Dallas — Most of the time, the harp stays up there in the orchestra behind the second violins and next to the percussion, waiting patiently to provide the occasional rippling arpeggio or add an angelic sheen to an ecstatic musical apotheosis.
Saturday afternoon, in a free concert presented by the Fine Arts Chamber Players at the Dallas Museum of Art, the harp moved to center stage in an impressive performance by the newly formed Dallas Harp Quartet.
I entered a bit skeptical of a program devoted entirely to an instrument with an inherently limited timbrel and dynamic range, and left as a new fan of this superb ensemble, the members of which demonstrated not only their own wide range of musicianship, but the expressive versatility of their chosen instrument.
The group’s collective credentials are worth mentioning, BTW, including the principal harp positions in the Dallas Symphony, the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, the Dallas Opera Orchestra, and the Waco Symphony as well as numerous professional solo recordings, orchestral solo appearances, and top prizes in major competitions.
Music by living composers provided the most interesting aspect of the concert, beginning with a pair of duets by French harp virtuoso Bernard Andres. His Jardin des Paons (“Garden of Peacocks”), performed by Emily Levin and Karen Abrahamson Thomas drew the picture suggested in the title with a light, post-impressionist touch, while his Parvis (performed by Cheryl Losey Feder and Thomas) provided a continuous crescendo toward an off-the-cliff ending reminiscent of the famous symphonic Bolero of Andres’ compatriot Ravel.
Another contemporary work, the duet Raga by Canadian harpist-composer Caroline Lizotte (performed by Grace Browning and Levin) pushed expectations even further, opening with the delightfully weird sound of a marimba mallet stroking a harp string to introduce a work that included, along with the two harps, ankle bells, a cymbal, and the effect of striking the wood of the harp.
Original works for harp from composers of the past included the Rhapsodie of 20th century French-American harpist Marcel Grandjany, Debussyian in style and packed with traditional harp gestures, here performed by Feder. Twentieth century French harpist-conductor Carlos Salzedo’s Scintillation, performed by Thomas, combined elements of Mexican folk music and complex harp technique, particularly in a technically amazing middle section.
The program also featured a number of transcriptions and arrangements, beginning with the opening movement of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, performed by the entire quartet. Although appealing in its familiarity as a curtain-raiser the natural resonance and light tone of the harp, even in a group of four, felt a little at odds with the energy and muscularity of the original version. Four movements from Ravel’s Mother Goose, originally written for piano duet, needed little arranging to transfer effectively to two harps (Browning and Feder); indeed, the “gong” effect in “The Empress of the Pagodas” was actually more effective in this version than in the piano original. The glittering high spirits of the Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin likewise transferred nicely to the harp in E. W. Kune’s paraphrase, performed by Browning.
The sparkling hyper-romantic sighs and flutters of Liszt’s Le Rossignol (“The Nightingale”), originally composed for piano and here performed by Levin, preceded a transcription of early-20th-century Argentine tango composer Augustin Bardi’s urbane Gallo Ciego (“The Blind Rooster”), performed by the entire quartet as an upbeat finale. Although 90 minutes without intermission is a risky programing strategy, the unfailing virtuosity, musicianship, and appealing stage presence of the Dallas Harp Quartet, confirmed by an enthusiastic response from the audience of more than 300, indicates a group with great potential not only locally but on a broader national and international scale as a touring and recording ensemble.