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VOL. 126 | NO. 231 | Monday, November 28, 2011

Harpist Highlights Iris String Concert

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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To have a full orchestral sound, one doesn’t necessarily need an entire orchestra. At least that’s the theory behind the Iris Orchestra’s upcoming concert.

Renowned harpist Elizabeth Hainen of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra joins the Iris Orchestra for a Dec. 3 string concert at GPAC.

(Photo: Courtesy of Amanda Stevenson)

On Saturday, Dec. 3, at 8 p.m. Iris presents “String Theories,” an all-string orchestral concert featuring two solo pieces by renowned harpist Elizabeth Hainen of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.

The concert will take place at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, 1801 Exeter Road.

Hainen has been conducted by Michael Stern, music director of Iris, with the Philadelphia Symphony and in the past has performed with Iris when pieces called for a harp. Stern said that including harp solos just made sense for this program.

“The harp makes for a very colorful addition without violating the spirit of a strings-only compliment in the orchestra,” Stern said. “Secondly, the Debussy ‘Danses sacrée et profane,’ included on the program, is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. I’d wanted to do that with her for a long time.”

Hainen said the “Danses” is done in the lyrical, Impressionist style that became Claude Debussy’s signature, but there’s a cultural twist at the beginning.

“What’s different about it is that there’s somewhat of an Asian influence,” Hainen said. “In the turn of the century, all these musicians from China and Japan were brought to Paris for an exposition and a number of composers were taken by the sound of the Far East. Then the music turns into this very lush string writing, perfect little gems of music.”

And there’s part of the message Hainen has been trying to get across for a long time – the harp is a lot more than an ornament for the classical symphony.

“It’s not to be pigeon-holed,” Hainen said. “It’s a very versatile instrument. I was just at the World Harp Congress in Vancouver and it’s amazing just how types of harps there are, and so the music is all different.

“You might hear strings bands and little harp orchestras playing upbeat Latin dance music. Then you have people who were trained on the concert grand harp playing jazz and pop.”

She’s even heard harpists playing jazz with amps attached to their harps. Case in point is the second harp solo slated for the Iris concert, Andre Caplet’s “Conte fantastique,” which the composer based on Edgar Allen Poe’s shadowy story “The Mask of the Red Death.”

“Poe was such an icon for so many artists,” Hainen said. “He was en vogue in Paris. This piece was written for the chromatic harp by Caplet, who was a very close colleague of Debussy, in fact he orchestrated several of Debussy’s works. That’s important because it’s difficult to find a composer who can write for the instrument.”

In the story, an optimistic prince ignores a plague that is decimating his country and throws a masked ball, where he is eventually confronted by the figure of death.

If that doesn’t sound like the kind of story best told by a harp, Hainen said audiences have a few surprises in store.

“That’s what I love about this music,” she said. “It takes the harp’s voice and uses it in a way that’s not expected. The piece starts out in the low wire strings of the harp with low rumbling and a very suspenseful opening. Then there are eerie little passages way up in the upper strings that cascade down the harp.

“The effects are very dramatic. There are further effects when you hear the striking of a clock at midnight and death knocking at the door.”

Not to fear – Stern rounds out the concert with cheerier works including Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No. 5, which was written when the composer was just 12 years old, for one. There’s also the “Serenade for Strings” by Tchaikovsky, a well-known piece with a hint of holiday cheer in it.

Iris will also perform Symphony No. 49 by American composer Alan Hovhaness, subtitled “Christmas Symphony,” which Stern said is a rare performance for the piece.

And while Iris’ brass and woodwinds take a break, Stern said audiences can expect as much bombastic sound as any other Iris concert.

“It sounds really full and complete,” said Stern. “It doesn’t sound like a watered down string quartet, it’s really a full vocal experience. There’s something very festive about this music and I thought it was perfect to put on the program.”

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