30 March 2023


It's fascinating to hear of the history of musical instruments.  The modern-day concert, pedal harp dated from ~1800 but was still "revolutionary" for  orchestral use in 1888 in a symphony by  Cesar Franck.  By coincidence, that's also pretty much the era for Antarctic explorations (which followed the whalers after they'd depleted the northern whale populations).  There had been harp-like instruments for yonks, even from classical days and earlier (Wikipedia says 3,000BCE), but we are talking of reliable mechanisms for providing a full chromatic instrument with the ability of changing keys in an instant.  Not simple.  This was a product of Germany but the French seems to warm to the instrument.  Thus we heard a string of harp tunes, from 1919 onwards, from France, from men and women, and one popular tune, again absolutely associated with France.  Marcel Tournier provided a sonatina in 3 movements, perhaps the most significant work of the day, then 5 of 6 short pieces by Henriette Renie, Professor at the Paris Conservatoire, then the well-known stuff, Debussy Clair de Lune and Louiguy/Piaf La vie en rose.  And it was Rowan Phemister who played this program.  He's a harpist for CSO and various other orchestras around Australia, not least the Ballet (or Opera?) orchestra in the Opera House.  He mentioned frequent travel.  I asked about transporting harps by plane (no) and thus whether they are supplied by orchestras (yes; some have several).  But this was a hugely pleasurable concert, perhaps think Degas picnics, with Rowan's introductions and chatter and wonderfully expressive, understanding playing.  He gets those gigs for a reason.  The muting of palms, the sharpness of finger attacks or alternative softness, the busy footwork for pedals and also for turning pages for his act of modernisation using an iPad in place of paper, the eyes darting from strings to page, the overall musicality of this unique instrument.  This was  a serious pleasure.

Rowan Phemister (harp) performed French music at Wesley.

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