Worthy of Another Listen

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Standout albums from a talented crowd

As Harp Column celebrates its 25th anniversary, I must say that I feel honored to have written for the magazine for nearly a third of its life. My approach has always been as a music-loving non-harpist with my nose pressed against the glass—with just a wee bit of envy—at this rarefied and elegant world. While I turn up the volume on my critical listening, I have always remained open for the new, the unexpected, and the slightly off-kilter. That being said, it’s the exceptional performance and distinctive voice I’m after, and in these past years, there have been a lot in all styles of playing.

But this may also be why since I began writing in 2010, I have only handed out a few perfect scores. The first was in the days of the old ranking system, so it was “five harps” for Remy van Kesteren back in 2013 with his self-titled album, the Dutch heartthrob who proudly states on his twitter bio: “real men play harp.” There was nothing earth-shattering in the rep list. It was simply awesome playing, the kind that makes a radio announcer super excited because everything just feels right.

Other recordings with perfect scores included Belgian harpist and principal of the Vienna Philharmonic, Anneleen Lenaerts in 2016 with her album Harp Concertos. Her playing was flawless, but it was her extra je ne sais quoi likely having to do with a kind of sporting attitude having to learn 45 different operas in her first season, not-to-mention having to get along with various musicians, conductors, and singers. For her debut disc, she played classics spiced up with less well-known works, like a concerto by her countryman, Joseph Jongen, played with absolute élan.

Likewise, Naoko Yoshino slipped in less-often heard works by Turina and Castelnuovo-Tedesco in her disc from 2016 that helped me see a broader picture of what might belong on a list of “standard repertoire.” And this leads me to one of the most memorable discs of the last several years—and one that caused a paradigm shift in what exactly is allowed on stage with harp: the 2015 disc Together with Yolanda Kondanassis and guitarist Jason Vieux. The colors may be close in timbre, but they are distinct enough to produce an entirely new soundscape, and all exceptionally played.

Surprises abounded with the ensembles riffing on the flute, viola, harp gig that Debussy made famous. In 2016 Hat Trick put out Garden of Joys and Sorrows that included a rethinking of the famous trio along with plenty of new music. That’s long been the mission of the eponymous group from L.A. that put out a superb album in 2017 Angles of Angeles filled with new finds from their own backyard. Fire Pink Trio credits Debussy for “putting together the three sexiest instruments.” It was love at first hearing for them, and their 2015 disc Poetry in Motion opens our ears to a whole new world.

In my years as reviewer, I have been drawn in by the sheer versatility of the harp, in all its manifestations. Last year, composer and Celtic harpist Maeve Gilchrist released Vignette. Her talent knows no bounds as she melds folk and jazz into a unique blend. Pushing boundaries is a fabulous French ensemble led by Clotilde Trouillaud, the Lune Bleue Trio. Their highly physical Cirque-du-Soleil-esque 2017 disc Indigo is atmospheric and adventurous, my idea of the harp transformed. March to May’s 2017 release Through the Night invited the harp in as band member for their angsty, thought-provoking harmonies. Alongside guitar, harp makes a stirring, almost gut punch of a sound. I should also mention a duo that continues to haunt me long after the CD was reviewed, the 2014 release Elva by Tristan le Govic and Lise Enochsson, a kind of jazz-infused folk that is breathtaking. I know I found some technical faults with their disc, so their ranking wasn’t perfect, but the zeitgeist of this ensemble is a rare and precious find.

Continuing to expand my horizons but this time with the concert harp is the Norwegian harpist Uno Vesje. I wasn’t quite convinced with his 2014 disc Poems from the City, but last year he drove his point home and had me wrapped around his lithe fingers with Oslo(ve) an artist’s response to the city he calls home. It helped that he invited some of the city’s finest as his back-up band. For straight-ahead jazz, the best came from Carol Robbins’ 2016 Taylor Street. With her insouciant groove, she makes the argument that the harp belongs right there with best in the biz. Though not quite as down and dirty, Meghan Bledsoe Ward brings jazz to the listener through the lens of classical. Pacific Harp Project’s debut album from 2015 illustrates that the table is set everywhere for the harp to come and join in the banquet.

What I have heard less of—at least from top level performers—is in the realm of new age or experimental. Joanna Newsom sets the bar in her infectious combination of storytelling, voice and a lot of over-dubbing in her 2015 disc Divers. Sarah Deere-Jones’ Wild Harp may be the purest in the genre, improvising on natural ambience and the eerie hush of the aeolian harp. You can push through the wardrobe in the Narnia-esque imagination of Anne Vanschothorst with her 2014 disc Ek is Eik, both soulful and full of fantasy.

So what trends have I been seeing over these past eight years and the hundreds of discs I have listened to and reviewed? My conclusion might be that the world is the harp’s oyster. The hits are covered, the finest classical harpists are expanding the repertoire by commissioning new works and uncovering some seldom heard. The playing is at the highest level in the world of folk, jazz, new age, and experimental, and there are so many great things happening in the world of harp. I have only listed a handful of artists, so please check out the archives and listen with open minds and open ears. Every harpist should be proud of what you as a group of dedicated musicians has accomplished.

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About Author

Alison Young is a classical music host and producer at Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media. She left a successful career as a flutist a decade ago after she developed a neurological disorder, but before then enjoyed many years traveling the world giving recitals, performing concertos, playing with some of the finest orchestras, and recording her own discs. Nowadays, Young spins discs and is always on the lookout for the next best thing. You can contact her at ayoung@mpr.org.

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