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French Fluff for Harp, Flute & Two Masterpieces


If you like chamber music with harp, yesterday at Gardner Museum’s Sunday Concert Series was the place to be. The program was entirely harp-based, with significant roles given to a superb flutist and the three brilliant string players. While the concert was billed as The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, four of the five players were actually on the roster of Chamber Music Two (for younger players). The exception was the renowned violist Paul Neubauer.

The concert featured five pieces, two trios and three quintets, written between 1915 and 1934, all with harp (Bridget Kibbey) and flute (Sooyun Kim). With two notable exceptions — the Debussy Sonata for flute, viola and harp and the Roussel Serenade for flute, violin, viola, cello, and harp, Op. 30 — the music, which was less than first-rate, received first-rate performances.

The performers were amazingly good, starting with flutist Sooyun Kim, who will no doubt have a major career wherever she wants it, the excellent violinist Kristin Lee, the enormously gifted cellist Nicholas Canellakis, and finally the superb harpist Bridget Kibbey, who already has won all sorts of prizes and honors, and justifiably so. She produces a wide variety of dynamics and shimmering colors and played with great sensitivity and musicality. She and her colleagues had me spellbound with their virtuosity and sensitivity.

There were, regrettably, no program notes, just biographies of the players and a lengthy history of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, their sponsor. The pieces all had interesting stories, however. Here’s a little of what the audience might not have known. The first piece, Suite for flute, violin, viola, cello, and harp, op. 34 (1928) by Marcel Tournier, was one of many quintets written for Quintette Instrumental de Paris. (Pierre Jamet, who lived from 1893-1991, was the quintet’s harpist and René le Roy, its flutist.) Other composers inspired to write for this ensemble include Jean Françaix, Vincent d’Indy, Albert Roussel, Jean Cras, André Jolivet, Germaine Tailleferre, Florent Schmitt, Charles Koechlin.  Writing for this quintet was all the rage, apparently. Pierre Jamet also premiered the Debussy Sonata in 1917, with René le Roy the flutist. Marcel Tournier’s compositions for harp solo are on many competitions and in the repertoire of most virtuosos. His quintet in four movements (Soir, Danse, Lied, Fete) was quite representative of his other compositions — beautiful harp writing, lovely sounds, but in the end, just pleasant fluff. Most of the harpists I spoke with never knew of this piece, so it was a rare treat to hear it.

Joseph Jongen’s Deux pièces en trio for flute, cello and harp, op. 8 (1925) was similarly pleasant, made perhaps to sound better than it was by the trio’s playing. His harp writing was excellent, but it was one of those lovely pieces I forget the minute it’s over. Next came Roussel’s Serenade for flute, violin, cello and harp, Op. 30, perhaps the most well-known and most played of the quintets. Each of the five performers got a chance to shine, and all five were terrific.  I used to play this piece, hence know its difficulties well, and I am happy to say all tricky spots were performed perfectly and with high spirits. The second movement features a long flute solo, which Kim played beautifully, matched by each of the players and in two places in the second movement, by the harp.

The one enduring masterpiece, Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1917) gave us a chance to appreciate violist Neubauer. The Sonata relies heavily on having a first-class violist. A seasoned and elegant chamber music player (he started off his career at age 21 with a stint as Principal Viola of the New York Philharmonic), Neubauer was throughout keenly attuned to Kim, and they played this trio, with Kibbey, as if they had been doing so for years. It was a truly great performance. Bravi to all three for brilliant ensemble work. This is not an easy piece to pull off, and they did so with great elan.

Finally, the group ended with more French fluff, which I imagine they or their music director thought would be amusing and fun. The Quintet No. 1 for flute, violin, viola, cello and harp, op. 80 (1925) by Jean Françaix got a good performance, but to play cotton candy music after the great Debussy Sonata didn’t work for these ears. Originally the Roussel Serenade was to have been last, and that would have been far more satisfying. I seemed, however, to be in the minority. The rest of the audience seemed quite happy. I think (from years of experience playing these pieces) people just love seeing and hearing a harp and a flute, and the rest is a bonus. The three strings were, in this case, a bonanza of a bonus. You will be hearing the names of these remarkable four young players a lot in the future.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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