Harpist Bridget Kibbey Takes Center Stage at BCM Spring - 27 East

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Harpist Bridget Kibbey Takes Center Stage at BCM Spring

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Harpist Bridget Kibbey performs in Brigehampton on April 11. SHERVIN LAINEZ

Harpist Bridget Kibbey performs in Brigehampton on April 11. SHERVIN LAINEZ

Violist Cong Wu performs in BCM Spring's

Violist Cong Wu performs in BCM Spring's "Harp Fantasy" on April 13. COURTESY BCMF

Violinist Kristin Lee performs in BCM Spring's

Violinist Kristin Lee performs in BCM Spring's "Harp Fantasy" on April 13. SOPHIE ZHAI

Flutist and BCM founder Marya Martin performs in BCM Spring's

Flutist and BCM founder Marya Martin performs in BCM Spring's "Harp Fantasy" on April 13. COURTESY BCMF

Cellist Mihai Marica performs in BCM Spring's

Cellist Mihai Marica performs in BCM Spring's "Harp Fantasy" on April 13. COURTESY BCMF

authorAnnette Hinkle on Apr 4, 2024

As classical instruments go, there is nothing quite like the harp. With its lilting, romantic voice, the music it makes is so ethereally and hauntingly beautiful it’s often associated with all things heavenly.

But unfortunately for harp lovers, in full orchestra settings the instrument is typically like Baby in the corner in “Dirty Dancing — positioned at the far back of the stage, where it may get moments to shine, but rarely has a starring role.

“An orchestra harp is only used in certain pieces — often romantic French pieces,” explained Marya Martin, a flutist and founder of Bridgehampton Chamber Music, in a recent phone interview. “You won’t find harp in Beethoven and though Mozart wrote a harp and flute concerto, you won’t find it in his symphonies.”

But finally, come April 13, the light will shine and the harp will get its moment in the sun where it will be front and center in “Harp Fantasy,” the first offering of BCM Spring, a seasonal three concert series at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church. This program, designed by Martin, will feature renowned harpist Bridget Kibbey performing compositions by a trio of 19th and 20th century French composers — Jean Françaix, Camille Saint-Saëns and Albert Roussel — as well as a rarely heard sonata by Italian composer Nino Rota, who is best known for penning the famous score of Francis Ford Coppola’s film “The Godfather.”

“We haven’t done harp for a while. If you’re going to have harp, you may as well use harp on every piece,” Martin said of the program. “One piece is for flute and harp, two are a trio of string, harp and flute, and another is for harp and violin. It’s three different combinations of instruments, a different soundscape during the evening, but it’s very much the same gorgeous silvery impressionistic sound.

“Bridget’s in every piece,” Martin continued. “She’s stunning and she really likes pushing the boundaries of music, and not just sticking closely to classical music. She’s interested in music from different countries and how that feeds into a country’s nationalistic feeling and image of themselves. She’s a really wonderful, energetic person.”

Kibbey, an Ohio native who lives in New York City, began playing piano at age 3, and by 9, had moved onto the oboe. But in high school, she discovered the harp, fell in love with it and abandoned the oboe. She went on to study harp at the University of Michigan.

“That’s become my life from the first day hearing it at school,” said Kibbey in a recent phone interview. “I found I loved playing solo and practicing the harp, exploring what it could do.”

She hasn’t looked back since.

Kibbey now travels the world showing everyone exactly what the harp can do, and along the way, she has happily brought it off the sidelines, making it the centerpiece of her performances. In addition to mastering the standard harp repertoire, she has also delved into the instrument’s more historic roots through music that would have been played on harps in ancient Persian or Colombian cultures. As the artistic and executive director of MOSA (Music at Our Saviour’s Atonement), a concert series at a Lutheran church in New York City’s Washington Heights, she brings diverse musical stylings to audiences of upper Manhattan.

“There’s a trend where I feel great musicians are playing a lot of forms,” she said. “I play song and dance songs with Colombian jazz musicians, and I think it makes me a better classical musician.”

Kibbey also takes the harp and her music to some surprising new places. By way of example, in 2020, she performed her impressive solo harp arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor during an NPR Tiny Desk Concert (go find it on YouTube, it’s a beautiful thing to behold).

“In my touring life, I tend to be producing projects where the harp is front and center,” Kibbey explained. “I think this is the first time BCM is featuring harp centrally.”

Interestingly enough, however, it was Martin, not Kibbey, who came up with the program for the April 13 Bridgehampton concert. Though the pieces by the three French composers are well known to Kibbey, Nino Rota’s “Sonata for Flute and Harp” — is a new one for her.

“Nino is an Italian film composer, and he wrote a bunch of music for films from the 1960s to 1980s, including ‘The Godfather,’” Martin explained. “Like some of the other composers, he mastered the art of writing for film because it’s an unusual discipline. You have six seconds before a change of mood, then maybe 12 more seconds and it changes again. There is strict timing of the music to coincide with the movie.

“He wanted his freedom to do some composing on the side,” Martin added. “This piece was one of his serious works for flute and harp.”

Martin, who will play the flute portions in the concert, finds that the combination of flute and harp is one that works particularly well, and together, the two instruments enhance that notion of music for romance. She notes that the fact the other three selections in the upcoming program are by Frenchmen is no accident.

“The French composers really ran with the harp, and the combination of flute and harp is one that really works,” Martin said. “The floating sound of flute and the ephemeral, romantic sound from the harp is a very gorgeous sound.”

It turns out that there’s a very specific reason why so much harp music is French, and it has to do with what was going on culturally in France toward the end of the 19th century. This was a time when painters were exploring the radical new concept of Impressionism, poets, novelists and playwrights were diving into post-revolution literary expression, and in 1889, Paris hosted the World’s Fair which gave us the Eiffel Tower.

“From 1880 onwards, Paris was just abuzz and certainly at the turn of the century, Paris was the place to be,” Martin said. “There was such an exchange of ideas in music and art and literature. It was really amazing. To look back now and see the body of work that was created at the turn of the century is astounding.”

In terms of classical compositions, Martin explained that up to that point, it had been the German composers, like Brahms and Bach, who had been the big movers of romantic music.

“The French were sick of being dominated by Germans in music,” Martin said. “They basically said, ‘We need to find our own French way of doing things, our own style. We don’t want to be performing music like the Germans.’

“Three out of the four pieces we’ll be playing [April 13] are French, from this particular period in Paris,” Martin added. “Two are for a harp, flute and string trio. It’s interesting how these things happen. There was a group with that same combination in Paris at that time — a bunch of dynamic musicians — and they persuaded all these composers to write for them. Here we have a bunch of repertoire that was basically generated by this wonderful group having been on the scene.

“Now we have all this great music because of this group,” she said. “I thank them every other day, because we have this wonderful repertoire.”

But it wasn’t just that new music was being written for harp in France during that era, it turns out that the instrument, itself, was also undergoing something of a revolution at the time.

“I think it was a unique time in history in Paris,” Kibbey noted. “Great composers and poets like Mallarmé, Verlaine and the Symbolist painters were working at the same moment. It was an incredible catalyst in France, and it germinated great repertoire. At the same time, you had the new invention of the modern harp — the concert harp, where harp was center, like it will be in Bridgehampton.”

While the harp is an instrument that has been around in one form or another for centuries, Kibbey explained that harps used in orchestras up until the 19th century were diatonic — that is, they had only seven notes per scale. In order to create the more complex harmonies that new composers wanted in their music, a chromatic instrument was needed — one that allowed 12 pitches per scale, including sharps and flats —so a new mechanism had to be developed to allow the creation of those notes on the harp.

Enter Ignace Pleyel and Sébastien Érard, two Frenchmen who both took up the challenge.

“There were two piano makers in Paris that were vying — like a dual — to come up with a chromatic harp,” Kibbey said. “Pleyel was one of them and he commissioned Debussy to write music, and Érard was the other, and he commissioned Ravel.”

In the end, it was Érard who won the race, and his harp became the new standard for the concert harp. The music, like that of Françaix, Saint-Saëns and Albert Roussel, followed and was written specifically for the instrument, while the global outlook inspired by the World’s Fair encouraged the embrace of musical inspiration from further afield.

“In the early 1900s, you really saw a lot of French composers looking at different scales from the Far East, or more ancient ones, like from Spain or Turkey,” said Kibbey. “These harmonies influenced Ravel, Debussy and Satie, who are contemporaries of the composers who wrote the music we’ll be hearing in Bridgehampton. There’s an exotic feel that is possible.

“A lot of the repertoire is like stepping up to a painting of Seurat’s, then you have an impression of an image when you step back,” said Kibbey, who will joined on stage for the Bridgehampton program by Martin on flute, violinist Kristin Lee, violist Cong Wu and cellist Mihai Marica.

“What’s exciting is when you’re really comfortable with the repertoire,” Kibbey explained. “Kristin Lee and I performed [Saint-Saëns] ‘Fantaisie’ many times, and the Roussel and Françaix pieces we’ve done separately. We’ll work on it when we come together.”

For the Nino Rota piece, since it’s new to her, Kibbey will be hosting rehearsals with the musicians in advance of the concert.

“We’ll have three days, which is a lot, because the musicians will have practiced on their own,” Kibbey said. “There’s a lot of intuition that goes into that kind of first read through, then we will hone details and talk about phrasings.

“I’ve performed at Bridgehampton over the years,” she said, “so this is a treat.”

“Harp Fantasy,” the first concert of Bridgehampton Chamber Music’s BCM Spring series, is Saturday, April 13, at 5 p.m. The program features Jean Françaix “Quintet for Flute, String Trio, and Harp,” Camille Saint-Saëns “Fantaisie for Violin and Harp, Op. 124,” Albert Roussel “Serenade for Flute, String Trio, and Harp, Op. 30,” and Nino Rota “Sonata for Flute and Harp.” Tickets are $50 and $75 ($10 students) at bcmf.org. Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church is at 2429 Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton.

Additional BCM Spring concerts are “Mozart’s Spirit” on Saturday, May 4, at 5 p.m. which features a work for winds and piano by young New Zealand composer Salina Fisher, Mozart’s “Quintet for Piano and Winds” and Francis Poulenc’s “Sextet for Piano and Winds.” Finally, on Saturday, May 18, at 5 p.m., BCM Spring presents “Masters at Work,” a program of piano quartets by Mozart and Dvořák that bookend another early-20th-century French gem by Philippe Gaubert.

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