LBMC: Mélissa Kenny, harpist

January is a long and dreary month – so it was particularly pleasant to hear Mélissa Kenny play her beautiful harp on Saturday the 28th of January under the aegis of the excellent LBMC.

The young musicians who grace the Library Theatre stage usually just sit down and get on with it. LBMC always provide a good programme, but it enhances the experience to hear what lies behind the musician’s choice of music. Ms Kenny explained that her programme, spanning the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, would show us the variety of music the harp was capable of producing. Those who’ve read this column before will know that I particularly enjoy being introduced to new music, modern composers and Da Falla. Ms Kenny had, it turned out, put together the perfect concert to please me.

A word about the harp’s vital statistics, as told to us by Ms Kenny, may be in order. Harps have 47 strings, and seven pedals which expand the notes available by half a tone each way, according to whether the pedal is up, level or down. So one can conjure more notes out of a harp than out of a piano. Who knew?

What is demonstrable is that a full size harp is extraordinarily beautiful – ‘voluptuous’ is the word that springs to mind. It insists you stand and gawp at it. It seems impossible that its shape can be sustained under the tension all those strings exert on all that beauty.

Mélissa Kenny is much influenced by French music. The first piece she played was by Marcel Grandjany, an important, twentieth century, French harpist. His ‘Rhapsodie’ showed the colouration, timbres and rich harmonies that can be conjured from the harp. Next came Louis Spohr’s ‘Fantaisie in C minor’. Spohr was a contemporary and compatriot of Beethoven. This piece, despite its Germanic origins, had a Spanish fire and gaiety about it. ‘Serenade’ by Elias Parish-Alvars followed. He developed harp playing by new use of harmonics, pedals and en-harmonies. His ‘Serenade’ was both delicate and robust, full of emotion.

A harp arrangement by Grandjany, of ‘Spanish Dance No 1’ from da Falla’s opera La vida Breve, concluded the first half of the concert. A little sigh of pleased familiarity rippled through the audience as Ms Kenny conjured the well known, whirling gypsy who falls dead at her perfidious lover’s feet.

The second half contained both more substantial and familiar works. First we enjoyed Fauré’s ‘Impromptu, opus 86’. Here was a Romantic composing for the most romantic of instruments – a potent combination. I could have listened to this all evening.

Next she played a modern piece by Philippe Hersant, called ‘Bamyan’ which is an evocation of the two giant Buddhas destroyed there by the Taliban in 2001. A sinister beginning with an eastern flavour moved into spare, spiky motifs. A beautiful, moody piece.

Debussy’s ‘Première Arabesque’ was a good choice to follow the Hersant, being luscious and full – again from the Impressionist school, as several of the pieces she played to us were: music to be lulled by, something the harp excels at.

Finally Ms Kenny launched into Ekaterina Walter-Kühne’s ‘Fantasy on themes from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin’: the much loved ballroom scene waltz. Her fingers flew across those 47 strings to produce the muscular theme interspersed with its dynamic variations.

Our applause was enthusiastic. Ms Kenny was easily persuaded to leave us with an encore. This was a piece by John Marsden ‘The Hummingbird’ – a tiny, joyful Latin-American evocation with great light and shade.

I left humming the Onegin AND feeling I’d learned something about a fascinating instrument.