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Harp Trio Debuts


Trio Oko’s first public performance, on August 21st at the Scandinavian Cultural Center in Newton, revealed three accomplished individuals playing as a seamless ensemble. In promotional materials, the trio — Emma Powell (violin), Mina Kim (cello), and Charles Overton (harp) — mentioned the power of music “to evoke joy and facilitate meaningful human connection” and their intent to “highlight the various sonic capabilities of this unique instrumental combination.” Their concert indeed evoked joy, demonstrated profound communication, and displayed the strengths of each instrument via thoughtful choices of timbre, articulation, dynamic contrast, and balance. The program comprised the first movement (Allegro) of Mozart’s Piano Trio in G Major, K496 (transcribed for harp by Charles Overton); Saint-Saëns’s Fantaisie for Violin and Harp, Opus 124; Jessie Montgomery’s Duo for Violin and Cello, and Jacques Ibert’s Trio for Violin, Cello and Harp.

Throughout the concert, the musicians (as a trio or as duos) matched one another’s tempi precisely and allowed each person’s line to shine in turn, while allowing for the slight pauses and subtle shifts in rhythm that bring music to life. Their facial expressions broadcast their delight in collaborating.

The first piece, the Mozart trio, showed off the artists’ individual and collective talents and also exposed some of the difficulties in transcribing piano compositions for harp. As Overton pointed out, harpists often choose to transcribe piano parts in order to extend the available chamber repertoire. He later explained a major problem of transcription: harp strings, once plucked, sustain until the harpist damps them manually, whereas piano strings are usually damped when the pianist releases the key. Although Overton described fast, staccato passages as the most difficult to transcribe, in fact the most obvious difference in the Mozart appeared in Overton’s rendition of the ornamental turns. He chose to mute each note individually (creating a series of staccato articulations), so that they actually sounded drier and more percussive than they would on the piano.

Saint-Saëns published Fantaisie for Violin and Harp when he was 72. In contrast to the Mozart, this example highlights the harp’s specialties, particularly the ability to produce smooth, rapid arpeggios. Powell and Overton alternated smoothly and sensitively between lyrical and more virtuosic segments, beginning with a delicate, gestural section followed by lush fullness. Powell’s high notes were rounded and intense without being piercing, and she skillfully used varying degrees of vibrato to emphasize the dynamic changes. Overton deftly imitated the violin’s pizzicato articulations.

Powell then introduced a duo that composer-violinist Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981) wrote for herself and cellist Adrienne Taylor as “an ode to friendship with movements characterizing laughter, compassion, adventure, and sometimes silliness,” in three movements: Antics, In Confidence, and Serious Fun. Movement I includes a lively stretch of plucked glissandi, resulting in a distinctive effect with both percussive and legato elements. Powell and Kim clearly enjoyed the dialogue that Montgomery set up using these glissandi and interpreted this segment expressively and with humor. Movement II begins with a series of slow-moving double-stops, including deliberate dissonances that add harmonic color. The cello then states a legato melody while the violin accompanies it with extended double-stops; the violin repeats the melody with cello accompaniment, suggesting the exchange of confidences described in the title. Powell and Kim made these “confidences” feel tender and effective. In Movement III, the composer frequently changes dynamics and timbres. In some sections, both performers played col legno tratto (with the wood of the bow), which produced a quiet, slightly eerie sonority with lots of high overtones. These quiet, delicate parts were balanced by loud, forceful passages with normal bow position.  Again, both members of the duo acted as a cohesive whole, especially in the challenging parallel scales toward the end of the piece.

Kim noted that Jacques Ibert (1890 – 1962), who deliberately defied genre typing, wrote his Trio for Violin, Cello, and Harp during World War II, when he was in his 50’s. In movement I,  the voices form an equal partnership. We hear individual melodies, compound melodies outlined by various players in turn, and counterpoint. In movement II, the strings largely play long, singing lines in duet over a rhythmic motor provided by the harp. In the last movement, the violin starts with a leaping figure bowed slightly off the string, which all three instruments eventually pass back and forth. The imitations emphasized the artists’ skills in listening and matching timbre, volume, and articulation. The marked accelerando at the end demonstrated the group’s togetherness and communication.

A broken harp string between movements I and II of the Ibert led to a short delay with a fascinating educational component. While he changed the string, Overton offered a brief impromptu discussion of harp strings, their makeup (the lower strings are wound steel; the higher ones are gut and/or nylon), and their breakage (at a festival earlier this summer, 26 of his 47 strings broke and had to be replaced; a full set costs about $600). He also spoke of the harp’s range, which is less than the piano’s, and the challenge that this difference in range poses when transcribing. Finally, he mentioned that the newly replaced string would probably not stay in tune for the duration. He joked that harpists “spend 90% of our time tuning, 10% playing out of tune.” (Sadly, his joke proved prescient – the string went flat during movement II and had to be retuned for movement III).

The Ibert which gives all the ensemble members a chance to shine both as soloists and as a group, served as a fitting finale to a masterful concert. Unfortunately, Trio Oko has no next outing planned, but they will be further developing their repertoire and hope to offer more public concerts in the near future. Their future appearances will be well worth attending.

Ruth Hertzman-Miller is a collaborative pianist, composer, and physician who enjoys composing in a mix of styles, both traditional and modern. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Composition at Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

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