The Harp Reborn


Begone Busby Berkeley-born images of celestial harpists attired in diaphanous gowns, and angelic cherubs strumming amidst rococo splendor. Thanks to composer Bright Sheng and harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, we now know that the harp can get as down and dirty as a horn section in heat as evidenced on Telarc's Never Far Away: Music Of Bright Sheng. (We also know that writers can get carried away by their overheated prose, but that's another story).

The Shanghai-born and schooled Sheng, who studied with Leonard Bernstein and George Perle, Mario Davidovsky, Hugo Weisgall and other luminaries after immigrating to the United States in 1982, wrote his Never Far Away for Harp and Orchestra (2008) expressly for Kondonassis. In addition to plucked strings and glissandi, here given a distinct Chinese tint, the work employs a variety of techniques that pull the harp out of its usual comfort zone. The first movement, inspired by a folk song that depicts a young girl's longing, cedes to a Chinese instrumental melody that portrays a drunken fisherman. The conclusion, Doctored Pentatonics, plays with musical motifs and the harp's prepared strings in ways that can throw you off guard. The ending packs a wallop.

Surrounding this world premiere recording are several others notables: Shanghai Overture; The Nightingale And The Rose, a short ballet based on a story by Oscar Wilde; and the two-part Tibetan Love Song And Swing. Swing it does aplenty, with multiple opportunities for harp, and sensational sections destined for the audiophile Hall of Fame.

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    Sheng: The Nightingale And The Rose (World ...

    Yolanda Kondonassis, from Never Far ...

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    Takemitsu: Toward the Sea II: Moby Dick

    Yolanda Kondonassis, from Air

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    Bright Sheng: Silent Temple II

    Ying Quartet, from Dim Sum

in this playlist.