To hear baritone Michael Kelly of SongFusion speak about art songs is to hear in spoken words the heartfelt emotion he will pour into his upcoming performance at the Canandaigua LakeMusic Festival this weekend in a program titled "L'invitation au voyage" ("Invitation to a Voyage").
"The song 'L'invitation au Voyage' by Duparc speaks so specifically to feelings. It puts your feelings into words, and sometimes those words are exaggerated, but sometimes to get your point across you have to go to extremes," says Kelly. "Baudelaire used symbolism so freely and unashamedly, going to images that would help bring across his point as poignantly as possible."
"L'invitation au Voyage," written in 1870 by French composer Henri Duparc (1848-1933), is based upon a text by Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire's poem is spoken to woo a lover with the imaginings of what their love will bring to them.
Kelly also writes poetry and is drawn to the art song, where poetry and music combine. Kelly prepares to perform art songs much the way the poet and then the composer approached the composition. "I read the poem. I become very familiar with it, sometimes memorizing it first. I live with it before I go to the music. I want to know what the composer saw in the poem before he started his work," says Kelly. "I can then express within the music my own take on the poem."
The performance on August 19 is just one of the concerts offered during the multi-week Canandaigua LakeMusic Festival, organized by co-artistic directors Edward Klorman and Amy Sue Barston. Kelly, one of the singers with SongFusion, is just one of the artists performing from August 15 to August 26. Other festival artists include Michael Block, cello; Moran Katz, clarinet; Elisa Barston, violin; and others. Festival venues range from the historic Granger Homestead to Wegmans Market Café for the "Classical Blue Jeans" concerts.
The idea for the August 19 program sprang up between Klorman and pianist and SongFusion member Liza Stepanova. Klorman and Stepanova are both on faculty at The Juilliard School, and have performed together previously.
SongFusion, based in New York City, focuses on art-song performances, using a traditional recital format and adding "unexpected angles," such as collaborations with instrumentalists, dancers, actors, and visual artists. An "art song" is typically written for voice and piano, beginning as early as Mozart and Beethoven, and continuing to modern composers.
Klorman had success last year designing a program around a Tolstoy story that had inspired Beethoven. This year, the primary work for the story-inspired concert is "Poem de l'amour et de la mer, Op. 19," written in 1896 by French composer Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) with text by poet Maurice Bouchor (1855-1929). The song cycle of approximately 30 minutes is dedicated to Duparc. Both the composer Chausson and the poet Bouchor took their inspiration from the Russian story by Ivan Turgenev (1919-1893) "Le Chant de l'Amour triumphant" ("The Song of Love, Triumphant").
Klorman says the "Story of Love, Triumphant," set in ancient Ferrara, is "an arresting and rich story" of two men, one a painter and one a musician, who both fall in love with the same woman. She picks the painter, and the musician sets off on a quest to Arabia, India, and other exotic places to exhaust himself of his love. The Turgenev story will be presented by narrator Tommy Labanaris.
"By coming to the concert in Canandaigua, you can travel through music, story, and poetry to all of these exotic places," says Klorman. "We may never travel to these foreign countries, like Madagascar, but you can come to know them through these songs. When I listen to this music, I can experience the appeal of the exotic — the appeal of the other."
Kelly's career has taken him from an undergraduate degree in vocal performance from the Eastman School of Music to a master's degree from The Juilliard School to performance venues from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to the Zurich Opera House. Kelly views his travels as an integral part of his performances of art songs. "Travel helps you understand how these people at these places in the world express themselves, and it helps you to understand why the composer wrote in the way that he did, be it a certain reserve in the expression of German music or the passionate aspect in French music," he says.
For Kelly, these period art songs are also a voyage through time, to the romantic and post-romantic periods. "What's so interesting is that expression has been dialed down to a very specific nature," says Kelly. "We are very to-the-point now, where before in the 1800's when you were expressing your art in life, you were less able to be expressive. You put it down. You wrote letters of great extravagance. It will be really interesting for a modern audience to hear how back then people wore their hearts on their sleeves and were not so specific."