Columbus Symphony This weekend: Harp Concerto by Alberto Ginastera

May 15, 2015

This weekend's concerts by the Columbus Symphony feature Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring and the Harp Concerto by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis joins the CSO for these concerts, conducted by Andres Franco. Also on the program: Astor Piazzola's Milonga del Angel and the Danses sacree et profane by Debussy.

In the mid to late 1960s composer Alberto Ginastera seemed to be everywhere. His opera Don Rodrigo was the first work performed by the New York City Opera at their new home, Lincoln Center's New York State Theater.

The production made a star out of a chubby 24 year old tenor from Spain, Placido Domingo. The Philadelphia Orchestra gave the premiere of Ginastera's Harp Concerto in 1965. Eugene Ormandy conducted with soloist Nicanor Zabaleta. And therein lies a tale. 

Born in Argentina in 1916, Ginastera studied there and later at Tanglewood, where he took lessons in composition from Aaron Copland.

These Columbus symphony concerts draw a direct generational line. Copland taught Ginastera and Ginastera taught Astor Piazzola. Celebrated as all three are, I doubt any one would want to be remembered solely for their pupil's achievements.

Aaron Copland needs no introduction in the pantheon of American composers. Astor Piazzola is one of the great names in music to come out of South America. Ginastera, whose music is the most varied of the three in color and in content, worked in many genres: opera, symphonies, concerti, chamber music, dance and song. Yet his marquee value for the public is slightly less.

This is not an easy composer. The stereotype of the rhythmically driven fiery Latin American composer is only a partial fit. Ginastera experimented with 12 tone music. He was well aware of the passing trends in mid 20th century composition, be they percussive or electric or even machine driven. He left off a strictly national style when still a young man. No guitars, no foot stomping. That's one of the reasons why Ginastera's music is so fascinating. From piece to piece the road maps are blurred. you may always be surprised.

The Harp concerto premiered in 1965 was commissioned nine years earlier by Edna Philips and her husband Samuel Rosenbaum. Philips had been the principal harp for the Philadelphia Orchestra. But Ginastera wrote in his own good slow time.  Years went by with no concerto. Edna Philipps retired. She passed the work onto one of her pupils. Eventually the harp virtuoso Nicanor Zabaleta visited the composer in Argentina and grabbed the premiere for himself. 

If you need your harp to remind you of cherubim,  forget it here. Ginastera celebrates the harp as the percussive instrument it is. The harp is deliberately showcased not as a pretty sounding instrument but as an important sounding instrument.

The Argentine practically attacks the instrument, and we learn once and for all that the harp is made and sterner sounds and sterner stuff. That said, this is not an angry work. It is a dramatic work, filled with more passion and, well,  noise than we may be used to for the harp. Ginastera's Harp Concerto will introduce you to many different forms of percussion made on one instrument, which at the same time, sings.