Harping on about the music

Thirty one harpists under the age of 36 from across the globe, including from Finland, the United States, France, Israel, China and South Africa will engage in a musical battle, through four stages.

Catherine Michel will preside over the international jury for the International Harp Constest in Acre (photo credit: THE HARP AND NIGHTINGALE FOUNDATION)
Catherine Michel will preside over the international jury for the International Harp Constest in Acre
We might not be a global economic superpower, or a leading sporting force, but there is no arguing over the fact that we have plenty to offer in the way of musical endeavor.
Next week, the International Harp Contest takes place in Acre (October 15-25). It is the 20th edition of the triennial event which was founded in 1959. All told, 31 harpists under the age of 36 from across the globe, including from Finland, the United States, France, Israel, China and South Africa will engage in a musical battle, through four stages.
The curtain raiser features last year’s winner, Yuying Chen from China, who will perform a wide-ranging repertoire, including works by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Chong Wang. Chen will be joined by flutist Yossi Arenheim, violinist Sami Chashibun and the East West Ethnic Ensemble conducted by Israel Borochov.
The musical content of the 11-day program will be overseen by musical director Julia Rovinsky, principal harpist of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, while internationally acclaimed French harpist Catherine Michel will preside over the international jury.
As the daughter of a music teacher, Michel’s own musical life got off to a flyer. “I started piano before harp. I was so little that I no longer recall the date,” she says.
“On the other hand, I recall clearly my first harp lesson with my mother. She was a graduate of the Conservatoire Supérieur de Musique de Paris (Paris High Conservatory of Music) and had initiated me in piano that she was teaching with similar talent.” It was a natural fit, in all senses. “She could make us discover music through music reading courses which were sometimes difficult for some, but she had a gift for teaching us the secrets of reading and listening. Musical dictations with several voices had become my favorite game. Everything at home was music.”
Many musicians, regardless of their ultimate instrumental choice, either started out on piano, or work the keys into their exploratory efforts during the course of their career.
Michel says her background on the ivories has been a boon, and that helped her compensate for the limitations of the harp field.
“Learning piano allowed me to access a wider repertoire than that of harp. I quickly realized, in looking through my mother’s library, that I would not get far with the harp and that was the reason for my starting to seek sheet music in the large libraries.”
Michel says that the constraints of the harp score offerings were largely down to a lack of communication. “I quickly realized that each harp teacher – composer – had shared their compositions with their students without transmitting that which had been written by their predecessors. The piano repertoire offered a wider knowledge of styles.”
It is, says Michel, very much a matter of proactively checking out the lay of the relevant instrumental land, and believes the existing harp repertoire leaves her with sufficient scope for expression. “Yes, still one must keep looking. Too many concerts remain unknown to the public’s ears.”
As a youngster, Michel drew on a spread of inspirational figures.
“First of all, my teacher,” she says. “He was the first harpist to play Debussy music on a pedal harp. His lessons were full of comments.” The tutor in question also offered his disciple with a link to a halcyon period of contemporary musical evolution.
“He was so lucky to be able to listen to the premiere of most of the [Russian impresario Sergei] Diaghilev productions in Paris – all the great ballets by Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel etc.” Michel says the lessons took in a wide educational hinterland. “My teacher’s lessons were not only about harp, but a lot about the history of music of the beginning of the century. He was a painter, and so was his father. We were sharing more than music.”
The harp has been a constant in Michel’s life since the get-go.
“The very first recording I heard was a record by [20th century French-American harpist-composer Marcel] Grangjany record,” she said. “It was superb. He was also a pupil of [19th century Belgian harpist, composer and educator Alphonse] Hasselmans and, today, I am still fascinated to see the names of the pupils of that fantastic teacher. Most of them were legends of the 20th century. Their sound was unique. All of them.” Not a bad musical lineage to tap into.
Leonard Bernstein also played a part in Michel’s artistic growth.
“He was also one of the great inspirations in my life as a musician, and as a person,” she says. “We got so close that he gave me some of his piano pieces to play on the harp. That was quite a gift!”
The harp is not generally viewed as a solo instrument, and those who choose to play it have to contend with challenging tonality and amplification logistics when doing musical business with different ensembles. It is, says Michel, often down to the instrumentalist’s approach.
“There is a way of playing which allows you to produce a great sound,” she says. “On the other hand, it is a serious mistake to try to force the sound at any cost. A harp is not a concert piano.”
Then again, there are ways and means. “In my concerts of film soundtracks I always used an electric harp equipped with a strings mic. This simplifies things for the technicians in concert halls. Our personal sound is simply amplified without being deformed or modified.”
But things don’t always pan out. “I recall having recorded in live concerts when the orchestration was so heavy that I never wanted to play them again in public.”
Although known worldwide as a leading exponent of classical works, Michel tries to keep an open mind about the various spheres of sonic endeavor, both onstage and in auditoria.
“I remain convinced that we must give the public accessible music,” Michel says. “Music that touches them. We must give our students the possibility to discover all possible styles, and ethnic and musical sources. It is through this familiarity and skill that creation can evolve for young composers.”
Michel believes that the quest for musical excellence requires more than nimbleness of hand and foot. “I expect from students listening and comprehending sound. A harpist who has a beautiful sound is necessarily someone whose technique is perfect. [I expect] perfect knowledge of the different styles of what they perform.”
The harp is not necessarily the first instrument one thinks of in a classical concert setting. That, says Michel, is largely attributable to marketing considerations. “The public’s reaction is often enthusiastic but the concertos programmed are too often the same. Orchestra conductors are reluctant to waste time studying works that they will seldom conduct, and agencies want to fill concert halls with known composers. [The latter believe that] Mozart sounds better than [18th century harpist Jean-Baptiste] Krumpholz!”
Michel has been this way before, and has a more than a fair knowledge of the local instrumentalists. “I know them all as I have often given summer courses. I have a very friendly and admiring relationship with Sivan Magen whom I have known for a very long time, and had the pleasure of teaching when he was a student.” Magen placed first in the 2006 International Harp Contest, and is the only Israeli winner to date.
The final, featuring three contestants, will take place at the Acre Auditorium on October 25, with the Haifa Symphony Orchestra conducted by Doron Salomon on hand.
With eight concerts around the world lined up for this year’s winner, there is plenty to play for.
For more information: www.harpcontest-israel.org.il