Philadelphia Inquirer

The Philadelphia Inquirer
By David Patrick Stearns
February 12, 2011
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Orchestra’s harpist brings the instrument to center stage

Elizabeth Hainen played mostly new music in a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital.

Though long treated like the frosting layer of any given orchestration, the harp is emerging – along with other instruments not in the symphonic front row – as a new creative frontier for young composers, thanks to the likes of Elizabeth Hainen.

The glamorous Philadelphia Orchestra principal harpist gave a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital on Wednesday that was mostly new music because that’s what is most available. But unlike some such programs, the hits were considerable and the misses still worthwhile vehicles for Hainen’s subtle variation in color and masterly differentiation between background and foreground effects. With supporting musicians such as the Johannes Quartet and several of the orchestra’s best players, the concert was well worth venturing out into a chilly evening.

The recital’s first and last pieces were most notable: In Sebastian Currier’s 1998 Night Time for harp and violin (in this case, Jessica Lee), Currier had the instruments swap roles from one movement to the next, sometimes creating an intriguing swarm of sound, other times unfurling a rhapsodic melody that you’d love to hear repeatedly.

The last piece was Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro (seldom heard because of its unusual instrumentation) in which Hainen was flanked by the Johannes, flutist Jeffrey Khaner, and clarinetist Ricardo Morales, all peering into the music’s sophisticated depths rather than just creating a smoke screen of pretty sounds.

Hainen commissioned and premiered Argentinian composer Esteban Benzecry’s six-movement, solo-harp suite Horizontes Inexplorados, which began carefully and conventionally but gained confidence with Latin rhythms, exotically inflected melodies, and harmonies exploring ambiguous not-so-primary emotions.

The Crown of Ariadne was typical of R. Murray Schafer, the fine Canadian composer who often breaks out of the usual means of articulation and use of concert space to create new sound worlds specific to the music’s story. Unfortunately, Hainen was required to multitask with various percussion instruments that called more attention to performance apparatus than to the piece’s investigation of the mythical minotaur and its people-trapping labyrinth. Next time, a separate percussionist should be hired.

Hainen’s loquacious manner had her talking about the pieces so extensively that there was less room for listeners to discover them. But the self-presentation was notable: Sex and the City stilettos for the modern first half and a long, 1920s gown for the Old World-ish second.

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