04 March 2013

No complaints

I’ll never complain about the cost of double bass strings again. We saw harpist Tegan Peemoeller with baritone Rohan Thatcher at the Artists Shed at Queanbeyan on Sunday. After the gig, she gave a Harp 101 lecture with harp lore, an introduction to the instrument and a few Q&As. As for the strings, a full set costs $1,000 to $2,000. They are the work of an afternoon to change (masters may get it down to 1 hour). The upper strings are changed every 3 months; the middle strings, every 6 months; the bass strings, every year. This is for a well maintained, professional player. Then there’s the set of tools to go in the purse (most harpists seem to be female) and the annual services. It’s an investment and not for the faint-hearted. Bass strings at $200 a set changed annually seems a doodle; as for guitar strings at $15 a set, baby-food.

But what of the sound? I hear classical guitar from the nylon strings, and techniques like damping and harmonics and finger plucking versus arm sweeps. Also the sound of piano in the lower registers. But something unique in the harp is enharmonics, which allows those wonderful sweeping glissandi that define the instrument. Tegan explained it’s possible given pedals setting multiple strings to the same pitch, eg, D flattened to Db on one string and C sharpened to C# on the next. This is a playing technique on harp, not just a tuning possibility. Genuinely interesting.

Tegan played a first set solo: various arrangements and compositions for the harp. Robert Maxwell's arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov; was it another Respighi; an original tune by Jim Cotter for Leonard Rice called Kasuri, the Japanese dyed and woven fabric; two by Salzedo. I was fascinated by the technique: Tegan's high elbows and flowing style, her plucking that was sometimes sharp but richly varied to draw a range of tones. I noticed her sing finger seemed to play the tonic and she confirmed later that it's a key finger. Strange, because the little finger is at the lowest pitch, on both hands. Also, the thumb that swipes or plucks. I though I could see a common chordal shape in the hands, but Tegan said that's not really the case. Certainly, they create a range of forms to play scales and intervals.

Rohan came on for the second set and the first piece was my favourite for the concert: 4 of 9 English songs by Hindemith, modern with consonance and dissonance interspersed and Rohan's voice singing in English. The songs were On hearing the last rays of sunshine, Echo, Envoy and The wild flower song. Voice and harp are such beautiful instruments and so unusual to hear together. This was truly lovely and strangely out of time, or perhaps out of our time. Then some choices by Rohan, all poems put to music: John Ireland's The vagabond and George Butterworth's settings for two poems by AE Hausman. Then a final solo harp piece, an arrangements of favourite bits from several version of Robert Maxwell's Ebb tide. Here I noticed several lines that spoke of jazz: the first notes of Misty and other hints I heard but not couldn't name.

But what a wonderful, tuneful, soft and intimate sound is the harp. And it was just enhanced by the humanness of the voice. Small and intimate and dreamy. Lovely. Tegan Peemoeller (harp) performed with Rohan Thatcher (baritone) at the Artists Shed, Queanbeyan.

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