angelica negron

Sound of Late review: Harp attack

Northwest ensemble’s concert shows composers and performers remaking harp music for the 21st century

Harps have been around for at least 5,000 years, and can be heard in one form or another all over the world. Yet as a concert in Portland last month showed, the modern harp has never been so modern, and we’re finally seeing it come into its own as a contemporary classical instrument. Guest harpist Jennifer Ellis joined contemporary music collective Sound of Late at Studio 2 at New Expressive Works in southeast Portland for a performance of quite different compositions by Ellis, Kaija Saariaho, Angélica Negrón, and Tina Davidson. Each explored new ways of using a quite old instrument.

Sound of Late and Jennifer Ellis performed contemporary chamber music featuring harp.

The modern chromatic pedal harp—the kind Jennifer Ellis and every other Western-style orchestral harpist plays—was developed in Europe from around 1700-1800, when inventors introduced and refined the system of pedals Ellis demonstrated and manipulated so effectively. Used sparingly in Baroque and Classical music, it came to prominence in the later Romantic and early Modern periods, especially in works by Russian and French composers (and Harpo Marx).

When I think of truly modernist harp music, I don’t think first of Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, and Lou Harrison, all of whom wrote extensively for harp, but of Björk, who has worked with experimental harpist Zeena Parkins on several albums and even commissioned a special gravity harp for her album Biophilia. Meanwhile, in 2015 Yolanda Kondonassis (who has recorded some of Carter’s work) performed Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto with the Oregon Symphony; local harpist Sage Fisher started making waves last year as Dolphin Midwives, running her harp and vocals through loop and delay pedals at the Kenton Masonic Temple in North Portland.

Texture & Timbre

Sound of Late’s flutist and MC Sarah Pyle opened the March 18 show by apologizing for her bronchitis and discussing her friendship with Ellis, “the first friend I ever made in college,” whom she met at the orientation BBQ at Oberlin College. Violist Andrew Stiefel joined them for Kaija Saariaho’s New Gates, commissioned in 1991 by the Sabeth Trio and based on her “ballet with no storyline,” Maa. Saariaho’s much-mentioned spectralism was immediately evident: this is music where timbre comes first and the acoustic properties of combined tones and textures outweigh any considerations of traditional harmonic or formal functions. This ain’t Handel. Hell, it ain’t even Debussy.

Continues…

 
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