Two Harps create magic at Futuna Chapel

Colours of Futuna Concert Series presents: Two Harps

Music by Debussy, Britten, Young, Fauré, Scarlatti, Becker, Scott and Guard

Jennifer Newth and Michelle Velvin, harps

Futuna Chapel, Karori

Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Futuna chapel proved to be an ideal venue for harp music, being small and intimate,  and very resonant, with its timber and concrete surfaces.  There was no difficulty in hearing the quietest sounds, and the resonance of notes after they had ceased to be plucked, was sustained and beautiful.  The occasional raw tone, upon a string being plucked again while still sounding, also stood out, but this happened rarely.

Unfortunately I missed the first item, Debussy’s Pour Invoquer Pan, transcribed for two harps.  A pity, as I am sure in would have been magical.

Jennifer Newth played ‘Hymn’ from Suite for Harp, Op. 83 by Benjamin Britten.  It was a wonderful piece of intricate music, beautifully played, featuring variations on the hymn tune ‘St. Denio’, most frequently sung to the words ‘Immortal invisible, God only wise’.

This was followed by Kenneth Young’s Autumn Arabesque, which revealed a great variety of dynamics.  This was a brilliant performance, full of subtlety.  Lovely timing and shimmering, ecstatic sounds were notable in this delightful work, demonstrating the skill of the composer as well as that of the performer.  The programme note quoted Young as saying that the piece ‘has a bitter sweet nostalgic quality which I often associate with Autumn’.  We were experiencing a chilly spring day, but the tones and gestures of the music were telling.  The resonance of the final note was sustained for an amazing length of time in this acoustic, thanks to the stillness of the audience.

Fauré’s Impromptu had a much more rambunctious opening than did the previous pieces.  This extended work demonstrated the skill of the composer in writing music absolutely apt for the instrument.  Jennifer Newth played it without the score.  The lush tones and varied dynamics meant the playing was always interesting and the sonorities were enchanting

Following Fauré, Michelle Velvin played her bracket, that began with Sonata in A minor, Kirkpatrick 148 of Domenico Scarlatti, which the performer had transcribed herself.  It sounded so straight-forward after the delicacy of much of the Fauré!  It was very apparent how much more light and shade the harp was able to express compared with the harpsichord.  As with the piano or the harpsichord, notes once struck on the harp cannot be sustained except by resonance, unlike the case with the organ or wind instruments, on which sounds can be held by the fingers.  Thus the magic of playing in a small, resonant venue gave a whole new life to this music on the harp.

However, this very feature meant that it was particularly unwelcome in the quiet music to hear the accompaniment of cellophane wrappers on cough sweets being undone.  I have no shares in the manufacturing company, but I always use and advocate for “Fisherman’s Friend”, a cough lozenge that brings no additional auditory effects to a concert.

The next work was by Wellington singer and composer Pepe Becker: Capricorn 1: Pluto in Terra.  I heard this work just over a year ago, played by Helen Webby.  Its astrological significance was not detailed in the programme note this time, but rather the aspects of the Christchurch earthquakes that the composer was evoking.  In her words that were quoted (though not here in quotation marks!) ‘… evoke both gravelly and murky qualities of slowly-shifting earth’.  I enjoyed it even more on a second hearing.  The use of a piece of paper between the strings early in the work, changing the tone; knocking on the soundboard and passages of low humming from the player all added to the other-worldly effects of the music.  Intriguing off-beat rhythms were a feature.  It was indeed evocative, and very effective.

I was struck by the fact that a harpist is so graceful to watch – the movement is like an elegant dance.  Michelle’s playing was a little less incisive than Jennifer’s; it was interesting to be aware of some difference in tonal quality, but the playing of both was skilled and enjoyable.

Crossing Waves by contemporary British composer Andy Scott was a stunningly beautiful piece and very descriptive of its subject matter.  Amazing glissandi from forte to pianissimo were among its delights, depicting the ocean and its moods.  These were followed by a serene section.  The programme note described the work as reflecting ‘the many moods of such a journey [as that taken by solo rower across the Atlantic Ocean, Roz Savage]: apprehension and excitement at the start, isolation and beauty in the mid-ocean, and energy and optimism as the journey is almost over.’

Finally, for something completely different; three short pieces from the Isle of Man, arranged for two harps by Charles Guard, one of the top Celtic harpists – but played here on the orchestral harp, as was the entire programme.  They were titled “Manannan Mac y Lir”, “Slumber Song” and “Flitter Dance”.  The players demonstrated a variety of technical skills, exploiting the versatility of their instrument in these colourful pieces.

We are fortunate to have such skilled harpists in Wellington, thanks to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s harpist, Carolyn Mills – obviously an outstanding teacher.  And of course to the dedication and hard work of the soloists, whose musical accomplishment it was a pleasure to hear.

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