John Frayne | Harp concert is plucky finish to UI's semester

John Frayne | Harp concert is plucky finish to UI's semester

For the past several years, one of the features of concert-going after the University of Illinois semester ends is the annual Illinois Harp Class, organized by Professor Ann Yeung.

The harp is one of my favorite instruments, and I usually find the concert associated with the Harp Class unalloyed pleasures.

This year I attended the final concert, "Participants Recital," at which each student of the Harp Class came on stage and performed a work suitable for their general level of achievement.

This year there were six participants, and the level of technical expertise at the various levels was quite impressive. The pieces were performed with energy and youthful enthusiasm, and I admired the tenacity and courage of all the players.

To start things off, Ananya Shah of Clayton, Mo., offered two pieces by Susann McDonald and Linda Wood Rollo, a drone inflected "Bagpipe Jig," and an "Alpine Waltz" that resembled the sound of the Austrian zither.

Rowan Zdziarski-West of Oak Park played an atmospheric Christmas piece by Marcel Tournier, "Children by the Christmas Crib," with echo effects and miniaturized phrasing.

Picking up the beat, Joshua Lin of Lisle played "Rumba," by the famous harpist Carlos Salzedo, with fluid rhythms and flashy glissandos.

Emily Reader of Gilberts then played a technically very challenging piece, Mikhail Mchedelov's 1962 "Variations on a Theme by Paganini." This 10-minute piece has 11 variations on the famous Nicolo Paganini Caprice No. 24, which has enticed composers as diverse as Johannes Brahms and Sergei Rachmaninoff to craft sets of variations on it.

In contrast, Laura Mest of Gibson City played an easy-going bit of Americana, Hoagy Carmichael's (arranged by Stuart Gorrell) "Georgia on my Mind," a song that has a simple melody, but, in this version, it is lavishly ornamented.

"Leave 'em laughing," is the old vaudeville motto, and finally, Renée Murphy of Bloomington, Ind., played the witty and sparkling Rondo by Nicholas-Charles Bochsa, on Gioachino Rossini's trio near the end of "The Barber of Seville, " "Zitti, zitti, piano, piano." ("Quiet, quiet, softly, softly").

After the individual performances came the "pièce de résistance," a world premiere work called "three (2018) for three or more harpists," by Julia Kay Jamieson. I remember with pleasure Jamieson's harp playing at the summer classes of 2012 and 2013, back in the days when she was graduate assistant to Professor Yeung.

"three" was explained by Jamieson, at considerable length, while seven harps were set up on stage. Aside from the six students who had played individually, a seventh, Sofia Dietrich of Springfield, had injured her wrist but she was able to join in "three." As I understood it, "three" is about the triad of Time, Nature and Humans.

The seven players were divided into groups of three for Time, and two each for Nature and Humans. There were six rounds, and in each round a player from each group took from one of three cups a motto written on small slips of paper, such as "Time is relative," and after reading it aloud went back to their group until all three groups had announced their mottos. Then they played musical "snippets" illustrating the mottos that had been read aloud, and they played their individual music all together, resulting in unusual and unique patterns of sound.

Aside from the "Time" motto mentioned above, examples of other mottos read "Nature is powerful," and "Humans construct."

One might surmise that it would be very difficult to express "Humans construct" in brief snippets of music.

I will admit that the chance lineup of ideas in the mottos sometimes resulted in challenging or intriguing oppositions.

After the six rounds, the motto phrases were exhausted. It looked like it was fun to play, but the musical results, to my ears, were best described as disappointing.

And that, as with much aleatoric music, is usually the result.

In her introduction, Jamieson claimed that no performance of the work would be like any other performance.

Is it then not possible for the performers to try to improve a performance?

In any case, I will never again be able to open a Chinese fortune cookie without hearing the sound of harps.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.