Review: Pan Harmonia
By Perry Tannenbaum
Based in Asheville, Pan Harmonia can muster a wide variety of chamber music combos, listing 18 performing musicians at their website on their roster for the current season. For their most recent outing, they traveled light to Belmont College, where Pan Harmonia founder, flutist Kate Steinbeck teamed with harpist Jacquelyn Bartlett in an Arts at the Abbey concert. Although there is relatively scant repertoire written for flute and harp, a simple Spotify search will confirm that recordings abound.
My search didn’t uncover any notable music that paired the instruments together before Mozart’s Concerto in C for Flute and Harp in 1778. Nor did I find a flute and harp recording for the two solo instruments that pre-dated the 1964 collection by flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and harpist Lily Laskine, where pieces by Rossini, Fauré, Ibert, Damase, and J.B. Krumpholz were programmed – one of my earliest LPs and still a favorite. The two sounds complement each other ideally, the harp providing a watery or ethereal medium where the flute can glide and soar.
Atmosphere at the Abbey Basilica was a little more polished and formal than usual. Nobody was still onstage rehearsing when we took our seats, and when Karen Hite Jacob stepped up to a marble lectern to offer her customary introduction, her microphone worked so we could hear her. Anyone unfamiliar with the works recorded by flute-and-harp would have found the entire Pan Harmonia program fresh and new, with works by Jacques Ibert, Camille Saint-Saëns, Dana Wilson, Joseph Jongen, Osvaldo Lacerda, Alan Hovhaness, and Witold Lutoslawski. Starting off with Ibert and Saint-Saëns, the affable duo was actually leading off with two of the most recorded pieces in the repertoire.
Ibert’s “Entr’acte” may be the most-often covered of all, appearing in the landmark Rampal-Laskine collection just 10 years after it was written, according to the liner notes. It was a particularly tough test for Steinbeck, for Ibert begins with a challenging run, fairly up in the instrument’s range, that’s hard enough for a flutist to play cleanly even when the Basilica’s warm acoustic isn’t punctuating the run with echoes. The first iteration of that run was a bit shrill and sloppy, mainly because Steinbeck was too vigorous – keyed up, perhaps – in her attack. But Ibert provided numerous reprises of his catchy run, and the ones that ensued were calmer and more controlled. After Bartlett plucked the exquisite harmonics midway through, Steinbeck’s grace notes were more graceful.
Saint-Saëns’s Op. 37 “Romance” was written for flute or violin, but as Bartlett explained, the accompaniment was originally for piano and subsequently adapted to harp. The adaptation proved to be very challenging, varied, and delightful in Bartlett’s hands, ideally suited for harp, while Steinbeck’s playing was also more appealing at a slower tempo, as she nestled into her instrument’s luxurious midrange, and dialed in her dynamics more felicitously. After these two flute-and-harp chestnuts, Dana Wilson’s “And longing to be the singing master of my soul” was the rarest work of the evening, commissioned for Steinbeck by her husband in 2011.
Taking his title from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” a goldmine of quotes beginning with “no country for old men” in the opening line, Wilson emphatically shone the spotlight on the flutist in this duet, not only giving Steinbeck some attractive blue notes at the start of the piece but also clearing the way later on for a cadenza with impressive virtuosic sparkle.
Jongen’s “Danse Lente” was as beautifully balanced between the two players as the Saint-Saëns piece. Perhaps buoyed by her conquest of the Wilson cadenza, Steinbeck reached loftier levels of confidence and joy, her soaring highs as attuned to the Basilica’s acoustics as her luscious midrange, while Bartlett reasserted herself as a full partner in the musicmaking. Bartlett was a prime factor in establishing the Brazilian ambiance of “Balada” with her pellucid harp intro, but there was plenty of idiomatic writing for the flute as well, even a couple of opportunities for Steinbeck to impart a samba sway to her performance.
Clearly the chief work of the evening was The Garden of Adonis by Hovhaness, inspired by Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. If you’re already familiar with Hovhaness, it’s likely because of the sterling advocacy by Gerard Schwarz, director of the annual Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro. Schwarz hasn’t recorded all of this American’s 70+ symphonies, but he has certainly led stirring versions of the mighty orchestral titles we associate with Hovhaness, including “And God Created Great Whales” and “Mount St. Helens.” So it might be surprising to discover that there’s a whole Telarc album in the Hovhaness discography of various compositions for harp with a 73-minute playing time.
As promised by Bartlett, the music had a definite Eastern flavor, but the surprise – especially if you weren’t aware of the composer’s deep affection for the harp – came after the opening Largo ended with a lovely diminuendo from both players. Bartlett didn’t merely set the tone for the ensuing Allegro, she soloed extensively – at a dramatically louder volume than anything she had played before. The sound filled the Basilica with ravishing beauty. Another transcendent solo from Bartlett started off the “Adagio, Like a Solemn Dance” section, but Steinbeck was not to be outdone, taking us into the open air we’re accustomed to from Hovhaness with a floating melody that transitioned to birdlike cadenzas later in the same “Dance” and in the “Allegro” that followed, executing swift runs and wide intervals with aplomb. Loveliness and loneliness were intertwined.
A dark and somber ostinato from Bartlett set up the Allegretto after a rather sylvan Grave movement, but although this was listed as the final movement in the Arts at the Abbey program, I believe that the duo played the concluding Andante molto espressivo as well. Wherever she finished, Steinbeck seemed to have reached a special plateau of intimacy with the hall, playing with the echoes that the Basilica blandished on her flute instead of battling them.
The concert concluded with “Three Fragments” by Lutoslaski, pretty much obviating the need for encores after Hovhaness’s lush and lyrical tribute to Spenser. Both Steinbeck and Bartlett seemed to be visibly relaxed, though that didn’t mean they were slowing down. The opening “Magie” snippet was swift and slightly anxious, and the closing “Presto” was fleet, agile, and merry. In between, Steinbeck and her distinctive modern flute, crafted with black wood, were able to infuse sweetness and lyricism into the “Ulysse en Itaque” section, and Bartlett was able to wrap her partner’s melody in delicate embroidery. For those among the large crowd who had been drawn to the Abbey Basilica by an intuition telling them that flute and harp would make an exquisite combination, Pan Harmonia had rewarded their instincts.