“Nordic Cool 2013” at the Kennedy Center: The NSO Performs a Concert of Music from Finland

February 19 – March 17–the Kennedy Center celebrates "Nordic Cool 2013" with programs and artwork featuring the cultures of Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden. At night the image of the Northern Lights is projected onto the building, creating an aura of excitement about the festival before one even enters the Kennedy Center!

Last week the NSO presented a program of music from Finland featuring works by Lindberg, Sibelius and Saariaho. There were two harps in "Orion" by Saariaho.

The harps parts were not difficult technically, in fact almost sight-readable. But it required a great deal of mental and physical stamina to get through it! There were many complex rhythms throughout the piece. I found the second movement challenging.

It opens with a tremolo in the bass wires which lasts for about three minutes. I am short (5'2") and had to stretch my arms, straining my shoulders and neck, for that passage. I took ibuprofin before and after each performance, but am still feeling the consequences. Note to any composer reading this: please avoid this sort of writing for the harp!

Excerpt from "Orion" by Sariaaho. This figure continues without break for over 40 measures!

This passage was also problematic. It is very audible, but impossible to stretch a seven-note glissando over the entire measure at this tempo. My solution was to play random slow glisses (not measured, but as slow as possible) for the duration of each measure indicated. At the same time the first harp is doing rapid swirl glissandos over a larger range of the harp.

Here is a recording of the second movement of "Orion."

This entry was posted on March 4, 2013.

Performance considerations for the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra–second harp part

I have played the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra many times over the course of my harp career, both first and second harp, under many conductors. I'm going to limit my comments to the second harp part, and to how I am playing it for this series of performances with the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach.

In the first movement the second harp has a two-measure group of gushing chords with the indication that they are to be played near the board with a wooden or metal rod. In the past I have used spoons, using the bowl of the spoon so as not to damage the harp strings. Other harpists have used coins (which I have never tried) or just fingernails. Maestro Eschenbach did not like the sound of the spoons and asked me to use rods. I borrowed some from the percussion section and, yes, they are chewing up my strings, but the sound is terrific!

In the second movement I use the fingering indicated in Sarah Bullen's Principal Harp. The important thing is that the chords are articulated and accented. The glissandi are simply splashes.

The third movement presents no particular challenges, except to be flexible with the sixteenth note passage, as the conductor does it differently each time. Maestro Eschenbach requested that the last two eighth notes of that passage be sharply accented. This is one case where it is fine to have a harsh sound on the harp.

I will defer my comments on the fourth movement to another post, but will say that I use the enharmonics indicated by Sarah Bullen in her book.

The last movement is the most difficult. In an audition situation one has to play the first harp part as written, but I have never performed it that way. For the first passage we use the Salzedo edit, which has been handed down in handwritten form from our teachers (Marjorie Tyre and Marilyn Costello). Beatrice Schroeder Rose printed it in her book The Harp in the Orchestra. The first harp plays the right hand of the original first harp part and the left hand of the original second harp part. The second harp plays the alternate hands. This keeps the passage even and steady, which is hard to do when the second harp plays the offbeats. Maestro Eschenbach requested that we play the passage forte though it is indicated to be played piano. He also conducts it the fastest I've ever done it, about 152 a quarter note.

In the final passage in the last movement, we split the part differently from the original so that the hands aren't so close together. This allows for much more comfort in playing, but does not make the part much easier. The different split can be found in Test Pieces for Orchestral Auditions. Fortunately Maestro Eschenbach is taking this passage at the more standard 138 a quarter note.

The Bartok is one of my favorite orchestral works and I'm very excited to be touring Spain and Germany with the NSO performing this great masterpiece!

This entry was posted on January 28, 2013.

NSO European Tour 2013

Several people have asked me what happened to my blog–why have I quit posting! There are always plenty of things to share, but unfortunately limited time to do so. However I have resolved to post more frequently.

