Adventure and Fantasy
NZ Harp Duo
St Peter’s on Willis Street
Saturday 19 August 2017, 7:00pm, Wellington
Berceuse and Le Jardin de Dolly from the ‘Dolly Suite’ – Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Two Bridges – Andy Akiho (b. 1979)
Duet for two harps on Subjects from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ – John Thomas (1826-1913)
Angelic Glow – Rakuto Kurano (b. 2000)
La Forêt enchantée for two harps – Caroline Charrière (b. 1960)
Preludes 3 & 4 for deux harps – Marcel Tournier (1879-1951)
Le Jardin des Paons (The Garden of Peacocks) for two harps – Bernard Andrès (b. 1941)
Michelle Velvin and Jennifer Newth, harps
The short story (tldr):
The New Zealand Harp Duo is an exciting and innovative ensemble. The enthusiasm and vitality of their performance, and the musical conversation between them, was captivating. Visually, the dance of their fingers were confident, elegant and eloquent. Tonally, a wonderful resonant, strong and expressive sound.
The long story:
I am always surprised what a wonderful resonant, strong sound that two pedal harps can make. Far from the delicate sounds of lyres and folk harps, the New Zealand Harp Duo is an exciting and innovative ensemble. The enthusiasm and vitality of Jennifer and Michelle’s performance, and the musical conversation between them, was captivating. They clearly LOVE their instruments. And they are passionate about contemporary music, so they are seeking for more scores from New Zealand composers.¹
Fauré’s Dolly Suite was originally a two piano work. Jennifer and Michelle alternated the melody and the accompaniment effortlessly. Visually, the dance of their fingers – glissandi, strumming, lightly touching or forcefully plucking – were confident, elegant and eloquent. I noticed that they were surreptitiously and furiously working their pedals though – like an organist (or a duck!)
Two Bridges by Andy Akiho, an impression of the Mahattan and Brooklyn bridges in New York, was completely different from the Fauré with many technical and performance intricacies: percussive knocking and tapping of the body of the harp; scraping the string with finger cymbals; striking the strings with a rod; plucking with a plectrum (actually, I think it was a credit card!). The effect was surprising and electric. The work was in three movements. The first was an ambient metaphor of the bridge’s cables as the harp’s strings. It was almost industrial with complex rhythms and swirling glissandi. The second was more evocative: with harmonic tintinnabulations and interlocking hocketing rhythm patterns. The third was a culmination of the first two: plucking, harmonics, flowing glissandi and bisbigliando². The dynamics were more clearly evident. A brilliant piece and a masterclass of advanced techniques.
A string was breaking on Jennifer’s harp so repairs were in order. The duo coped with it well: they informed us about the harp, the pedal procedure for chromatic playing, the changing of strings and the difficulty of nylon string tendency to stretch. In fact, in the next piece, John Thomas’s transcription of subjects from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, Jennifer’s re-tuning of the string was a comma, a pause, in the paragraphs between each episode of Bizet’s melodies. But I think it ‘threw them’. It was interesting transcription, but I know the orchestral (and the operatic) version of Carmen very well, and the two-harp interpretation was unsettling in comparison. The dynamics, tempo, missing notes, and the drama was lacking.
The school winner of the 2016 Harp Duo Competition, Angelic Glow by Rakuto Kurano, was a very accessible and charming work. In an ABA structure, the piece featured antiphonal writing with the two harp ‘voices’ – bass and soprano almost.
In the ‘Fantasy’ realm of the programme’s title, La Forêt enchantée (The Enchanted Forest) by Caroline Charrière was a magical, sometimes ominous, and expressive piece. Also in three movements, the first was a confident stroll in the forest, the second a more threatening mood with elves and goblins appearing and disappearing and, consequently the third movement, a more steady, sombre stroll – almost backward-looking and with tip-toes steps! The scales were modal and mirrored and I like the way the piece finished – ambiguous and open-ended.
The two Preludes by Marcel Tournier were appealing in the post-Romantic way, but after the previous items they were anticlimactic. I think that should be forward in the programme – maybe the first or second piece?
The last piece, Le Jardin des Paons (The Garden of Peacocks) by Bernard Andrès, was a perfect way to end the concert and a personal highlight. Dramatic and impressionistic it made use of extended techniques in a plausible, genuine way: pres-de-les-table³, fingernail plucking, harmonics, glissandi and bisbigliando² and much use of dynamics.
A wonderful concert from two committed and impassioned musicians.
1: There is a very good article for composers from Carolyn Mills, the principal harp from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, subtitled ‘The Harp is Nothing Like the Piano‘. Incidentally, Carolyn was the teacher for Jennifer and Michelle at the New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University Wellington.
The Sibelius Notation system has a comprehensive list of harp techniques.
2: bisbigliando: The term bisbigliando (Italian, ‘whispering’; abbrev. Bisbigl. or bisb.) indicates an unmeasured rapid tremolo between two or more strings played quietly in the middle and upper registers of the harp.
3: près-de-les-table: The fingers pluck the string in a normal manner but close to the soundboard. The effect varies depending on how close to the soundboard the string is played. The harpist can play gradually into the p.d.l.t. position and away from it. It is like sul ponticelli for a string player.