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Berlin Philharmonic harpist performs with Santa Rosa Symphony

by Diane Peterson, Press Democrat, January 5, 2017

The concert harp is an incredibly complex instrument, with thousands of moving parts housed within a 6-foot-tall wooden frame that is under so much pressure, it can implode if not played regularly.
 
In an orchestra, the ancient and much-revered instrument often plays a supporting role, embellishing the melody with its shimmering flourishes but rarely stepping out as the star. This weekend, however, the Santa Rosa Symphony under Music Director Bruno Ferrandis has invited Marie-Pierre Langlamet, principal harpist with the Berlin Philharmonic, to perform two well-known solo works for harp: Claude Debussy’s “Danses Sacrée et Profane” for Harp and Orchestra, and Alberto Ginastera’s vibrant Concerto for Harp and Orchestra.
 
“It’s one of our best concertos,” Langlamet said in a phone interview from her home in Berlin. “It shows the many facets of the instrument.”
 
The program, entitled “Heavenly Harp,” opens with Rossini’s Overture to “The Thieving Magpie,” one of the composer’s best operatic overtures, and culminates with two suites from Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé,” one of the most famous French ballets.
 
Met at school
Ferrandis first met Langlamet while both were attending the Conservatory of Nice along with Ferrandis’ brother Jean, a professional flutist.
 
However, they really got to know each in New York, where Ferrandis was studying conducting at Juilliard and Langlamet was working as deputy principal harpist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under James Levine.
 
“I am bringing the best harpist in the world to play two of the most famous harp pieces,” Ferrandis said proudly of his childhood friend.
 
Born in Grenoble, Langlamet grew up in Nice in a music-loving family with a sister who played the guitar. She started studying harp when she was 8. Her first choice had been piano, but the piano class was full, so she chose another instrument that could produce many notes at a time.
 
“It was (important) for me to play all the voices, and I could play it alone,” she said of the harp.
 
“There are not so many instruments like that .... It really was my dream instrument.”

Langlamet received her first musical training at the Conservatory of Nice with Elisabeth Fontan-Binoche, then went on to win top prizes in two international competitions by the time she was 16. At 17, she was hired as principal harpist in the Nice Opera Orchestra.
 
“I was very lucky and had an excellent teacher, with many good students with major positions all over the world,” she said of her quick rise to professional musician.
 
“I was quite fast learning and motivated, and I loved it.”
 
Studied in Philadelphia
A year after joining the Nice Opera Orchestra, she gave up her position to continue her studies at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where she was able to learn from other musicians and play chamber music.
 
“In France, it’s very separated ... We train soloists, at least at that time,” she said. “In France, there’s lots of solfège and theory. At Curtis, it’s whatever works. I was suddenly thrown into another world of other musicians.”
 
Since 1993, Langlamet has worked as principal harpist at the Berlin Philharmonic, making many recordings with the orchestra while performing worldwide as a soloist with ensembles such as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande.
 
In 2016, Langlamet performed the Ginastera concerto with several orchestras to mark the centenary of the Argentinian composer’s birth.
 
The virtuoso concerto, commissioned in 1956 and premiered in 1965 by the Philadelphia Orchestra, veers away from pleasing melodies and harmonies of the 19th-century harp repertoire.
 
“It’s a big piece with a big orchestra behind the harp, and it should be a challenge,” she said.
 
“It shows the many facets of the instrument ... as a folk instrument and percussion instrument, with lots of rhythm. It’s hot blooded.”
 
Diffculty completing
The work was supposed to be premiered in 1958, but the composer had diffculty completing it because of the instrument’s limitations. It can only play seven of the 12 pitches in a chromatic scale at a time.
 
“It was postponed again and again,” she said. “And fortunately, the Spanish player, Nicanor Zabaleta, heard the story and flew to Buenos Aires and sat with the composer to help him through the process.”
 
After intermission, Langlamet will perform “Danses Sacrée et Profane” by Debussy, who helped put the harp on the map with his many works for the instrument. The nine-minute piece will provide a dramatic contrast to the Ginastera piece.
 
“The harp was well understood by Debussy, and he didn’t try to push it beyond its borders,” she said. “It’s never overpowering.”
 
To make the piece work, Langlamet said, the harp needs to be amplified.
 
“It was written for the chromatic harp, not the pedal harp I will be playing,” she said.
 
“It was a commission by Michel Pleyel, who was trying to commission for this new instrument, with white and black key strings, with no pedals. It’s very intimate.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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