Emily Levin
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Pulling Strings

Emily Levin on the Debussy harp concerto, which she'll perform at Dallas Symphony in a program conducted by John Adams.

published Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Photo: Gittings
Emily Levin

Dallas — This week the Dallas Symphony Orchestra will present a rich and varied program, “John Adams Conducts Adams, Debussy and Respighi,” with the famed American conductor and composer leading two of his own pieces, featuring violin soloist Leila Josefowicz, Respighi’s seldom performed Roman Festivals and the sumptuous and atmospheric Debussy harp concerto, Sacred and Profane Dances, with DSO principal harpist Emily Levin performing. The apparent mismatch of the program is leavened by the spirited core of all four pieces, molded into coherence by the unwavering vision of Adams himself.

The Debussy piece is worthy of some note, not only for its unique virtuosity but also for its historical influence. The work arguably is responsible for bringing the harp to the forefront as a concerto instrument. Composed as it was at a vast turning point in the design of the concert harp, it was meant to show off the new features of the modernized instrument. But as was so often the case with Debussy, the occasion gave the masterful composer the opportunity to explore new worlds of sonority and musical and orchestral voices that had never been heard. Give Debussy what was essentially a new instrument, and he invented an entirely new sound.

Ms. Levin holds the Dances in special regard as a piece which she has played frequently but one which she finds always exciting and novel. She describes her performance by invoking the scenes that she imagines while performing. “The first part of the concerto, the sacred portion, is somber and slow moving. It has the feeling of a big, open monastery or cathedral, with all of these moldings, statues and gargoyles. The second part [the profane section] is more of a virtuosic dance and I imagine the gargoyles coming down from their cornices to join in.”

The profane portion of the dance features a long quasi-cadenza which moves rapidly through a wide range of harmonic structures, as only Debussy can compose; a variety of sonorities which Ms. Levin calls “miraculous” and which in fact prior to the time of this piece would have been impossible. The Dances were composed to showcase the first fully chromatic harp, the Pleyel Cross-strung instrument developed in the late 1890s. The manufacturers commissioned Debussy to show off its full range. Ironically, by the time the Dances premiered in 1904, the Pleyel was obsolete, replaced by the much more coherent pedal design created by Erard and essentially still in use today. Fortunately, Debussy’s masterpiece turned out to playable on both.

Ms. Levin points out that the harp had always been an important instrument, even in the days when it could be tuned only to a single tonality. Its angelic voice provided color and warmth to the orchestra and its intimate, personal style of play, with the performer right next to the strings, was well suited to romantic and early impressionist pieces. Debussy understood the richness of the instrument, using it as flavor in his Nocturnes and other compositions. But the new chromaticism as seen in the Sacred and Profane Dances allowed him to turn the angelicism on its ear, exhorted the instrument to a fury. His voicing was echoed by Berlioz in his Symphonie Fantastique and then by composers like Ravel and Mahler, who brought the harp into the chamber literature.

The harp has seen an upswing in popularity over the last century or so. Even today, consorts are prominently featured in popular concert series and on social media. But the instrument remains a somewhat solitary endeavor. Ms. Levin points to the large commitment of time and space needed to learn and live with a harp—inconveniences of travel and transport as well as storage of the gentle giants all must be taken into account. But she also says there was never a time when she did not envision herself playing the harp. “When I was four,” she relates, “my father told me the story of King David and it caught my imagination. I knew then and there that I wanted to play the harp when I grew up.” She also learned piano to give her a broader range of music to learn, but she has excelled at the plucked strings more than the hammered. She remains fascinated by the intricacies of instrument, particularly the function of the pedals. “The footwork controls the whole flow of the music and is a very delicate process.”

“The interesting thing about the harp,” Ms. Levin concludes, ‘is that it doesn’t need other voices. You can play whole pieces with the harp in isolation.” In the upcoming DSO concerts, audiences will see the magnificent instrument as Debussy dreamed it—out front of the string orchestra, creating whole worlds of imagination and song. Thanks For Reading

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Pulling Strings
Emily Levin on the Debussy harp concerto, which she'll perform at Dallas Symphony in a program conducted by John Adams.
by Keith Mankin

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