Harpist with Texas Roots Returns for Premiere of Improvisatory, 'Important' Piece

Harpist with Texas Roots Returns for Premiere of Improvisatory, 'Important' Piece

IT IS RARE for a classically trained musician to abandon the traditional landscape of the conductor and orchestra to explore a looser, more improvisatory way of creating music — but that is exactly what Rice music grad and former Houston Symphony Principal Harpist Megan Conley has done.

On April 15 and 16, she and her fellow musicians in the Silk Road Ensemble are in town to perform the Houston premiere of composer Osvaldo Golijov’s song cycle Falling Out of Time, an elegiac “tone poem in voices” based on Israeli writer David Grossman’s experimental novel of the same name. “It’s definitely out of my comfort zone,” says Conley of her role in the ensemble, which includes her husband Shawn Conley on upright and fretless bass. “I loved playing in the Houston Symphony. But I reached the point where I wanted to be able to do things like this. The subject matter itself feels so important.”

Grossman was inspired to write Falling Out of Time after his son Uri was killed in the Israel war in Lebanon in 2006. Using prose, poetry and drama, Grossman tells the story of a father grieving the death of his son, who is driven to embark on a pilgrimage, on foot, with the hope that he will find some way to communicate with his boy and come to grips with such unfathomable tragedy. Golijov discovered the book in 2013 and was compelled to drop a composition he had been wrestling with and bring Grossman’s story to life with music.

The instrumentation for this weekend’s performances of Falling Out of Time includes three vocalists and a combination of classical and rock instrumentation, including electric guitar, modular synthesizer, and drums. Conley came on board after Falling Out of Time’s premiere, which featured pipa virtuoso Wu Man, and this weekend’s performances will be her first with the group. “Golijov writes for people, not the instrument,” says Conley. “So when Wu Man was not able to do this tour, they didn’t just look for the next best pipa player in the world, they looked for someone who could fill the role that she played.” While the harp shares some similarities with the pipa, the musical language is very different; Golijov has been working with Conley to utilize the full possibilities of her instrument, asking her to improvise as well as play scored rhythms within set timelines.

Since stepping away from the Symphony and becoming a mother (she and Shawn live in Honolulu and have a five-year-old boy who is taking piano lessons), Conley, now 40, has also become very passionate about ocean conservation and protecting the Earth’s waterways. Her non-profit organization Ocean Music Action presents performances of music thematically connected to water and the ocean and facilitates direct conservation action. “Using music to inspire people to take action is a really positive thing,” says Conley. “We can all, in some way, give back and protect the resources that belong to and are important to us.”

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