Next week the NSO leaves on a tour of Spain, Germany, France, and Oman. I will be on the tour for the first two weeks, for concerts in two cities in Spain and four cities in Germany. The repertoire for me is the Concerto for Orchestra by Bartok. This work is not being performed in Paris or Oman, so I will leave the tour from Germany.

Tonight is our last concert before the tour and so we are packing our instrument and wardrobe trunks. The orchestra departs on Tuesday. My husband, Michael Blakeslee, will be traveling with me. I promise to post frequently from Europe!

This entry was posted on January 26, 2013.

Performing at Wolf Trap in Extreme Heat

The National Symphony Orchestra performs three times a year at the West Lawn of the Capitol: Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day. Memorial Day and July 4 are televised, Labor Day is not. In addition, throughout the month of July, the National Symphony performs about ten concerts at Wolf Trap, pictured to the left.

For all of these concerts there is a risk of bad weather, and none of the venues have air conditioning on the stage. To keep comfortable we have fans, but that is the extent. The dressing rooms at Wolf Trap are air-conditioned, but the stage is not.

People often ask me if I get nervous about performing at the Capitol. I don't get nervous about playing the harp, but I do get stressed over the tuning. Harps do not do well in hot and humid weather.

We have had several concerts this summer where, even at 8:30 in the evening, the temperature has been over 100 degrees. My worst experience was a concert of all John Williams music. In the afternoon rehearsal I had three strings break, and another three broke during the concert. This was on top of two broken strings the day before. I was a wreck! In John Williams' music there are many exposed harp parts, and the harp is played constantly–there is very little time to change a string or tune. But, that is what is required of my job and so I did it.

Here is some advice:

1. Keep as comfortable as you can.

a. Be sure you are well-rested and in top physical shape as a concert in that weather can feel like running a marathon

b. Keep hydrated: The NSO provides sports drinks backstage. At the very least drink lots of water

c. Keep as cool as you can: dress as appropriately as possible, and use a chilling sports towel, at least for rehearsals. You can purchase one at a sporting goods store or online at FroggToggs.

2. Keep your harp in performance condition

a. If at all possible, use a second harp for outdoor performances. The conditions will be brutal for any harp, and you are miked anyway, so don't worry too much about sound quality.

b. Use nylon strings in the upper two octaves if you possibly can (I hate the sound of the nylon strings so this is a hard guideline for me…)

c. Have your string bag on stage beside you, well-organized so that you can grab any string and string brace in seconds. (A tip: if you can't find a string brace quickly, tear off a corner of the program or cue sheet, roll it into a tight tube and use that–it works just fine.)

d. Be very quick at changing strings. When you are in the practice room, do timed drills every time a string breaks.

e. When you change a string, leave the string end a little on the long side until the pitch has stabilized–this way you know in an instant which strings to spot-check. This is also important if you have more than one harp. I'm constantly forgetting which strings recently broke on which harp.

f. Keep your electronic tuner on and your pickup mike attached to the harp at all times so that you can spot check the tuning of new strings.

My worst moment in the John Williams concert occurred when one of my third-octave strings broke six measures before the end of the Superman March. The next selection was Schindler's List, which uses that string in the opening solo arpeggio. I had the string changed within those six measures and was grateful that the soloist had to walk out on stage so I had a few seconds to bring the string to pitch and stretch it and spot check the other new strings.

At the end of the first half the principal trumpet player commented that I had played beautifully, and the harp was so well in tune in spite of the heat. I was grateful for the compliment but I felt like I had run a marathon and it was over 24 hours before my adrenalin level had dropped to where I could sleep. When I vented to another friend about the broken strings and tuning problems, she made the comment, "Well, that is why you are paid the big bucks–because you can handle it!" She was absolutely correct of course, and I consoled myself with the thought that surely the trumpet player had had a worse time of it! I can't imagine playing a trumpet on a code red day with a heat index of 110!

This entry was posted on July 28, 2012.

