The Instrument of Angels

Classic Arts Features   The Instrument of Angels
Harps may be played in heaven, but, as St. Louis Symphony principal harp Frances Tietov recounts, here on earth they are devilishly difficult.

Principal Harp Frances Tietov joined the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1970. At that point in her career, she had already played with the National Ballet Company, the Pennsylvania Ballet, and was principal harp for Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra. "I find that so amazing," she recalls. "I was in my early 20s and he was close to 90. I still treasure the great experience of playing for him.

When asked to relate the musician's experience — those moments when everything comes together — Tietov provided the following series of stories.

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Although every instrument has its difficulties, the harp has unique challenges that sometimes require extensive and lengthy preparation. First, one must choreograph the pedal changes to produce the correct notes before even attempting to practice the part. According to my husband and son, who did the math, there are more than 2,000 possible combinations. Even a piece that could be sight-read on most instruments can require time-consuming preparation for the harp. For example, if just two pedals are set incorrectly, more than half of the notes may be wrong. It may then take four pedal changes to correct this. Also, the harp's six-and-a-half-octave range and the ability to play eight notes at one time create spatial difficulties that are different from most of the other instruments in the orchestra.

After all this preparation, the concert finally arrives. Concentration is intense during a performance, but despite all the attention to detail — and the anxiety surrounding it all — magical moments occur.

Our performance of Berlioz's Eight Scenes from Faust in February was my first experience with that piece. I knew The Damnation of Faust but not its predecessor. Our first performance, on a Thursday night, had a thrilling sound. The balances seemed just right. Somehow the conditions in the hall (humidity, temperature, and the presence of the audience) were most favorable for performance. While the chorus was singing and I was playing along with the orchestra, I was enveloped in a radiant, shimmering sound. Individual voices merged into a spellbinding whole. At that moment I wondered how Berlioz could have imagined this sound, which reinforced my sense of how original a composer he was.

The next night the performance did not have quite the same magic for me. I can't explain why some performances have a kind of enrapturing quality, which others lack.

Some years ago we performed Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun with Paavo Berglund conducting. After the opening flute solo the harp plays a glissando and the horns enter. The conductor's beat was not entirely clear to me and perhaps not to the horns either, because they made the softest entrance I have ever heard. It emerged from nowhere. My entrance also emerged from nowhere, because, frankly, I wasn't sure where to begin. After the performance I asked the conductor to provide me a more distinct cue for my entrance, which he did in the next performance.

I felt much more comfortable during the second performance, but afterward Berglund told me that he thought I was "too accurate" that night. He thought the "soft" entrances of the night before had been more beautiful. I have to admit he was right. Uncertainty, even terror, during a performance can lead to magical results.

More recently we did a wonderful performance of Prelude with David Robertson. He has extraordinary powers of communication and deep musical understanding. When I am playing and I look at him, he is able to convey just what I need to know from his phrasing and nuance.

I thoroughly enjoyed the program conducted by Stéphane Denève in March. He was very descriptive and told us the stories upon which the music was based — especially Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges Suite and Roussel's Bacchus et Ariane, Suite No. 2. If you know what is happening at a given time in the music, it changes how you play the passage. For instance, at the moment when the harps play some descending glissandi, Ariane is jumping off a cliff. And so we try to make the glissandi more precipitous. This works better than merely telling us to play louder.

When the orchestra is on tour it can be difficult to find practice time on the harp, which is often inaccessible. On a tour to Japan the stage crew let me go to the hall with them while they were setting up. I was able to practice off stage for a performance of the Debussy Danses, scheduled after our return to St. Louis. I gradually became aware that I had an audience of one man, who seemed extremely engaged in the music. Once I had noticed him, I stopped working repetitively on individual passages and played through the whole piece just for him. I felt that this was the best that I had ever played this piece and when I finished, he was trembling with tears in his eyes. We had a tremendously deep communication, even though neither of us could speak the other's language.

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