Sunday afternoon in the Perleman Theater, harpist Catherine Michel joined the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia for the world première of Michel Legrand’s Harp Concerto. The winner of three Oscars, five Grammys, and heaps of other awards, Legrand is certainly one of the most influential and prolific composers living today.

Dirk Brossé conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia © Janette McVey
Dirk Brossé conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia
© Janette McVey

To hear Legrand compose for Catherine Michel, one of the most respected harpists in the world, is a true delight. Since Michel is a longtime collaborator (and former live-in partner) of Legrand, he intimately understands her virtuosity.

The concerto begins with the solo harp, which is quickly joined by the upper strings in a playful pizzicato, imitating the timbre of the harp itself. Then, the violins, now joined by other instruments, play a lyrical, col arco theme – the kind for which Legrand is so well known – which alternates jokingly with the pizzicato material.

The central, extended harp solo is a splendid display of Michel’s consummate skill. With a harpist like her, composers can create much more than a wash of lush arpeggios, or spiraling whole-tone scales to create limited effects. In this piece, Michel proves that a harp concerto can sound as complex as any piano concerto by Liszt and create a wide range of sounds.

In Legrand’s piece, she weaves dense, polyphonic textures on her instrument, alternating with more improvisatory passages. Towards the end of the central solo section, the composer inserts a new theme that is so singable, he could easily extract it for a standalone tune. Then, the low strings gently enter, followed by the violas, the cor angalis, the violins – swelling to a dramatic tutti.

But before the concerto ends, the composer reintroduces some of the material from the beginning, including the theme played by pizzicato strings. The conclusion is less playful, though, and the piece has an abrupt, almost ominous ending.

Though the music was no doubt extremely difficult, Michel played as if it took hardly any effort at all. Her technique is simply incredible. After finishing the concerto, which earned hearty applause and ovations, she performed a brief encore.

To round out the concert program, the orchestra performed pieces by Rameau, Haydn’s “London” Symphony, and a selection from a film score by Georges Delerue, who was a friend and classmate of Legrand.

The Suite for Strings, which began the concert program, is a selection of Rameau’s keyboard pieces arranged in 1951. Conductor Dirk Brossé assured the audience, however, that he removed some of the expressive markings from the original arrangement, since ideas about performing Baroque music have certainly changed a lot in the last several decades.

Brossé should be applauded for playing the music of Rameau in concert. 17th- and 18th-century French music is not performed nearly as much as it should be in the United States. In the future, it would be wonderful to hear the orchestra perform a suite of dances extracted from one of Rameau’s operas, since they are beautifully composed and colorfully orchestrated.

The Haydn, which concluded the concert, had a few wonderfully spirited moments, particularly in the Andante and the Minuet. Brossé told a charming anecdote about how a chance encounter with a living member of the family that once patronized Haydn, the House of Esterházy, allowed him access to rare documents related to the composer.

The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia repeats the same program again on Monday, also at the Kimmel Center, and in a free performance on Tuesday at Lincoln University.