Recital review: Princeton Harp Festival – François Pernel

Princeton Harp Festival Exhibit Room

Princeton Harp Festival Exhibit Room

Day 1 of the Princeton Harp Festival is done… and boy did they end the first day with a BANG!

The 8pm recital by François Pernel was unlike any recital I have ever attended.  I think it is in the nature of lever/celtic harp for the atmosphere to be more intimate… and this recital was just that.  Between pieces Pernel would grab the microphone and explain how the work he was about to perform was inspired, share tidbits about his compositional process, and allow the audience to see him as the person that he is; a charming, insightful man who is one heck of a player!

Camac Excalibur

Camac Excalibur

More-over this recital was also the American premiere of Camac’s newest instrument, the Excalibur, an instrument that was created in collaboration with Pernel… and with him has found a true voice.  As a musician who composes at the harp, most of the music on the program was actually written for this specific instrument and it’s singing ability.  This 38 string lever harp sounds amazing… unlike any lever harp I have ever heard.  It’s tone is rich and full, but is capable of sweet and clear soft passages.  Sit behind one and you will not be disappointed (I did in the exhibit room, and my goodness!).

Tonights program included primarily music from him new album Galexya (Sept. 2015), an album made up of original compositions, as well as a few old favorites (he opened with his arrangement of “O Fortuna” from Orff’s “Carmina Burana”), a few celtic works, and a special encore (which I will get into later).

From "Autre Chose" by François Pernel

Lever set-up taken from “Autre Chose” by François Pernel

I have been to a lot of harp recitals in my life… but I have never in my life seen lever harp played at this level.  After the concert I purchased one of Pernel’s books (“Autre Chose” pour harpe a leviers) and in it found some of the most complicated lever setups I have ever seen.  In fact, during the recital Pernel actually said:

“I love to compose music that cannot be played on the pedal harp.”

Signed copy of "Autre Chose" by François Pernel

Signed copy of “Autre Chose” by François Pernel

and all you have to do is take a glance at the later pages of this book to see that this is true.  I pride myself in my sight-reading abilities, but sitting behind a pedal harp and attempting these works is not for the light-hearted, and didn’t go so well for me in the exhibit room.

Recital breakdown:

François Pernel in concert at the Princeton Harp Festival, Princeton, NJ

François Pernel in concert at the Princeton Harp Festival, Princeton, NJ

As I mentioned, most of the music performed on this recital was from Pernel’s new album.  This music doesn’t fit easily into a category of any kind; it is at once tonal and atonal… classical and contemporary… meditational and frantic, often seeming as if Pernel must posses 3 or even 4 hands to accomplish particularly complicated passages.

I was so shocked at the end of the recital to see the time that had passed.  A full hour and twenty minutes had passed without my even noticing.  He is at once an incredibly engaging performer and seemingly delightfully goofy and humble man.  To say that I enjoyed this recital would be a huge understatement!

Throughout the recital Pernel took to the microphone to share his inspiration for each work, describing one as “Underground sparks,” as in the emotions that one feels below the surface (inner turmoil).  He stated at the beginning of the evening that we (the audience) would “all be paralyzed by the end of the recital” and his music does have this kind of effect on the listener.  As I said, it draws you in and erases time and has the ability to create vivid images in the mind if one allows.  His use of echo dynamics is unparalleled and his right hand cross-unders literally gave me chills.

It would be a truly foolhardy attempt on my part to attempt to explain every work Pernel played and my feelings about each (plus the blog would turn into a novel, because I could talk about this recital all night long!).  The program was announced as the performance was given and only English translations were given rather than the French titles that are listed on the CD further complicating my job in sharing this with you.  Trust me.  Buy the CD… you won’t regret it.

François Pernel with harpist Diana Dunnavant

François Pernel with harpist Diana Dunnavant

Pernel closed the evening with something that I found to be truly spectacular…. Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on lever harp.  Perhaps if you are not a harpist, or you haven’t ever examined the score to this work you will not fully grasp the magnitude of this feat… but I lost count after 50 lever movements in this work!!

If you don’t know François Pernel’s music I strongly encourage you to check it out.  He has succeeded in bringing the lever harp into a 21st century idiom and is doing things with the instrument that I have never seen before.

Want to learn more about François Pernel?  Check out his website (be sure to watch the videos… oh my goodness the “Rite of Spring” video…) and read this great 10 things article by the Harp Column.

Tomorrow brings some great classes during the day and a recital by Addi & Jacq, so with that I will do just as Mr. Pernel instructed at the end of his recital: “go to bed.”



About Author

Miami based Dr. of harp, gown-addict, lover of bulldogs, and fitness enthusiast.

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