Monday, February 16, 2009

Heavenly Harps

We were unable to post to this blog for about ten days, so now we make up for some of the lost time with a couple of reviews from our friend, Sam Shirakawa:


MARIKO ANRAKU, Metropolitan Opera
JESSICA ZHOU, New York City Opera
NANCY ALLEN, New York Philharmonic
REBECCA RINGLE, mezzo-soprano
WEILL HALL 28 January 2009

Harps may sound heavenly, but they're hellish to play. I should know, because I'm a recovering harpist. You have to tune constantly, a pedal slip can instantly turn Mozart into Mayhem, strings can break with no warning. These are just a few of the angelic thoughts swirling through a harpist's mind while performing.

All that plus a challenging group of works must certainly have been on the minds of the principal harpists from the Big Apple's three most prestigious musical institutions, as they presented a concert Wednesday evening at Weill Hall. But you'd have never guessed it, as Mariko Anraku of the Met, Jessica Zhou from the City Opera, and the Philharmonic's Nancy Allen sallied elegantly through a delightful assortment of uncommon music for two and three harps, as well as a familiar work featuring mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle.

In fact, it was Ringle's participation in Manuel De Falla's Siete canciones populares espa├▒olas in a transcription by legendary harpist Carlos Salzedo that added extra spice to an unusual musicale. Ms Ringle is currently making her way through the operatic circuits, notably as a Valkyrie, but her true calling may be as a recitalist. She has an unusual claret timbre that retains its erotic resin from bottom to top. Blessed with a commanding stage presence, she communicated the full range of moods in the seven songs.

The preponderance of the heavy lifting throughout the evening was shared by Mss. Anraku and Zhou, starting with Cesar Franck's Prelude, Fugue and Variations in an arrangement by Dewey Owen, a Sonatine for Two Harps by Jean-Michel Damas, and a delightful self-arranged rendition of Ravel's Mere L'Oye. Nancy Allen joined them at the end of the concert for two substantial works by Francis Poulenc -- Fresco, Bela Bartok -- Hungarian Peasant Dances, and an encore -- Seguedilla by Isaac Albeniz.

The bitter-sweet take-away from this concert is how badly composers, especially great composers, have neglected the harp, thereby denying demonstrably virtuoso artists such as Anraku, Zhou and Allen opportunities to purvey their artistry to a broader public. Mozart hated the harp, Richard Strauss liked the instrument but never mastered writing for it, Salzedo tried in vain to persuade Stravinsky to compose at least one major work for harp, and he was similarly rebuffed by other composers. So harpists must rely on transcriptions or compose their own music.

A pity because the harp has a wealth of tonal possibilities that has yet to be fully explored by a major composer. And that confines wonderful harpists like Anraku, Zhou and Allen to the shallows of a still-uncharted musical sea.

┬ęSam H. Shirakawa 2009

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