Dallas — Concerts in private homes and other venues beyond the traditional concert hall are a growing trend in chamber music. Chamber Music International presented a variation on this theme Sunday by hosting their fundraiser in the palatial Dallas home of Faye Briggs.
These home concerts usually feature valet parking and a cocktail hour before the concert, and Sunday’s event was no exception. The food at CMI’s event was simple—a cheese board, veggie and fruit trays, and simple desserts, with a selection of white wines and hot teas. The venue, however, was not simple. The newly constructed home’s opulence and the beauty of its gardens made a fine backdrop for the elegance of a harp duo, and the acoustics are unusually friendly, as private homes go.
The duo, comprised of University of North Texas faculty harpist Jaymee Haefner and Stephen F. Austin State University faculty harpist Emily Mitchell, chose a program entirely comprised of contemporary yet accessible works for two harps. The most familiar composer’s name on the program was Ástor Piazzolla, while the other composers with works on the program, Edward Flower, Gary Shocker, and Steven L. Rosenhaus, are considerably less well-known.
The harp duo, while an interesting ensemble, is certainly not one with much available repertoire. Only one of the pieces on the printed program, Gary Shocker’s “Better Than One,” was originally written for two harps. The other three were arranged or adapted from other instrumentations, with one or both harpists arranging two of the compositions themselves. Edward Flower’s “Chords & Thyme” was originally written for two guitars. Flower, a British guitarist now living in the U.S., composed this set of pieces “based on traditional tunes,” and indeed they sound like Renaissance English folk tunes updated for the modern ear and given considerably more polished performances by Haefner and Mitchell than they would likely have gotten in some English village 400 years ago. The overall effect created some delightful cognitive dissonance: close your eyes and you could be hearing some exceptionally good music at Scarborough Faire; open them, and you’re in a posh North Dallas mansion.
Harpist Emily Mitchell’s bio states that “her new focus is to champion the harp works” of composer Gary Shocker. Thus, the evening’s centerpiece, “Better Than One,” was composed by Shocker. The duo ably adapted to the widely varying moods of his four-movement piece, which ranged from the lyrical to the playful. Overall, this music seemed as if it would work well as a film score, but lacked real substance. On the other hand, it is important for musicians who play instruments with limited repertoire to encourage living composers to create new works for their instruments, and that is exactly what Mitchell is doing. The duo’s encore, “Snow,” was also by Shocker, and like “Better Than One,” it tended toward the evocative and ambient. Haefner and Mitchell’s prodigious musicality worked well for this composition as well, since they were able to evoke a distinctly wintery mood in the piece—or at least, once we knew the title and that the piece was supposed to evoke a snowstorm, it seemed that way.
The last half of the program featured works with a Latin bent—one, “For the Gipsy in My Soul” by Steven L. Rosenhaus, we were told was inspired by a Gipsy Kings concert, and the other, “Milonga del Angel/La Muerte del Angel,” is a set of two tangos by Ástor Piazzolla. The former, with its flamenco rhythm, use of the body of the harp as a percussion instrument, and the added percussion of a tambo toe (a sort of pedal tambourine), was great fun and allowed the two harpists really to show off their personalities as well as their considerable technical skills.
The Piazzolla was less successful—in the slow, lyrical tangos, it was often difficult to discern the distinctive tango rhythm that should still be a mainstay. Still, the innovation of arranging Piazzolla for two harps is a welcome one.
Perhaps because there is so little music for harp duo, the recital lasted barely an hour, without the intermission promised on the program. Though brief, it was still a pleasant way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon.