Soprano Maria Clark and pianist Maria Thompson Corley navigate the intense emotion, scars of suffering, and religious passion in the hymns and gospels on SOUL SANCTUARY from Navona Records. Featuring empowering spirituals from the past two centuries, the duo brings to life religious songs that have stood the test of time and find deep relevance today.
Today, Maria Thompson Corley is our featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our composers and performers. Read on to learn about her performance tour of Central America, and the joy she finds in musical improvisation…
When did you realize that you wanted to be an artist?
My mother tells me that I first asked for piano lessons at 2 years old (she’d started teaching my older brother). I waited until I was 4 to start, and figured out things by ear around that time (either slightly before or after). I think I started talking about being a “conthert pianitht,” and not long after I started lessons. So, before I started elementary school, apparently.
What was your most unusual performance, or the most embarrassing thing that happened to you during a performance?
When I was in the Juilliard doctoral program, I was chosen to do a tour of Central America — Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala (I turned down Honduras because they didn’t have a grand piano. I wish I hadn’t been such a snob). This was an honor, but maybe not quite as much of an honor as it sounds: the sponsoring organization would only pay for one performer, so if Juilliard sent anyone other than a pianist, it would cost the school money. I was the only pianist in the doctoral program for the period of two years, so the choice was obvious.
There was a mild earthquake in Costa Rica while I was there, which damaged the planned venue. I ended up playing in a church that was EXTREMELY resonant. I suspect my Ravel Toccata was kind of mush. Guatemala had rolling blackouts due to government spending money earmarked for infrastructure for other things, so I had to change the time of my performance to accommodate that. The strangest experience was in El Salvador, which was having a civil war. I had to fly out at 4 a.m., was met by a car with bullet-proof glass and a driver who had a machine gun on the front seat. The hall was ornate, but slightly rundown, and there were guards with guns and ammo slung over their shoulders outside. Bats circled in the darkness high above me. I was so exhausted, I forgot part of the middle of the Bartok Sonata; I improvised a bit before cutting to the end. That said, El Salvador is a beautiful country, and I’m grateful I got to have that very memorable experience.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. As in, what’s to feel guilty for, if I’m not hurting anybody? Life is short!
What was your favorite musical moment on the album?
I can’t choose one moment, but if I had to choose a musical scenario, it would be the purely improvised parts. There’s something truly wonderful about making music on the spot, whether with someone else or by myself. Capturing it for posterity is a bonus. I never take that particular God-given gift for granted.
What does this album mean to you personally?
This album is the fulfillment of a dream I never would have dared to imagine. Though I’ve been composing, arranging, and improvising since I was small, I never thought of applying that label to myself, because I’ve had so little training. The idea that someone like Maria Clark likes my music enough to want to bring it to a larger audience is something I never saw coming, nevermind having a label like PARMA release it. I thank God for this completely unexpected blessing.
Is there a specific feeling that you would like communicated to audiences in this work?
I want this work to be an oasis in a world full of trouble, storm, stress, war, pestilence, evil… you name it. I want people to truly find what the title suggests: a sanctuary for their souls.