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Friday, April 4, 2014

The Superconductor Interview: Different Strings

Composer Vivian Fung discusses her new Harp Concerto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Composer Vivian Fung. Courtesy Metropolis Ensemble/BuckleSweet Media.
"I wanted get away from the traditional harp sound and to see what the harp is capable of. It's capable of such a variety of color and it doesn't get expressed as much."

The speaker is composer Vivian Fung. Her Harp Concerto is a feature of Cymbeline, two concerts to be given by the Metropolis Ensemble at the downtown performance space Le Poisson Rouge. This concerto, which throws the spotlight on an instrument usually relegated to the roles of color or accompaniment, will feature soloist Bridget Kibbey.

"Harpists are dying for new repertoire," she said in a Thursday morning telephone interview. "Bridget is always looking for new pieces to work on and we had known each other since our Juilliard days. She approached Pierre Ruhe (from the Alabama Symphony.) He jumped on the opportunity and had the model of getting different orchestras together to commission the work. In the end, five orchestras became involved."

"I write for piano," she said, "and that was dangerous--because I really had to learn the difference in writing for the harp. Before I wrote this concerto, aside for writing for the harp in an orchestra, I hadn't written anything for the solo harp. This concerto is about highlighting different colors of the harp and its personality."

Those differences have to do with the limitations of the standard orchestral harp. Ms. Fung explains.

"The harp is very complicated. Each harp is capable  of playing all the chromatic notes, but there are only eight--no seven--strings to the octave. You use pedals to raise or lower the tension on the strings to play all the chromatic notes (the black keys on the piano). You can't have certain combinations of notes together. You can't play all 12 chromatic notes at once."

"The work is three movements and 22 minutes. It's for strings, harp and percussion. When I wrote it I was thinking of the stereotypes (for the harp) and putting a twist on them. The first movement starts with a melody at the beginning and then an heightened interplay I was challenged because of the balance of the harp with the orchestra. In the first movement, it sounds like a thatke--that's a Thai instrument kind of like a zither--and it was an interesting challenge to get the melodic line."

"The second movement is based on these chords that become a motif for the entire work. It's a slow lyrical movement. I wanted to highlight the lyrical qualities of the harp but I wanted something different So I showcase the lyricism and middle range followed by highly punctuated chords."

"There's a little bit of a percussion interlude (between the second and third movements.) I ask the harpist to prepare the harp it sounds like a thumpy bass guitar. We were experimenting on ways to mute and preserve the attack, so we weave paper onto the lower part of the strings. The third movement has that as its core--I also ask her to knock on the wood of the instrument. Coupled with that is a section that is paying homage to/making fun of typical harp tango writing. I call it a "functional" tango that's out of time and out of place. The thumpy prepared harp parts get more and more twisted, and then I bring back some of the ideas from the first two movements."

"The harp is its own special instrument, and it requires its own special sensitivity. There's a lot of different things--configurations of notes that would work well with the hands--it's about the hands, about what tones colors are possible and its about the range."

The Metropolis Ensemble plays Cymbeline at Le Poisson Rouge on April 6 at 5pm and April 7 at 6pm. Tickets and more information are available on

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