NSO Summer Music Institute

Each summer the National Symphony Orchestra holds a Summer Music Institute for dedicated young orchestral musicians ages 15-20. The application process is highly selective by video audition and the young musicians chosen are granted full scholarship. In addition to orchestra, side-by-sides with the National Symphony, enrichment classes, and private lessons, they participate in several chamber music groups.

I have had the pleasure of working with harpist Bethany Roper, from New Mexico. Her first chamber assignment was the first and last movements of the Debussy Sonate for flute, viola, and harp. Nancy Weller Thomas, violist, and I coached the group. We were very pleased with their performance on the Millennium Stage of the Kennedy Center last night, which you can watch online at http://www.kennedy-center.org/explorer/videos/?id=M5102

The group is pictured here: Sam Williams, flute; Bethany Roper, harp; and Tasha Pulvermacher, viola.

Next week, on Friday July 27, Bethany will be performing again on the Millennium Stage with two flutists, playing the Berlioz Trio of the Young Ishmaelites and Gaubert's Divertissement Grec. That ensemble will be coached by NSO Principal Flutist Toshiko Kohno.

This entry was posted on July 23, 2012.

A Capitol Fourth 2012

Last night the National Symphony had its dress rehearsal on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. I took this photo just prior to the rehearsal. Jack Everly, who will conduct the concert, is chatting with John Williams, who will take the podium for his "Olympic Fanfare."

It should be a fun program, with lots of harp. I just hope the concert isn't cut short by predicted thunderstorms, as was the Memorial Day concert earlier this year.

Here is a YouTube of the Olympic Fanfare by John Williams

This entry was posted on July 4, 2012.

NSO Performs Bluebeard’s Castle March 8 and 10

Last week was a musical highlight of the year for me. I love all of Bartok's music and Bluebeard's Castle is a masterpiece. The National Symphony did a concert version, meaning that the opera was not staged, but merely sung. But the lighting was wonderful. In the story, Duke Bluebeard and his wife Judith stop at his castle. There are seven doors and she insists on opening each. The first is a torture chamber, the second his military arsenal, the third his treasury and so on. The lighting was of the organ pipes behind the stage, and was blood red for the torture chamber. For the other doors there were different colors, but became infused with the red symbolizing the evil sources of the power and riches of Duke Bluebeard. Behind the final door are Bluebeard's former wives.

The music is very powerful, and it was a thrill to be a part of it. The harp parts, unlike most of Bartok, are very easy, almost sight-readable. Most of my part (the second part) consisted of bisbigliandos to symbolize the glitter of the treasure and so on.

The Washington Post gave a very favorable review, "Rarely has music fit a story so well: dark, exhilarating, threatening, turning corners reveal vistas of breathtaking beauty. Dramatic and episodic, furthermore, it plays to Eschenbach’s particular strengths. Perhaps no other conductor exults so much in the ability to make huge, gorgeous sound with some extra-musical significance. And Eschenbach’s small frame vibrated with the towering chords after Judith opened the fifth door and saw the majestic vista (in C-major) of the duke’s lands stretching out before her."

Here is a YouTube recording of that fifth door (the kingdom), which was my favorite part. There is no harp in that scene, but we had to muffle in the rests as the harps resonated so much!

This entry was posted on March 16, 2012.

Shostakovich Violin Concerto with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

This past week I substituted as principal harp and had the thrill of playing the Shostakovich Violin Concerto with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. She is one of my favorite violinists and has a very intellectual approach to music without sacrificing passion. In this concerto she seemed able to display every color available to the instrument and it was a musical highlight of my life to hear her play three concerts, and to accompany her.

The harp part is small, but very exposed, playing only in the first movement. The Washington Post review described the concerto as "Music infused with melancholy, it may be bitter or just rueful — with harp, celesta and tam-tam giving the violin’s lonely monologue an exotic, spectral quality." The harp has a couple harmonic passages in unison with the celesta, much like in the Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich. Then a wonderful rich luxurious chordal accompaniment to the violin solo. All of this is in the first movement and the rest of the concerto is without harp.

