Maeve Gilchrist never set out to chart new territory for the lever harp, but everything she does seems to break new ground.
—by Brandeee Younger
When we first got to know Maeve Gilchrist back in 2007, she had just won the lever harp division of the Lyon & Healy Jazz and Pop Harp Competition. She was fresh out of Berklee College of Music in Boston and finding her way as a musical transplant from Scotland. Her musical creativity and originality blossomed over the last decade as she moved back and forth between New York City and Boston.
Today Gilchrist is fresh off premiering a concerto for harp and orchestra she was commissioned to write, along with composer Luke Benton. She also released a new album last month with bass player Viktor Krauss. Though Gilchrist has done much to validate the Irish harp as an instrument on par both technically and musically with its pedal counterpart, the idea that her instrument wouldn’t be taken as seriously is a foreign concept for Gilchrist, who grew up in a country with a rich and respected folk music tradition.
Perhaps the biggest step for Gilchrist and her Irish harp was her faculty appointment at her alma mater, Berklee College, which marked the first major college program to hire a strictly lever harp player on its faculty.
We asked New York harpist Brandee Younger to sit down with her friend and colleague for a conversation. This online version contains the full interview transcript.
Harp Column: Tell us about this concerto you just premiered.
Maeve Gilchrist: About three years ago I had just moved back to New York, and I got an email from a woman named Martha Hill in North Carolina. She was the director of the Western Piedmont Symphony at the time, which is a lovely symphony orchestra in Hickory, N.C. They seemed to have a focus on a lot of new works, and she asked if I would be interested in writing something for the orchestra. And I, with absolutely no experience writing symphonic music, said “Absolutely.” She suggested Luke Benton, a local composer who’d written and composed for the orchestra before as a co-writer on the project. It could have been a disaster, but turned out to be a really wonderful connection and experience. Luke and I started to meet up, and over the course of a year and a half we met five times either in Hickory or New York. A year and a half later, this concerto was born!
I was thinking about what I wanted to create a concerto with, from the rich color palette that a symphony has to offer, and what I could use as a vehicle for these rich sounds. And I thought back to the story of my great-great-grandmother, as written in a book by my mum called In Pursuit of Kate Corbitt. The short version of the epic story is she migrated from Georgian-era Dublin over to New York in the late 1800s, and two of her daughters died from diphtheria on the boat. They left Dublin because of limited work prospects in her husband’s civil service job as a Catholic. But when they came to New York, there was a lot of oppression against the Irish at the time. They moved West, taking advantage of homestead legislation and started a ranch in Casper, Wy., when it was really the wild, wild west. It was just a scattering of houses, and I just thought about the juxtaposition of their respectable urban Dublin living compared to the wilds of Wyoming, and the contrast of weathers and winters and work. But they managed it. Early on in their endeavors, their youngest son went back to Ireland and took over the family farm, and that’s her link to Ireland. After her husband had passed, she migrated back to England, where she became a Cistercian nun, taking a vow of silence. It’s an amazing story of an incredibly brave woman filled with beautiful, contrasting landscapes. Perfect fodder for a concerto!
HC: Now is this your maternal or paternal grandmother?
MG: This is my maternal grandmother. My mum had just written this book, and I thought it to be a perfect narrative. So we broke this concerto down to four movements: “The Voyage,” “New York,” “Wyoming,” and “Peace.” It was such a treat having such an array of colors to work with, and writing with Luke was fantastic. It was a real collaboration—not simply him orchestrating the themes I’d written. I was very involved in a lot of the orchestral part writing, and he was very involved in parts of the composition process as well as the the sourcing of material for last movement. We used some Gregorian chant themes for the “Peace” movement to reflect what she would have been hearing in the convent. It was a great partnership, and we premiered the piece last Saturday.
It was such a memorable night—a real thrill to hear it come to life! Totally terrifying—I’d never memorized such a long piece.