Regular concert-goers are used to hearing the harp on a church altar or mixed in with a large symphony, barely audible above the mass of strings, bass and brass. But the St Luke’s Chamber Ensemble put the harp center stage, in an evening of 20th-century French music, no less.

Sean Shepherd 2011 © Jamie Kingham
Sean Shepherd 2011
© Jamie Kingham

But before jumping back in time, the only piece that did not feature the harp was Sean Shepherd’s new work, Quintet, a world première and Orchestra of St Luke’s commission. Much like Ravel, Saint-Saëns and Debussy – all featured composers this evening – Shepherd’s music was ethereal, but also programmatic (slightly) and picturesque. Despite the vague title, each of Shepherd’s five movements have descriptors:

I. (Ceremonial, lofty)
II. (Insistent, nasal, snarling, relentless)
III. (Remote, distant, elsewhere)
IV. (Hissyfit)
V. (Strictly lazy)

Written for oboe, clarinet, double bass, viola and violin, Quintet has real personality: the first movement, defined by quick runs and staccato notes on all instruments, was in fact “ceremonial”, announcing its musical arrival; in the fourth movement, the oboe provoked the others instruments into a frenzy; and the fifth movement, with its walking bass line and playful, syncopated melodies, felt precisely “strictly lazy”.

Shepherd was not the only composer with quirky names for his movements; Ravel named each of the three movements in his Sonatine en trio as well. Again, the piece is not quite programmatic, but the names of each movement – Modéré, Mouvement de menuet, Animé – hint at the mood and flavor of the piece.

For anyone familiar with Ravel’s Ma mère L’oye (“Mother Goose”), Sonatine en trio, written for flute, cello and harp, has the same sprightly feel: the first movement has a quickness akin to the light-hearted princess taking a bath in “Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes”; and in the Menuet, its crawling theme in the flute (echoed by the harp occasionally) felt like “Petit Poucet” (“Tom Thumb”), dropping his never-ending trail of bread crumbs.

The final movement, Animé, was precisely that – with such a great sound for three musicians, the harp was light and animated, shimmering as harpist Deborah Hoffman’s fingers ran up and down the strings, and her feet gently danced across the two pedals.

The second half of the concert, the harp again took center stage. In Camille Saint-Saëns’ Fantasy for violin and harp, Op. 124, Krista Bennion Feeney (violin) and Deborah Hoffman were a volatile pair. Opening up with broad gestures and many glissandos in the harp, the pace quickened and Feeney and Hoffman attacked their instruments head on, never skipping a beat.

In the final piece, Claude Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp, was distinctly Impressionist. Resembling the famous Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, the opening harp arpeggio signaled a pastoral mood, which then became more spry as the pace quickened and the harmonics, with a pentatonic-based theme, grew rich in texture.

Overall, the concert was an enchanting one. Even with Shepherd’s contemporary work (which has a French sensibility), the evening at the Morgan Library felt less like a formal concert and more of an intimate salon, one akin to 20th-century life in France.

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