Within a minute of having first heard Ina Zdorovetchi about 10 years ago at her junior recital, I knew she had the stuff to be a great harpist, and I told her so. It has been a pleasure to watch her blossom as a first-class artist and to have attended many of her recitals over the years.
Friday night was the opening concert of the Boston Harp Festival, which Zdorovetchi founded and has served as hands-on artistic director, now for the second year. This year, she broadened its scope and audience so that it now occurs at First Church in Boston, a larger venue. This year’s festival has roughly the same format as those of the World Harp Congress, which meets every three years: There are master-classes, “Focus on Youth” and “Stars of Tomorrow” concerts, a lecture on playing in an orchestra, and an evening of chamber music on Saturday. The festival closes on Sunday evening with Park Stickney, the great (if not greatest) jazz harpist. People, including many students, have come from all over the US, harps in tow, to be part of this.
The opening recital featured Zdorovetchi, who chose to play music written originally for her instrument. Harp music has grown in leaps and bounds over the past 30 years, partly by commissions from competitions and also by commissions from harp virtuosi themselves. But it is still tough to put together a full two-hour program of solo harp music with no transcriptions. To these ears (as a harpist), most harp music is still regrettably second-rate, while keyboard transcriptions give a player a much-needed chance to play first-class music.
Zdorovetchi’s program bore an uncanny resemblance to the required repertoire list of the next Israel Harp Competition, a contest in which she covered herself in glory three years ago. It began with Marcel Grandjany’s (1891-1975) much-played Rhapsodie and ended with another ultra-romantic work, Legende, by his famed teacher Henrietta Renie (1875-1956). Both are showpieces that performers adore playing but that have always left this listener cold. When we studied under Salzedo-taught teachers, these works were banned from our repertoire, but even after we broke free (sometimes it took our teachers’ passings to make this possible), the embargo seemed not that insane. This said, Zdorovetchi played them with great panache.
A charming Sonata per arpa by Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824) started out life as a sonata for harp with violin ad libitum. (Viotti wrote at least 29 violin concertos.) Viotti’s first and third movements, like those of other classical sonatas for harp, were hardly of the quality of the gorgeous second movement. Zdorovetchi has always played classical music in mostly her own transcriptions with elegance and beauty, and she did so here as well.
Benjamin Britten’s 1969 Suite for Harp, op. 83, remains an unqualified masterpiece — to this harpist the greatest solo harp piece of the 20th century. Britten wrote ingeniously for harp, from his opera and orchestral parts to his Ceremony of Carols, folksongs with harp, A Birthday Hansel for tenor and harp, and his canticle, The Death of St. Narcissus I. Britten’s harp muse was the Welsh harpist Osian Ellis, who took over the performing partnership with tenor Peter Pears when Britten fell ill. I’ve heard Zdorovetchi play the Suite for Harp several times, but none as sparklingly as she did here. It was clean and fast,
André Jolivet (1905-1974) wrote several pieces of chamber music with harp and also Prélude for solo harp, which was a less interesting piece than his other harp outings with other instruments, Chant de Linos and Pastorales de Noël. The ever-young Elliott Carter (b. 1908) was represented by his Bariolage, which has almost become standard repertoire in the past few years. Finally, Zdorovetchi gave a fabulous performance of Canadian composer Murray Schafer’s (born 1933) seven-movement The Crown of Ariadne, a tour-de-force for harp and a battery of percussion instruments written for the Canadian harpist Judy Loman. It was the highlight of this recital. Zdorovetchi played this work in January (reviewed here) and for me, it was Love at First Listen, with the harp being but one of the many instruments played. A longtime member of Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Zdorovetchi is a champion of new music and invariably plays it wonderfully. This time, I just had a great time listening and watching this delightfully zany piece. Kudos to Zdorovethi for this recital and for organizing this excellent festival!