A few performance notes: tune the bass C wire to D and the bass D wire to D-sharp. Then no enharmonics are necessary. Should one mark the harmonics? In my younger days I would have considered that "cheating." But then one day I was backstage chatting with Nicanor Zabaleta and he showed me his harp. He was playing the Ginastera Concerto and had marked all of the harmonics. If Zabaleta can do it, why can't I? Another consideration is that most of my practice is on a different harp from the harp I keep at the Kennedy Center, and all harps are a bit quirky in the placement of harmonics. What I did was mark the first one in each set as well as an A-sharp I didn't always get perfectly. I mark them with "white-out" but nail polish works just as well.

One more thing: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg used her music for this concerto. This did not in any way detract from her performance. At every performance the audience lept to their feet almost before the end of the last note. I think memorization is an important skill, and I wouldn't perform any concerto if I had not gone through the steps of memorization, thus thoroughly knowing the music. On the other hand, I always have the printed music in front of me. If you know the music thoroughly, I don't think it matters if you occasionally reference the printed page during the performance.

Here is a YouTube video of David Oistrakh playing the first movement of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto, which was written for him. Note that in this video there are two harps playing. The score does indicate that the part is to be doubled, but, unfortunately, that rarely happens.

This entry was posted on February 12, 2012.

The NSO Performs “Armonica” by Jörg Widmann

This week the National Symphony Orchestra is performing a glass harmonica concerto, Armonica, by Jörg Widmann. I was tapped at the last minute to play the harp part and, while I found it very difficult, I think the work is stunning and the harp part effectively written, even if awkward to play. The harp, celesta, and piano form a group which adds glittering effects to the piece. The harp part consists of a lot of complex rhythms, mostly in the upper two octaves of the instrument. In the final minutes of the work, there are glissandi to be played with a guitar pick just below the tuning pins of the harp. The piano has coin glisses in the same section, sometimes with the harp and sometimes echoing it. It is an interesting effect over the other timbres of the orchestra.

One caution to any harpist playing this work: there is a misprint in the harp part. The measure marked 94 is actually measure 97. There are no missing measures, the measure is simply numbered incorrectly. This caused some confusion in our first rehearsal.

Anne Midgette of the Washington Post gave the concert a very favorable review, describing Armonica as, " a 16-minute feast of what appeared to be sound effects, built on the ubiquitous idea of a musical work growing from nothing into a cascade of sound and dying away again."

Here is a recording of Armonica:

This entry was posted on January 27, 2012.

Rachmaninoff Third Symphony

Last week the NSO performed the Rachmaninoff Third Symphony under the direction of Leonard Slatkin, former Musical Director of the National Symphony Orchestra.

The second harp part is a doubling part and, with the exception of a passage or two in the second movement, I doubled everything. It is not a difficult part, with the exception of the very end of the piece. The orchestra drops out and the harps take over with a busy passage that takes a bit of practice to get secure.

At the dress rehearsal Maestro Slatkin made a comment that the score indicated that if a second harp was not available a small upright piano could be used instead. He shrugged and said, "Why not a 'large' upright piano?" I was very curious and so before the performance I went to the library to look at the score. The Boosey edition had no such notation. After the first performance I asked Leonard Slatkin about this and he told me it was in his Kalmus edition of the score. A colleague remarked that it was a rather stupid notation. Leonard joshed with me and said, "I guess a small upright piano would be the best approximation of the out-of-tune second harpist!" No, I didn't deck him, but he did duck!

The concert received a favorable review from the Washington Post.

Photo of the inside cover of the Kalmus score of the Rachmaninoff Third Symphony.

This entry was posted on November 16, 2011.


Concert Reviews
Harpist in the news
Quote of the day
Teaching tips