Woo Chin Lee performs the Tailleferre harp sonata

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) continues its 2021 digital concert series April 22-May 22 with a program of music that's mostly French and mostly for the harp.

Katherine Hoover

Recorded at live concerts last October 30 and November 5, the program opens with the sole outlier, "Reflections" for solo flute by late composer and flutist Katherine Hoover. Composed in 1982, this short piece is described by the composer as "Variations on an ancient Norwegian chant. Written outdoors at Artpark, NY." It certainly has that solitary, "high on a mountain top" feel that I associate with (say) Andean or Native American flute music—haunting, mysterious, and compelling. Listen to Kate Steinbeck's 2002 recording on YouTube.

The harp comes into play for the rest of the program: Debussy's 1915 Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp; the delightful 1953 Sonata for Harp by the unjustly neglected Germaine Tailleferre; and Ravel's "Introduction and Allegro" for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet from 1907.

Debussy's Sonata comes from a difficult time late in the composer's too-brief life (he died in 1918 at the age of 51 after a long and painful battle with colorectal cancer) when his health, romantic relationships, and professional fortunes were all a bit rocky. Both happy and mournful, the Sonata looks back to Debussy's youthful interest in the pentatonic scale and harmonies derived from Eastern models. The composer himself voiced ambiguous feelings about it in a letter to his friend Robert Godet. "The sound of it is not bad," he modestly wrote, "though it is not for me to speak to you of the music. I could do so, however, without embarrassment for it is the music of a Debussy whom I no longer know. It is frightfully mournful and I don't know whether one should laugh or cry - perhaps both?" Listen to this 1962 recording by noted harpist Osian Ellis and the Melos Ensemble with a synchronized score and see what you think.

Germaine Tailleferre

Written for the famed Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta, (a name well known to us music lovers d'un certain âge) Tailleferre's Sonata is such a consistently entertaining and appealing work that I'm a bit surprised it's not better known. But then Tailleferre has never achieved quite the recognition she deserved. The only female member of that group of French anti-Romantic composers known as "les six" (the others were Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, and Louis Durey), Tailleferre was also the most long-lived, shuffling off her mortal coil in 1982 at the age of 91. I don't now whether she played the harp or not, but SLSO harpist Allegra Lilly (quoted in the program notes) feels that the Sonanta "could only have been written by someone with a deep understanding of the sonority of the harp and how one’s hands fit onto the strings." You can hear that in this YouTube video recorded by Woo Chin Lee in 2018 at the Conservatoire National Supérieur Musique de Paris.

Composed in 1905 on commission from the harp manufacturer Érard, the "Introduction and Allegro" is classic Ravel, with a short languorous introduction that quickly makes way for a lilting waltz theme, which in turn goes through some inventive melodic and harmonic changes without ever leaving the three-quarter time signature. It's the most well-known work on the program, so you've probably heard it before. If not, YouTube has a recording by members of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields that comes with a synchronized display of the score.
Performers for these concerts are harpist Allegra Lilly, flutist Jennifer Nitchman, and clarinetist Ryan Toher, along with violinists Eva Kozma and Rebecca Boyer Hall, violist Christian Tantillo, and cellist Alvin McCall.

As this is being written, two other programs in the SLSO’s digital concert series are still available: “Night Music,” through April 24 and “The Heart of the Matter,” through May 8. For information on the SLSO's digital and live offerings, visit the SLSO web site.

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