Mélanie Laurent brings expertise to curtain raiser of this year’s Israeli Harp Competition

Laurent certainly put her heart, soul and hours of practice into her instrumental love, and made good progress.

 MÉLANIE LAURENT: I had a very big crush on the sound. (photo credit: Yoann L’Hostellier)
MÉLANIE LAURENT: I had a very big crush on the sound.
(photo credit: Yoann L’Hostellier)

The harp is not the first instrument that springs to mind when our thoughts, and inner ears, wander to some western classical work or other. Perhaps, folks of a certain vintage may recall sublimely farcical – yet graceful – images of Harpo strumming the gilded string apparatus, for which he reportedly got his professional sobriquet, in the 1935 Marx Brothers’ silver screen comedy A Night at the Opera. But that is probably about it other than, perhaps, Celtic music fan regulars at the annual Jacob’s Ladder Festival.

At 26, Mélanie Laurent is far too young to connect with the Jewish-American sibling comic team and says she is not particularly into Irish music. But she has made great strides in the classical sphere since she first laid her infant hands on the unwieldy-looking instrument.

The award-winning French harpist is heading over this way soon, to star in the concert that opens the proceedings of this year’s Israeli Harp Competition. The concert takes place at Heichal Hatarbut (the Charles Bronfman Auditorium) in Tel Aviv on December 19 (8 p.m.) with Laurent, who will also help to choose the winners of the various competition categories, being joined on stage by the Folklorico Latinoamericano South American traditional music band.

Tenderness of years notwithstanding, Laurent has been at it for quite some time. “I started with the harp at the age of six,” she says. That’s very small to begin playing such a left-field, and complex-looking instrument. She notes she had plenty of encouragement at close quarters. “I come from a family of professional musicians so I knew all kinds of instruments. But we didn’t have any harpists, so that was something new for my parents,” she laughs. It was also quite a challenge, on plain practical grounds. “To be honest, my parents didn’t want me to play the harp, because of the cost of the instrument and the difficulty of moving it around.” Sounds perfectly reasonable.

“I come from a family of professional musicians so I knew all kinds of instruments. But we didn’t have any harpists, so that was something new for my parents.”

Mélanie Laurent

But the kid was not to be denied her instrumental aspirations. “I was very passionate about the harp,” she continues. “I had a very big crush on the sound.”

Woman playing a harp (illustrative) (credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)Woman playing a harp (illustrative) (credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)

Unsurprisingly, she was surrounded by harmonious sounds from the word go. “I heard lots of music, because of my parents and, when I heard the harp, I said what is that? It was magical. From the beginning, I was totally in love with the sound.”

Visual Aesthetics

VISUAL AESTHETICS can also come into play. “Sometimes I ask my little students why they want to play the harp. Sometimes it is just the look of the harp. One girl told me she likes the harp because has the shape of a heart,” Laurent chuckles.

Laurent certainly put her heart, soul and hours of practice into her instrumental love, and made good progress. That eventually necessitated a change of living circumstances. “I come from Toulouse [in southwest France] and I moved to Paris, on my own, at the age of 17,” she notes.

The principal motive behind the relocation to the capital was to further her musical education under the aegis of a long-admired teacher and musician. “My teacher at the conservatory in Paris was Isabelle Moretti. I had listened to her recordings and I really liked her sound. She has a very clear sound, like a crystal, very precise. I really loved the way she plays.”

That was a step in the desired artistic direction for the teenager, but it must also have been a tough decision to make, to leave the comfort of the family home and head for the big city. I suggested that she was must have been a brave young woman. “I don’t know if I was brave. I was really determined to be Isabelle’s student, so I went to Paris to study with her,” Laurent states.

By now, it had become pretty apparent that once the young harpist sets her sights on something it’s all systems to go. She says she realized that, if she were going to further her craft, it would have to be with someone she respects and from whom she felt she had a lot to learn. “All our music teachers we have in our life are important because there are only the two of us in the room. It is really intimate and we create a very close connection.”

By all counts, that appears to have worked out well, for all concerned. “I am now happy to say that Isabelle is my friend, and I am very happy to have her in my life.”

The teacher-student chemistry also produced some tangible kudos on the ground. In 2019, she placed first in the 11th USA International Harp Competition, one of the world’s most prestigious harp contests. She also won the Bellan International Competition, held in France, a couple of years earlier.

WHILE SHE does not completely buy into the competition format in the arts, Laurent is fully cognizant of how success in music contests can help to kick-start, or further, an aspiring musician’s career. “I think that two different artists, who express themselves in their own way in the music, should not be compared. In a competition, the musicians should not be fighting, because they have their own personality which, of course, is different from one another.”

Then again, her gold medal in the States was not only a feather in her cap, it also brought her to the attention of major players in the global culture market, and was nothing short of a life-changer. “Before this competition, I was not even considering a career in music. I didn’t think a lot about winning [in the US], I just wanted to make progress.” It was a learning curve shift for her too. “I learned a lot of pieces for the competition, and I just wanted to play for people, share my music and have some fun. Winning opened a lot of doors for me and I played all over the world.”

Now she is a bona fide member of the professional classical music circuit who is not only keen to entertain, she also does her bit to keep her discipline alive and kicking by playing works of contemporary composers such as compatriots Bruno Mantovani and Philippe Hersant.

I wondered whether Laurent felt frustrated by the relative paucity of works written for the harp compared with, say, for piano or violin. She says that, in fact, she has quite a large oeuvre to feed off, even if that requires doing a little digging. “The repertoire is quite big if we take some forgotten pieces. We always play the same pieces, but if we look in the right places we can find some forgotten pieces.” Of course, there is the not inconsiderable matter of compositions that have been transcribed for the harp, by the likes of Debussy and Chopin.

Laurent says she does not expect to run out of charts anytime soon. “I really enjoy making my own transcriptions. We still have a lot of pieces to learn, I sometimes feel my life won’t be long enough to play everything,” she laughs.

Only time will tell on that score but, for now, Laurent says she is delighted to be making her first visit trip over here. She is looking forward to sharing some of her global onstage experience and expertise with some of our own budding harpists at a master class while she is in Tel Aviv.

For tickets and more information: https://kupatbravo.co.il/International_Harp_Contest