prize concert. It was performed by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and conducted by Kent Nagano.
The winner of the second category of the Azrieli music prize, for the best Jewish-themed work that’s suitable for chamber orchestra and written within the last 10 years by anyone from anywhere in the world, will be announced in the spring. The deadline for submissions is Nov. 5. It is also worth $50,000.
Georges Nicholson, a former Radio-Canada classical music show host who MCed the prize announcement, underlined the generosity of the Azrieli prizes.
“The Canada Council may give grants of $5,000 to $7,000 and feel really proud of it,” he said.
The Seven Heavenly Halls and the winner of the 2016 Jewish music prize, Concerto for Klezmer Clarinet, by young Polish-born, Los Angeles-based composer Wlad Marhulets, will have their European debut this month in Prague, where they will be performed by the Czech National Symphony, under the baton of Mercurio.
The works are also being recorded there.
The first piece will feature tenor Richard Troxell of the Metropolitan Opera as soloist and renowned American clarinetist David Krakauer will play the concerto, for whom Marhulets expressly composed it.