I reckon S.H.E. is a perfect band name*. It stands for the Seven Harp Ensemble. S.H.E. is led by Alice Giles and comprises seven women. We saw them at the Artist’s Shed, Queanbeyan. They were off to China the next morning to perform on national TV for an expected audience on 80 million (!) and subsequently in the National Centre for the Performing Arts. The gig followed three days of rehearsal at the shed. Now, this is a group out of the now-reviewed and -reformulated ANU School of Music, and they were practising for a very significant international performance (with DFAT involvement) at a local galvanised-iron gallery in an industrial area in Qbn. Taking Canberra to the world for our 100th anniversary. Moving forward. But that’s another story.
A twangle** of harps has a distinct sound, and it’s actually not all a twangle to my ears. I variously heard ancient lyre tones and chromatic sweeps, acoustic guitar tones of gut and nylon strings, piano tones but without the percussive dynamics, techniques like harmonics and damping and variations of plucking styles, taps and hits as in Spanish guitar. S.H.E. played a varied repertoire sounding of China and Australia and Spain and the Baroque. I noticed how we were aware of arrangements. Harp is not the most common instrument. I guess the repertoire is limited and arrangements for it, especially for a larger ensemble, are also limited. So there were frequent mentions of arrangers and arrangements; two tunes were arranged by band members; there was discussion of two part and more complex arrangements; plus they performed four pieces commissioned for S.H.E. The commissioned pieces were by far my favourites. The concert started with a light, pop Chinese song, arranged by Tegan Peemoeller, and made popular in China through a Chinese soap opera. I didn’t see the big concert, and what they were performing was a secret, but my guess is that they performed this tune. There’s nothing like pleasing an audience of 80 million! It was uncomplicated, with a call and response melody and a mildly inquisitive air about it. Nice but unchallenging. Then the Pavane by Anonymous from the C16th: lovely and well known. Two movements from Handel’s Water music arranged by Ingrid Bauer: courtly and danceable. Then one of the original commissions, The Meaning of water by Andrew Schultz, with a melody that echoed from two harps. Then two preludes from Marcel Tournier, both sounding to me of pastoral romanticism and early C20th. Then my favourite for the night, an impressionistic piece by Larry Sitsky called Perpetuum mobile (Fantasia no.13). Then Ross Edwards’ moody, pensive Arafura arioso, an arrangement by RE for the ensemble of the second movement of his guitar concerto. Then a playful, toy-like piece, written for the ensemble by Martin Wesley-Smith and referencing Alice in Wonderland, called Alice in the garden of live flowers. Given that each harpist identified with a flower, I assume it also referenced Alice Giles in her own garden. At times, it sounded to me like a portable organ grinder, but it was more complex and bigger: cute and toyish with child-like openness and crossing into impressionism and rich in confusing polyrhythms. Nice! Then an arrangement by Australian-born Londoner, Tony Brenner of Ravel’s Alberado del gracioso and then the Malagueña, and to finish, an Australian folksong medley, arranged by Tegan Peemoeller, that just has to be on the program for their China visit.
It was a gentle outing, as harp concerts are. It actually got quite loud but it never felt like it, and at other times I was straining to hear the harps over the air conditioning. (This was subsequently reported as the day of the highest average temperature on record for Australia. Another case of moving forward, this time towards +5 degrees). It was a very female outing, as the uptake of harp seems to be gendered. It was also a well attended event (but bigger to follow), which only enlivened the mysterious air of secrecy around what they were playing on TV. Now that’s not something I’ve encountered in a concert before. Everyone loves a thriller, and I guess this was a harpist equivalent. Strange and a touch otherworldly, gentle and varied, this was a memorable and unique event. S.H.E. gave a well-attended concert at the Artists’ Shed in Queanbeyan before their visit to China to perform on Beijing TV’s Spring Festival Global Gala and at the Chinese National Centre for the Performing Arts. S.H.E. (=Seven Harp Ensemble) is led by Alice Giles with Genevieve Lang, Hilary Manning, Ingrid Bauer, Lucy O’Shea, Tegan Peemoeller and Laura Taranta.