The harp is the most alluring of instruments: the shape, the way the strings are caressed and plucked, and the gilded ornamentation along the frame. The latter certainly caught the eye of Marie-Pierre Langlamet, even though the harp was not her original first choice instrument. “I actually wanted to play the piano at school, but all the piano places were taken. I wanted a polyphonic instrument, so I went for the harp,” she recalls. “I loved the gold on the harp,” she adds with a laugh. “As a little girl, I fell for that too.”
Langlamet will make two appearances at the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival. On September 11 (7:30 p.m.) she will team up with flutist Roy Amotz and viola player Itamar Ringel for a rendition of Debussy’s beguiling Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp L.
137. She will return on the morrow in the 24-piece ensemble that will play Franz Schreker’s Chamber Symphony.
On the last day of the festival, Langlamet will participate in a reading of Rudi Stephan’s early 20th-century Music for Seven String Instruments with an ensemble that includes pianist and festival artistic director Elena Bashkirova. Interestingly, all three works hail from the first years of the last century.
Harpists physically embrace their instrument, but Langlamet says this is not exclusive to her and her colleagues.
“I think every instrument, when well played, should become part of your body,” she notes. “You embrace the cello, you also embrace the violin, although you don’t embrace the wind instruments.”
But Langlamet admits that the harp does involve a highly tactile relationship, adding that it is a very versatile tool.
“It is a sensual instrument because you have direct contact with the strings. Actually, it’s a bit like a guitar, and you can play so much piano music on it.”
Even so, original works for the harp are relatively few and far between.
“There is very little repertoire,” Langlamet says. “The modern harp developed quite late, in 1811; so after that, there is a quite a lot but. Before that, there are almost no works for the harp.”
One solution for the relative paucity of harp scores is to adapt music written for other instruments.
“Of course, everyone transcribes for the harp. I have transcribed quite a lot, and I have learned so much through it because you have to confront problems that no one has solved for you, and you have to solve it and make the music sound good. I have learned so much about my instrument through that,” she says.
Although Langlamet began her musical path on the harp, she did make a brief but formative foray into another, very different, instrumental area.
“I actually played oboe for a year, after I fell in love with an oboe player, and that changed my approach to music in general and to the harp,” she recounts.
Playing a wind instrument, naturally enough, influenced the physicality of Langlamet’s playing.
“It made a difference to my breathing and also to the length of the notes. With the harp, you tend to concentrate on the attack of the notes and you don’t really think about the rest because you are under the impression that you can’t do much about the rest, even though it is a false impression,” she says.
Langlamet says that Debussy writing for the harp is a perfect fit.
“I think the harp is a very Impressionistic instrument.
There is something romantic about it but, in the sound.
I think it is Impressionistic. I think the French Impressionists reinvented the harp. There is something about the harp that when it is played, it comes in and out of silence, and the Impressionists flirted with this silence. I think they really give the instrument personality. Funnily enough, when Debussy was writing for the piano, it almost sounded like he was thinking of the harp. Debussy really loved the harp, although he only wrote two pieces for it. He was planning to write six sonatas for the harp before he died,” she says.
Langlamet once said that what she enjoys most in her free time is horseback riding, skiing and ice skating with her children. Although the latter activity seems to have gone by the wayside as her four children have grown up, the harpist says she still maintains a healthy physical activity regime, for professional and personal reasons.
“The harp is very hard on the back. I run a lot, although I don’t ice skate anymore because I broke my wrists once. I do a lot of sports, and if I don’t have the time to do sport, I really feel it when I play my music. It may not sound like it, because the harp generally sounds quite gentle, but you really have to work to play it,” she says.
The Debussy sonata is a particularly varied work and traverses many moods. There are joyful passages, dark, mysterious-sounding areas and frenetic departures, as befitting a composition written as the 20th century unfolded and as World War I raged on.
The Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival runs from September 4 to 13 at the YMCA. For tickets and more information: (02) 625-0444 and www.jcmf.org.il