Overheard during intermission: “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” It was a happy audience at Sunset Center yesterday afternoon as Noël Wan, Grand Prize winner of the Carmel Music Society’s 2014 Instrumental Competition returned to play a charming and exciting solo harp recital on the Society’s regular subscription series. However, last year, after her victory in the competition, there were some who wondered whether a full ninety-minute harp recital containing unfamiliar works by composers nobody had ever heard of before (the harp repertoire viewed from a non-harpist’s perspective) would result in a pitifully small audience huddled in the first few rows of Sunset Center.
Surprise! The parking lot was full and inside Sunset Center was the largest audience observed during the Carmel Music Society’s 2014-2015 season. In fact, the Society had so underestimated the size of the audience that ushers ran out of printed programs. One reason for the large audience was that the Monterey Peninsula’s most fanatical harp buff, Pamela Scholz, sent notice of the concert to all the California chapters of the American Harp Society. For them especially, it was to be a “died and gone to heaven” concert, and members of the society came in substantial numbers. And, it didn’t hurt that Noël Wan was Asian, for the Asian community was also well represented in the audience.
You may have thought that harps are played in heaven, but reading the printed program, it would seem that harps are more often played in France. Seven out of the nine composers represented on the program were French, and the Paris Conservatory is mentioned several times. Ironically, although the French tradition of harp playing dominates the repertoire, the foremost maker of harps, Lyon & Healy (the Steinway & Sons of harps) is an American company based in Chicago. Sure enough, a Lyon & Healy harp (one of two owned by Ms. Wan) was standing proudly on stage at Sunset Center, and from it’s gorgeous strings and pedals we heard an extraordinary variety of sounds beautifully drawn from the instrument with artistic and musical skill of a very high order.
Although two of the works we heard, Bach’s Suite in E Minor BWV 996 and Jean Baptiste Loeillet’s Toccata in F Major, were keyboard works transcribed for harp, as performed by Wan they were so idiomatically suited to the harp that we accepted them as though they had been originally conceived for harp. Beautifully articulated musical lines with lovely shaping of the lines was obvious from Ms. Wan’s first notes, and we came away believing that these pieces are heard to better advantage on harp than on harpsichord.
We don’t hear many works by Hindemith, so the Sonata for Harp, written in 1939 in Switzerland while Hindemith was on his way to the United States, was a pleasant surprise. Bursting with energy and sometimes sounding more French than German, in Ms. Wan’s hands it received a masterful performance. Another masterful and even more dazzling performance was the Sicilienne Variée written in 1966 by Jean-Michel Damase, in which the beautiful separation of cantabile melodies and accompanying textures was mixed in with amazing virtuoso agility.
Perhaps the most interesting and deep work on the first half of the program was “Contemplation” by Henriette Renie. Ms. Wan made her instrument sing and dance with playing that was profoundly moving.
In the second half of the program we heard more dazzling playing, more fireworks, more French composers, and more enthusiasm from the audience. In the Carnaval de Venise, Ms. Wan produced more amazing cantabile, so that sometimes we thought we were hearing an ensemble of three harps with musical ideas pouring forth from the high treble, midrange and bass simultaneously.
Pour le tombeau d’Orphée, by Marius Flothuis, contained a lovely elegiac melody against a background of subtle arpeggios (some done with one hand) that was one of the most arresting works on the program. Ending the program we heard “Introduction and Variations on Themes from Bellini’s Norma.” Once again we were dazzled by Wan’s virtuosity that was always easy and natural – always musical and never for empty show.
After an enthusiastic ovation, Ms. Wan gave us one encore, a piece called “Dancing Grain” by an Asian composer. It was lovely.