It’s one of those great ironies that international harp soloist Bridget Kibbey might not be the rising star she is today had she not grown up in Ohio.
It all started for her in the Buckeye State when, as a girl, she saw a young woman playing the harp at a church service in the unexpected harp mecca of Finlay, Ohio. She begged her father for lessons, and since then, in her travels as a harpist, she’s watched this scene unfold again and again all around the world.
“If you show up at a church service or a tea party and you see a young girl playing the harp, there’s a lot of pulling and tugging on the father’s sleeve saying, ‘I wanna try that.’” Kibbey said in a recent phone interview. “It is pretty mesmerizing to watch.”
Kibbey is banking on that mesmerizing thing when she opens this year’s VIVO Music Festival (Aug. 31-Sept. 4) in “Harp with Its Hair Down,” a recital of new music for the harp, Wed., 7 p.m., in the Green Room of the Short North’s Garden Theater. Presented by the Johnstone Fund for New Music, in collaboration with New Music at Short North Stage, the concert will feature the world premiere of a work for harp, violin and recorded viola by Columbus native John Stulz. Audience members are invited to enjoy cocktails at Ethel’s Bar at the Garden Theater, starting at 6 p.m. Concert admission is free.
Kibbey joins Anna Polonsky, a Russian-born pianist from a Columbus musical family, as a guest artist at this year’s festival, performing in the week-long series of casual and pop-up concerts at performance venues, art galleries and restaurants around Columbus.
Tune in to Classical 101 Wendesday, Aug. 31 at 10 a.m. when Kibbey and other musicians of the VIVO Music Festival talk and play us through a sneak peek into this year's festival.
The Intimate Harp
If a harp could actually let its hair down, it would probably do so in a place like the Garden Theater’s Green Room, a cozy, informal space where concert-goers can get up close and personal with the performers. It’s a space that, Kibbey says, is an ideal showcase for the harp.
“I think we often think of the instrument as a very formal instrument at the back of the orchestra,” Kibbey said, “but in this context you really get to see the insides and the inner workings of the harp.”
And you get to hear in intimate detail the full spectrum of sounds the harp can produce.
“Something that’s very special about the harp is that the resonance is so unique. And it’s really fun to play in spaces that allow the resonance to reach out to the audience and surround them like a hug. And I think they’ll really have that experience in the green room, which actually has an amazing ambience to it, but also allows for that close contact to the harp and also to me as I explore this repertoire on the instrument.”
The program features works – many composed specifically for Kibbey – by some of today’s most innovative composers, including Kati Agocs, David Bruce, Sebastian Currier and Stulz, as well as avant-garde composers of long standing, like Elliott Carter.
Three of the works on the program – Agocs’ Northern lights, Bruce’s Nocturne from Caja de Musica and Currier’s Nighttime – take inspiration from the darkness and starry brightness of night. Carter’s Bariolage is a rich and brilliant feast of harp colors and textures. Stulz’s Second-Hand Time uses extended techniques on the harp, viola and violin to explore the fallibility of memory in making sense of political events.
The repertoire, Kibbey says, puts all of the coloristic variety of the harp on display.
“I’m super excited about the fact that I really get to play a different role in each piece. In Agocs’ Northern Lights, I’m truly exploring the sound of starbursts, and so the gestures that I’m making on the harp are brilliant and fantastical and huge and large. When I come down to play the Nocturne of David Bruce, it’s like exploring a delicacy of night where you’re yearning for something and you don’t quite know what it is. And that’s a very different effect on the harp and a different way of playing the instrument. So between these two extremes, you’re going to have a complete broad spectrum of color and effect throughout the evening on these fantastic new pieces for the harp.”
The Harp of Ohio
Commissioning new works for the harp is one of the engines behind Kibbey’s burgeoning career. But like many great things, Kibbey’s affinity for the harp started out in the relatively small city of Findlay, Ohio, where Kibbey heard and played the harp for the first time.
And she wasn’t alone. Kibbey credits the passion, energy and artistry of harpist Jan Bishop with cultivating a mecca of harp playing in Findlay that rivals the vibrancy of the harp communities in even some of the world’s largest cities.
“My dad let me take lessons and I was, of course, hooked, and by the time I graduate high school, there were 20 harpists in Finlay, Ohio,” Kibbey said. “I think that because of Jan Bishop, she really cultivated a large studio, and there were quite a few of us traveling around the country to festivals and master classes. It’s kind of incredible to have so many fellow harpists to play in ensemble with or to take group lessons with at times, as well. And (Bishop) would drive us around to different festivals. So I’m so thankful for that amazing community.”
Back to the Buckeye State
Kibbey’s return to her home state this week for the VIVO Music Festival will also be a bit of a family reunion. Her Columbus-based cousins will be in the audience for the festival’s concerts, and she says she’s excited to spend some quality time in Buckeye Country.
“Go Bucks!” Kibbey mused.
After the VIVO festival, Kibbey will direct her energy to two major touring and recording projects. She’ll explore the Colombian dance genre of cumbia with Colombian musicians in performances in Philadelphia, and she’ll dive into her collaboration with the baroque ensemble The Sebastians in a performance tour, and later recordings, of Bach’s harpsichord concerti in transcriptions for harp and orchestra.
And all of this just in time for football season.
“I’ve got a busy fall,” Kibbey said, "and I’m very excited about everything.”
Tune in to Classical 101 Wednesday, Aug. 31 at 10 a.m. to hear harpist Bridget Kibbey and other musicians with a preview of this year's VIVO Music Festival. Kibbey opens the VIVO Music Festival with “Harp with Its Hair Down,” a free concert of new music for the harp, Wednesday, Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. in the Green Room of Columbus’ Garden Theater.