Diverting harp duo recital affected by too much musical competition

NZ Harp Duo
Michelle Velvin and Jennifer Newth, harps

John Thomas: Serch Hudol (Love’s Fascination)
Carlos Salzedo: Chanson dans la nuit and Pentacle
Granados: Spanish Dance no.5 in E minor Andaluza Op.37
Bernard Andrès: Parvis – Cortège et Danse
Debussy: La cathédrale engloutie
Caroline Lizotte: Raga for two harps, Op.41

St. Peter’s Church

Saturday, 28 May 2016, 7pm

This harp duo was enjoyed by all those present, but the atrocious weather and the number of other music events on in the city may have contributed to the rather small audience – approx. 40 people.

The Thomas piece made a good opening work for the concert with its robust tones, demonstrating that harps are not just other-worldly instruments. The beginning could have been a hymn tune, with cheerful chords. It was followed by variations in which the two harps worked beautifully together, and in contrast with each other.

After the bold came more subdued passages, and we moved from hymn tune to folksong. As the programme note said “Thomas drew on his Welsh heritage and folk-music background, to create fantasies on traditional melodies.” The fact that Thomas was a harpist himself (1826-1913) showed in his well-crafted music. It was a thoroughly delightful piece.

Jennifer Newth spoke to the audience about their duo and their forthcoming composition competition to encourage New Zealand composers to write for the harp. She spoke about the next piece to be played, written by Carlos Salzedo, an American harpist and composer (1885-1961), who was born and studied in France. Antiphonal playing between the two instruments was most effective, as was the variety of techniques employed. Plucking low on the strings made a very metallic and loud sound, in contrast with the more usual playing in the centre of the strings. Glissandi were not only of the kind we are accustomed to, but also sometimes using the backs of the hands, so that the fingernails produced a more brittle, less sustained tone. Knocking with the hand on the soundboard was another acoustic feature used here and in other works we heard.

The second Salzedo work was quite a long suite, Pentacle. It consisted of five movements. Jennifer Newth introduced some of the ideas behind the names of the movements. ‘Steel’ proved to create sounds of the industrial age, as she said. There were both loud and soft and repetitive phrases, and a variety of non-traditional harp techniques.

‘Serenade’ she described as having harsh nocturnal sounds, but I did not find it unpleasant. It was followed by ‘Félines’, which was fun, with lots of rapid high notes as of cats scampering lightly around. ‘Catacombs’ was spooky and dark in tone, with many different acoustic effects. I could see the multiple pedal changes Michelle had to make. Among the amazing effects the players achieved was one produced when one hand moved up and down a string while the other plucked, or sometimes stroked the strings in glissandi.

Hitting strings with rods; plucking a string and allowing a relatively long period of resonance were two techniques. In contrast to the latter, was playing in a high register with short, repetitive strokes, then fading to nothing. An ethereal sound was obtained by wiping down the strings with a cloth.

The final movement, ‘Pantomime’, was much jollier and livelier. A great variety of dynamics was obtained by plucking the strings more gently or more sharply. This piece involved quite a lot of playing around with intonation, by techniques involving the head of the strings where they went round the tuning pins. Many of these extended techniques I had never seen before.

After the length and intensity of the suite, it was quite a relief to hear something familiar: Granados’s piece for piano (which I played years ago) transcribed by Salvedo. It worked well on two harps, and the use of different tones made it interesting.

The Andrès work had one harpist tapping on strings with a short stick and then tapping the soundboard while the other plucked her strings as the music moved unrelentingly from solemn procession to dance.

Debussy’s well-known piano piece followed. It was good programming to play a couple of familiar works in a programme such as this. There was a lovely build-up throughout; the music depicts very well the story of the sunken cathedral that rises out of the water at sunrise. The transcription was by our two harpists.

The final work was a challenging one, by contemporary Canadian harpist and composer, Caroline Lizotte. Jennifer mentioned that, along with the obvious Indian characteristics, there was an element of imitated whale song in the work. The piece started with a rod being slid down a string while others were being plucked; a spooky effect. On the other harp there were gentle sounds. The pace and musical variation gradually picked up, switching between major and minor modes.

Suddenly there was a clash on a small Indian cymbal suspended from Michelle’s music stand, and a jingle of little Indian bells which I learned that she had round her ankle. Another element was twisting the strings to give a slow vibrato effect, such as Indian musicians obtain with the strings moved on the frets of their sitars. Along with this we had on the other harp knocking on the soundboard and using a drummer’s mallet on it. Jennifer struck a full-sized cymbal on a stand from time to time. There was yet another drumming sound that I couldn’t track down, though it seemed to come from Michelle’s side. Typically of ragas, the piece built in pace and intensity.

These young women are amazing in their skills, and a credit to their teacher, Carolyn Mills. Their playing seemed impeccable, and the range of techniques astonishing. St. Peter’s proved to be an excellent venue for such a concert, the bright acoustic enhanced by all the wood panelling and seating. There was much brilliance here from two highly skilled and talented performers, but despite this, there was a sameness of sound that palled somewhat by the end of the programme.

An encore was a slightly gentler, quite folksy piece with much variety. It was ‘Flitter Song’ by Charles Guard, a Manx harpist and composer.

One thought on “Diverting harp duo recital affected by too much musical competition

  1. Genevieve says:

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