Harpist Noël Wan

Noel-Wan-5-31-14By Scott MacClelland

AT THE START of intermission during Sunday’s solo harp recital by Noël Wan, longtime Carmel Music Society subscriber Gil Neill joked, “Are you on your way to heaven?” As this concert demonstrated, the slender young woman who won the CMS instrumental competition last year triumphed over her challengers not as much by the force of her spectacular technique but by her musicianship. Ms Wan is the complete package, a fully mature artist with an international reputation at 21. (She was born in San Jose to Taiwanese parents.)

Somehow the word got out. CMS co-president Anne Thorp printed 150 special handouts that listed Wan’s choice of repertoire (plus notes) only to find she needed twice that number. This was no sampler, but a demanding program of extraordinary variety that showed—or rather taught—the riveted audience what the harp is capable of in the right (and left) hands. And all was played by memory. In many cases it seemed Wan’s two hands worked as one, then suddenly as a duet of two different points of view, one independent of the other. I don’t remember the last time a solo recital so captivated me.

Wan opened the afternoon with Marie Claire Jamet’s transcription of JS Bach’s Lute Suite in E minor, BWV 996. A lute player might have been a bit perplexed by the much-longer decay of resonance on the pedal harp, but Wan kept the six movements in a state of momentum. Following on was Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for harp of 1939 (the only orchestral instrument, legend says, that he did not play at least competently.) The playful middle movement was sandwiched by more solemn fare. It’s safe to say it was a local premiere.

Some pesky harp strings drift out of tune while being played. Wan’s tuning wrench shared her seat and several times was used to retune them. (The famous classical guitarist John Williams once told me that guitarists spend half their time tuning and the other half playing out of tune. I think most harpists could relate to that perspective as well.)

Music of substance then gave way to music of flash, mood and virtuosity for its own sake. The Toccata in F by Belgian Jean-Baptiste Loeillet (1680-1730), transcribed by harpist Marcel Grandjany, sparkled like a Domenico Scarlatti sonata. Henriette Renié’s Contemplation, a stately pavane at the start ended up, in Wan’s hands, with a filigree of evaporating ether. Jean-Michel Demase’s Sicilienne Variée (variations on a 6/8 meter Sicilian rhythm) opened with the theme played on soft harmonics before exploring the full range of other harp techniques and ending in brilliance.

Felix Godefroid (1818-1887)—the ‘Paganini of the harp’—took a virtuosic 10-minute turn with the hoary old Carnival of Venice tune but only after three and a half minutes of suppressed laugh-out-loud showoff introduction. By then, “You could hear a pin drop,” someone later remarked.

Marcel Grandjany’s Children’s Hour adroitly used the same opening theme to introduce the six charming images that began with Into Mischief and ended with The Sandman. Giddyup Pony and Parade proved the composer was a keen observer of child’s play. Dutchman Marius Flothius’ Pour le tombeau d’Orphée, an “elegiac dance,” mourned the mythic Greek musician with uniquely ambivalent emotion. In its later moments Wan’s two hands became a duet, the left plucking a tune low on the instrument while the right accompanied with delicate arpeggios above.

English harpist Elias Parish-Alvars’ virtuosic Introduction and Variations on Themes from Bellini’s Norma was literally breathtaking. Wan rewarded a standing ovation with an arrangement of Dancing Grains, a Chinese folksong.

Three years before winning the CMS competition, Wan won the International Harp Festival contest in Holland. You can see her performance there of Louis Spohr’s Fantasie in C Minor on YouTube. Click HERE

Photo by Lyn Bronson; Peninsula Reviews: Wan winning the CMS competition in 2014