I've experienced harp fantasies since I was three years old and saw the grand instrument for the first time in a stranger's home in Ecuador. I remember it being a golden, massive, magical-looking thing, and fell entranced by it even before I came to know its sound or the even more mystifying music written for it. And yet, I can count on my fingers the number of times I've actually heard a harp played live. I'm not counting orchestral performances that include the harp -- I mean intimate settings where you can hear the pluck and vibration of each string, glance over, and see the player and instrument inhabit the same breath.
So when I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to attend a concert featuring a harp and cello, I dropped everything and headed over with one intention: to open myself to their music.
The duo is called Strange Interlude, founded by Boston-based orchestral and chamber musicians, Lily Press (harp) and Simon Linn-Gerstein (cello) in 2007. Their project specializes in creating salon-style concerts that include rarely-performed pieces, incorporating works by contemporary composers. Lily explained that in their first two years as a duo, they'd exhausted the available rep for harp and cello, and so now play their own arrangements and transcriptions of music they love. The performance I attended included the artists' conscientious introductions to the pieces, along with musical and poetic insights about the various works.
The first piece was an adagio composed in 1880 by Max Bruch, entitled "Kol Nidrei," which is Aramaic for "All Vows." It is a variation on two Jewish melodies, originally composed for cello and orchestra with harp. Lily explained that she was using a piano reduction plus the original harp part in this performance. Indeed, the sound and scope of the harp created an orchestral netting for the cello's tenor voice, inducing both instruments to produce a complete and complementary sound. Lily explained that the harp is diatonically tuned to C, and that the pedals provide the accidental changes of sharps and flats. With this in mind, I was able to more fully appreciate her work as the duo continued with Schumann's "Five Pieces in a Folk Style," wherein each instrument took equal part in the musical conversation -- something the artists explained is important to them when selecting repertoire. The cello often introduced the melody while the harp contained the music's pulse, at times lilting or excited. The colorful "conversation" evoked German fairytales and lullabies, putting the audience into a colloquial mood just in time for intermission.
After the social hour, they played "Aria," the first movement of Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, which combined counterpoint with Brazilian folk influence. This was followed by my personal favorite of the night: Philippe Hersant's (a Roman-born Parisian-based composer) 2004 Choral pour violoncelle et harpe. It begins with a persistent rumbling in the harp. Then, a melody emerges from the cello and undergoes a pattern of variations, induced by the harp's bass tremors. This timbre-driven, elusive piece can be described as esoteric and complicated, with a touch of the sinister and enquiring. After hearing it, one is left with a feeling that is hard to articulate; yet it is powerful and energizing, and it excites the ears and fosters real interest in new music.
After this exhilarating journey into modern composition, we returned to the era of bel canto: Bellini's Nocturne for harp and cello, which the musicians described as a "micro opera" because of its dramatic arc, filled with dreamy, twinkling harp arpeggios and a sensuous cello melody woven throughout. This was the kind of beautiful piece one fantasizes about when imagining what the harp should sound and be like -- it was quintessentially enchanting, and it showed off the very best of both instruments: the harp's beguiling high register and the cello's voluptuous sonority.
Finally, Strange Interlude surprised the audience with a bitter sweet treat: in honor of Leonard Cohen, they played his Hallelujah. With the cello's lyrical, wholehearted melody and plucked strings that reminded one of a bass guitar, the harp's warm, harmonic arpeggios embraced this moving song, which seemed to connect us all.