Music review: A harp and the Huntington from Southwest Chamber Music
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When New York’s Plaza Hotel reopened its classic Palm Court for high tea last spring after an extensive renovation, the long-standing live harp was replaced by violin and piano. To quote the New York Post: ‘No more lugubrious harp.’
A pox on the Post and the Plaza.
I’m happy to report that the Huntington in San Marino still has class. Over the weekend, Southwest Chamber Music designed the third of its four summer programs at the Huntington around the ensemble’s enterprising young harpist, Alison Bjorkedal.
Indeed, this Southwest festival happens to be the classiest summer music program in the southwest. Its concerts (given Saturday and Sunday -- I heard the Sunday repeat) are performed on the gallery loggia, where the acoustics are surprisingly vivid and the backdrop of trees darkening during sunset enthralls. The lawn welcomes picnickers and offers listeners a starry sky in exchange for some musical intimacy.
This summer, each program has included a piece by a contemporary female composer. Sunday’s was ‘Solar Music’ for flute and harp by Anne Le Baron, and it inspired a program whose first half was French Impressionist music that included harp in various ensembles.
The bookends were Debussy’s ‘Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane’ for harp and string quartet and Ravel’s ‘Introduction & Allegro’ for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet. Both are exotic pieces: Debussy evoking the past in modern modes, and Ravel at one with the lush, musty foliage and the classical sculpture in every Huntington nook and cranny.
In his brief introduction, Southwest music director Jeff von der Schmidt mentioned the mutual musical connections between France and Asia, and that is where things started to get interesting. Le Baron’s flute/harp duo was prefaced by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s flute/harp arrangement of Erik Satie’s first piano prelude from his incidental music to ‘Le Fils des Étoile,’ a late 19th century Rosicrucian play.
A lot of culture gets mixed up in this short Takemitsu transcription. Though early Satie, this is music by a composer already odd who had musically attached himself to a secret society of mystics, which he found at once attractively antediluvian and post-Wagnerian.
Takemitsu, who was drawn to flute and harp, added other sonic flavors, making Satie sound almost like curt ancient Japanese court music with his choppy arrangement. From there flowed Le Baron’s ‘Solar Music,’ which was written in 1997.
She required flutist Larry Kaplan to use four different-sized instruments, beginning with the bass flute and working up to the piccolo in the course of seven minutes. Bjorkedal had her work cut out for her as well, tuning on the fly and creating sound effects reminiscent of Japanese Noh theater with the use of a screwdriver drawn along the strings. She also bowed her harp strings. A composer at CalArts, Le Baron also teaches extended harp techniques, musical surrealism and lyrical psychogeography, all of which found their way into this music.
Although the sensibility of the music is Asian, the title, ‘Solar Music,’ is taken from a 1955 painting by the surrealist Mexican artist Remedios Varo. A woman in a dying forest bows the rays of the sun. Satie and his Rosicrucians would have surely warmed to it, and I think it would make a fine album cover for a Debussy and/or Ravel recording.
Le Baron treats modern Western metal flutes as if they had the same lyrical percussive quality of the breathy wooden Japanese shakuhachi. And like the music of Noh, hers disappears rather quickly. On her website, Le Baron quotes the Zen poet Shinkichi Takahashi: ‘The wind blows hard among the pines toward the beginning of an endless past. Listen: You’ve heard everything.’ The wind blew hard Sunday, and the palms in the distance rustled.
The performance by Kaplan and Bjorkedal may not have quite matched the mysterious lyricism of a recording of ‘Solar Music,’ in which Le Baron is the harpist. Then, again, we observed the demystifying mechanics of changing flutes and rubbing harp strings with a pedestrian screwdriver. Still, strong sounds made an impression. Vegetation did rustle, yet I felt no breeze.
More terrific flute and harp music for these excellent players is available -- Takemitsu’s ‘Towards the Sea III,’ for one. Throw in a viola and Debussy, Takemitsu and Benjamin Britten can more than fill a fine evening.
Instead, Southwest chose Debussy’s String Quartet for its second half. Violinists Lorenz Gamma and Shalini Vijayan, violist Jan Karlin and cellist Peter Jacobson were satisfyingly expressive. Debussy’s is a wonderful score, and it fit the program and the place. But it is also much played, and I missed not hearing a little more little-heard harp music.
-- Mark Swed