Queen of Arts

Calvert regales with the harp


Music from the ancient Celts’ bardic tradition jostled pleasantly with classical compositions and contemporary arrangements in Saturday’s concert at the Maturango Museum.

Long revered for their uncanny power to reach our deepest consciousness, to evoke moods and emotions, conjure up images and even bring on that indefinable dream state in which you lose yourself to the recollection of times past, Alexandra Calvert’s two gorgeous harps did not fail their ancestors. Under Alexandra’s hands, the strings soon wove that magic of which we have heard tell so often.

Even in the intimate setting of the Coso Room at the museum, or perhaps because of it, the harps stood upon the minute black stage like lords. When Alexandra, resplendent in a simple emerald green gown, joined them and the house lights went down, the harps stood behind her, proud like scions of misty Eire, creating a striking tableau.

She draws her audience in with story as well as music. Right from her opening “Howdy!” she created a warm and congenial atmosphere for her musical salon, no small feat playing to a full house of more than 80 people.

The evening began with an overview of harps, in particular her lever harp, elegant in its simplicity, and an absolutely grand pedal harp standing over six feet tall. Then the program unfolded as a seamless progression of story, photo image and music.

Each musical selection was introduced with background on the piece and the composer, then the story behind the photographic image that would be beamed onto the screen next to her as she played. The images were taken by professional photographer Amy Madson, a longtime friend and artistic collaborator.

The triad of introduction, imagery and music worked very well together to bring a flow and balance to the entire evening. Insight into each composer, the piece, the image and what the artist was trying to achieve with these elements was most welcome.

Alexandra settled on a cushioned stool, tilted the lever harp to her shoulder, and opened with “Spagnoletta” by Michael Praetorius, circa 1600, followed by a lament from the venerable 17th-century troubadour Turlough O’Carolan, so loved by the people of Ireland that he has emerged as the national composer of Ireland.

Leaping ahead to the 1980s, “Brandiswhiere’s Triumphant Return” by celebrated harpist Sylvia Woods was next, the last piece on the lever harp.

The Andante third movement of “Violin Sonata No. 2” by Johann Sebastian Bach, arranged by Marcel Grandjany on the massive pedal harp, gave us an appreciation of the rich, big sound capable on a larger harp. This piece fills a personal niche for Alexandra, for she played this for her grandfather’s funeral. It felt like a privilege to hear it in his memory.

The “Romance No. 19” by Elias Parish-Alvars, a composer of the 1800s, “The Liszt of Harps,” was next. As Alexandra described him, he “takes a song and fills it with so much glitter, you can hardly swim through it.” And, indeed, it did glitter!

The “Angelus” by the French harpist Henriette Renié, circa 1900, who developed one of the three harp-playing systems in use today, nicely portrayed the church bells tolling the midday prayer.

Then came “Fantasie pour Harpe” by Camille Saint-Saëns, lovely for its call and response theme, venturing out, then returning home.

The last two selections were “Ceremony of Carols: Interlude” by Benjamin Britten and a most interesting arrangement of “A Pirate Looks at Forty” by Jimmy Buffet. Yes, believe it or not, Buffet in harp worked very well. Some of the audience were soon humming along!

The audience, like my neighbor at the concert, “loved it,” and readily and often showed their appreciation and delight with applause, smiles and cheers, as when Alexandra introduced Madson on stage, and when she ended with the tribute to her Navy husband, “All for you, babe!”

Entirely delightful, all!

Story First Published: 2019-11-15