John Frayne: Harpists bring skill, variety to concerts
The month is June, and the sound of the harp resounds throughout the University of Illinois School of Music Building.
Organized by UI harp Professor Ann Yeung, the annual Illinois Summer Harp Class was in progress last week, and a series of concerts was offered June 6-8.
I attended the opening concert in the School of Music Auditorium — a small hall with very good acoustics but with seating that drops steeply from entry doors to performing stage. Basic mountaineering skills are handy in getting into a seat.
The first performer of the evening was Chen-Yu Huang, who comes from Taiwan. A student of Yeung's, Huang was the first harpist to win the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts' Debut Artist Award in 2010, and she is currently principal harp of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra.
Her first selection was Gabriel Faur's "Impromptu," Op. 86, evidently a favorite with harpists, for it showed up also on the noonday concert Friday.
One of the charms of a harp concert is that the digital finesse of the artist is on full display. Huang played with skillful assurance the flowing opening of the Faur, as well as the languorous melodies of this alluring piece.
Much of the harp repertory appears to be transcriptions of songs or pieces for other instruments. Huang's second piece was an arrangement of the song, "The Lark," by Mikhail Glinka, No. 10 of his collection, "A Farewell to St. Petersburg" (1840).
Huang played with appropriate delicacy the warm, friendly opening of this piece, and she projected very well the song-like central melody, and the gentle fade-away ending.
In the longer part of the program, Julia Kay Jamieson offered six selections. I remember well Jamieson's recital last year in which she contrasted the sound of the Douglas portable harp with the larger standard concert harp.
Jamieson earned her master's of music degree at the UI, partly as a graduate assistant to Yeung, and in 2008, she won the UI School of Music Concerto Competition Finals.
Self-described as a "passionate advocate for new music," she plays the harp with dramatic intensity, and five of her six selections were her own transcriptions, mostly of popular and rock songs.
Her playing of Manuel de Falla's "Spanish Dance No. 1" from his opera "The Short Life" (arranged by Marcel Grandjany) emphasized the suppressed excitement, and premonitions of violence behind de Falla's rippling melody.
Before playing her arrangement of Robert Smith's song "Just Like Heaven," she asked the audience who Robert Smith was. Evidently, we drew a blank.
Smith was a member of the British rock band "The Cure." His song, a souvenir of honeymoon joys, turned out to be a pleasant tune.
We in the audience were next asked if we knew what band the song "New Potato Caboose" was associated with and again there was silence. It turns out that this song by Phil Lesh and Bobby Peterson was famously associated with The Grateful Dead.
I think that this audience, full of harp students and their families, would be better at recognizing names like Yolanda Kondonassis or Nancy Allen. Anyway, "New Potato Caboose" turned out to be a perky number, with sinuous lines and long descending passages on the harp.
Two "Oblivions" ended the recital, and the first was Jamieson's transcription of Astor Piazzolla's somber and gentle tango. Piazzolla . now there's a name I could have boosted my grade with!
"Oblivion" No. 2 was a song by pop singer Macy Gray, and despite the ominous title, the song contains the refrain "Let's get this party started!" This Jamieson arrangement proved a lively and joyous way to get this party (or concert) ended. She certainly broadens one's musical horizon!
The lights over the audience were turned out at the beginning of the concert, so the printed programs were useless. Jamieson's intros helped. And could people please stop turning on their palm devices in the middle of concerts? We behind you kind of notice!
Aside from that, it was a joy to hear the harp, that loveliest of instruments.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM 90.9 and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.