Harpist Madeline Jarzembak

By Scott MacClelland

THERE’S SOME SPECIAL KIND OF COMRADERY among musicians in Santa Cruz that is palpable. It is generally friendly and collegial, and quite different from the more severe, even suspicious, among many of the classical music players in Monterey County. Give it up for the ‘sunny side of the bay.’

That was easy to do on Sunday when the Santa Cruz Symphony launched its new “Spotlight on the Symphony” recital series at the marvelous Cabrillo Samper Recital Hall in Aptos. There have been some excellent recitals by Symphony musicians in recent years, now formalized as distinct from the long established orchestral series. On Sunday, the spotlight fell on principal harpist Madeline Jarzembak, who played a solo recital for the first half of her program and was then joined by violinist Rebecca Jackson and cellist Jonah Kim (above) for the second.  

During the interval, Jarzembak, who bears a striking resemblance to the film actor Reese Witherspoon, stepped to a microphone to thank the audience for coming, explain that playing the harp in public was more terrifying to her than public speaking, describe her “bigger than me” instrument’s 47 strings and 7 pedals, and warn that when a harp approaches the end of its life the high string tension can cause the soundboard to “explode”—though she was pretty sure that wouldn’t happen at her matinee performance. (It didn’t.)

For the solo set, Jarzembak began with Sarabanda e Toccata by Nino Rota, a fine and prolific concert composer who is best known for his film scores for Fellini and Visconti. What became obvious right away was the range of colors and dynamics under Jarzembak’s polished technique. The biggest surprise was the closing Vltava (Moldau) by Smetana in an arrangement by Hanuš Trneček—he called it a fantasy—that inexplicably omitted the dancing wedding party scene of Smetana’s original pictorial tone poem. Between these two works was an arrangement of Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C, Hob XVI-35 and Movements and Pauses by Israeli (born Lithuanian) composer of operas and concert works, Haim Permont; that piece was plainly idiomatic to the instrument though barely memorable. 

With Jackson and Kim, Jarzembak played an arrangement of a three-movement Trio in G for baryton, viola and cello by Haydn. (But for Haydn’s baryton trios, the obscure 17th-18th century instrument would today be completely forgotten except by revivalists of ‘early’ music; it was a hybrid of the bass viol (da gamba) and bandora with an extra course of sympathetic (non-played) vibrating strings favored, notably, by Haydn’s patron Nicholas I, Prince Esterhazy.) In this case, the baryton part was transcribed for harp with the other instruments providing a harmonic context.

Then came the pièce de resistance, Jacques Ibert’s Trio, of 1944. No hint of the war perturbs this charmer. Its first movement, Allegro tranquillo, actually surges to a final climax in the ecstatic style of that giant influence on later French composers, César Franck. The second movement, Andante sostenuto, opens with a gorgeous, long-limbed melody for cello, then picked up by violin, while the harp plays accompaniment. The high-spirited Scherzando con moto opens with a pizzicato contest between violin and cello. Finally the three instruments are on equal footing, each getting its share of the spotlight.     

The next Spotlight on the Symphony recital features a brass quintet, Brass Over Bridges, also at Cabrillo Samper, on November 11. American music will be featured.