The pianist and song impresario takes a leadership role with the Tucson Desert Song Festival
Interview by James Reel
Kevin Murphy’s mission is simple: “I want to make sure that people understand that hearing singers in art song doesn’t have to be a chore,” he says.
Murphy is the Tucson Desert Song Festival’s artistic consultant. He also appears as pianist with young professional singers from Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute in a concert for the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. For all his career, Murphy has been immersed in art song and opera, and he wants you to know that classical vocal music is not just for a coterie of experts. Currently, Murphy is professor of practice and head opera coach at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.
“You don’t have to know all the poetry and you don’t have to speak the languages to like it and understand it,” he maintains. “What’s important is to see great artists doing what they do best, and communicating with you. When you look at a painting, you don’t have to know how the artist made the brush strokes, and you don’t need to understand the painting’s literary references, but you do know that it touches you. Art song is like that, even if it may not touch you right away. Sometimes, like with certain types of cuisine or wine, if you try it a few times before you say you dislike it, you find out it’s a great art form, and it’s worth supporting the people who endeavor to do it. Even if you’re not a connoisseur, it’s good to support art, and help people create things that are not just easy sells.”
Murphy’s position with the Tucson Desert Song Festival is purposefully vague, but central. “My role is to be a resource for all the constituents in the Tucson area that are affiliated with the festival,” he says, “to try to help recommend the best singing talent that we can find in the United States and in the world to come to Tucson and to make singing and the art of song singing a real event here.”
This, however, does not boil down to telling the Tucson Symphony or UApresents who to hire and what to program. “I don’t have authority,” Murphy says, “but from the time that I first met with Jack Forsythe (the festival’s founder and president) and the other constituents on the artistic steering committee, there’s been a real collaboration, and a bantering around of ideas. I think right now the artistic leaders are trying to form a collective idea of what they want to do in future festivals, and I’m there to help that. I’m not looking for authority. I propose, and I look at the needs of each organization and see if there’s somebody who fits into the needs of the Tucson Desert Song Festival and the needs of the constituent organization.”
The Steans Music Institute, where Murphy is the program director for singers, is a training and performing wing of the Ravinia Festival. “It’s in a beautiful park in a suburb of Chicago,” Murphy explains, “and it’s an ideal place to make music, like Tanglewood. It’s the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Steans Music Institute has been around for 25 years; it started with a piano and strings division, then there was a jazz element, and now the third wing is the program for singers. I’m the director of that. The program for singers is all about art song; it’s not opera. I get 15 young singers who have been selected, and I hire young pianists who are already having careers as collaborative pianists, and each pianist has three singers to work with. I hire top people like pianist Malcom Martineau and voice teachers like my wife, Heidi Grant Murphy, and language coaches. We even have specialists in the Alexander Technique, so singers learn how to use their bodies in a more relaxed, energy-efficient way. We’re together for three weeks and look at repertoire and put together daily coaching sessions. The singers rehearse on their own with their pianists, and we do three or four informal concerts that are free to the public before we do our main recitals at Ravinia. We have two main concerts, and we try to program interesting things, sometimes revolving around an anniversary of a composer, like Benjamin Britten last summer, and Richard Strauss this coming summer. Also, because last summer was the 25th anniversary of Steans, we had some special events, like commissioning seven composers to write songs to premiere there. Some of the composers came and coached the singers and pianists. My hope as we go forward—I’ve been there two years—is that we can do more commissioning and more promoting new songs.
“We want to put the song recital back on the map. A lot of people say, ‘What is art song, anyway?’ My answer is we have German Lieder, French chanson and mélodie, American songs (even Gershwin)—there’s such a wide range of repertoire, and the more we get people to come to song recitals to hear it, the happier I am. It’s a wonderful way for the singers to balance song with the operatic side of things that usually preoccupies them.”
In selecting participants, Murphy says, “I’m very interested in people who have something to say—not vocal perfectionists all the time, although that’s a plus, but I’m interested in people who are not generic, people who are not just trying to do it right, but who have a point of view. I’m looking at balancing it between people who are very advanced and already have management, and some who are just beginning their careers. The singers influence each other and it’s good for them to hear what their colleagues are doing.”
Of the Steans alumni with whom Murphy will perform for the Arizona Friends of Chamber music, he has this to say: “Nadine Sierra was in the program at Steans during the summer of 2012. She is a beautiful young soprano who won the Metropolitan Opera competition and is beginning to have a wonderful career. She has a beautiful voice and a love of singing that transmits to the audience. She’s just got that excitement factor that you have to respond to. I was a judge at the Metropolitan Opera regional competition the year she advanced to the finals. When she walked on that stage, all three of us judges sat right up, and after she did her required two pieces, we asked her to sing a third song just for the enjoyment of it.
“Nathanial Olson is a student at Indiana University, and I got to know him two years ago when I joined the faculty there. He’s got the right instincts, and a beautiful, rich, golden baritone voice; he’s a wonderful young man on the verge of a very big career. David Margulis is a tenor who was in the program last year. He also went to Indiana University, he has a very beautiful voice, and he is a young artist at Arizona Opera.”
Despite his long experience working with singers, Murphy admits that assembling an effective song program entails a bit of struggle. “I obsess over programs,” he says. “I don’t easily put them together. I have to imagine how it will flow for the audience. I do consider the audience very much, as much as I do the singer. It’s important to try to make a program that the audience will appreciate and want to sit there for. You can’t please everybody all the time and I don’t mean that you should give up your values, but it’s important to balance the program. And a lot depends on the singer. Some are better as they go through the evening, once they warm up. Others tire, and you can’t tax them so much at the end.
“The singer doesn’t have sets or costumes or other colleagues to rely on; everything depends on what’s coming out of their mouths for two hours. So the repertoire has to be chosen for artistic cohesion, and understanding who your audience is, and understanding the physical and mental capabilities of the singers.
“Many singers I know are thinking, ‘I should be able to sing this or that,’ but it doesn’t matter what you sing so much as how you sing it and what you bring to it of your own. When a singer can bring his or her soul or psyche to it, that’s when people respond.”