To be honest, before learning about the Princeton Harp Festival I had only heard the name Sylvain Blassel in passing. I didn’t know much more about him other than that he had recorded the entire Goldberg Variations and that he teaches at the Lyon Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Lyon, France. If you are anything like me and you aren’t always the best at keeping up with all of the harp goings-on of the world, then you are probably in the same boat… maybe you have heard Sylvain’s name in passing… maybe not… but now is the time to get to know this musician (I use this word instead of harpist because he is so much more than just that).
This recital closed what has been one of the most inspiring, engaging, and exciting weekends that I have experienced in a really long time. I feel refreshed, energized, and ready to get back to my instrument and try out everything that I learned from these amazing featured and guest artists!!
Sylvain opened the program by telling the audience that they would be hearing a program made up almost exclusively of music by the composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Liszt often used harp in orchestral works (“Les Preludes,” and “Faust Symphony” both have large harp parts) but never wrote a solo piece for harp, meaning all of the music for the evening would be transcriptions created for the harp by the performer. It quickly became clear that this recital would be anything but a traditional classical pedal harp recital.
He began with Liszt’s “Consolations” No. 3, a piece that was written after the death of his friend and fellow composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849). What struck me most about Sylvain’s performance of this piece was the absolute evenness of sound between his hands, and fingers, creating an extremely pianistic sound on the Camac Élysée he used for this performance. Throughout the performance I caught him strategically muffling notes in low passages to clear the way for the melody and inner lines to speak more clearly. The attention to detail simply stunned me.
Second on the program was the “Hungarian Rhapsody” No. 5 followed by Liszt’s famous “La Campanella,” a work inspired by the violin virtuoso Paganini. Sylvain took time before beginning “La Campanella” to speak about Liszt and his relationship with Paganini and how Liszt inspired to become the Paganini of the piano. I think every person in the room was thinking the same thing at this moment in the recital: that we were witnessing the Paganini of the harp performing in front of our eyes. And then he began to play…
I have never seen the harp played the way he performed. The head of every harpist in the room could be seen shaking back and forth in disbelief as Sylvain’s fingers danced, and raced across the strings with seemingly impossible speed and clarity. Clapping wasn’t sufficient enough praise for the audience at the end of this piece. Instead the entire crowd began stomping on the wood floor spontaneously, showing our genuine appreciation for what we were witnessing. I have never seen an audience moved in this way.
One of my two favorite moments of the evening came next. Sylvain announced that the next piece would be Liszt’s “Légend” No. 1, and that the performance would be a world premiere. Each audience member seemed to lean closer in their chairs. Sylvain went on to say that he wasn’t sure if he would perform this piece initially, because he had only been working on the transcription for a month and that the audience must please excuse him if there were any mistakes. Wether there were mistakes or not in his playing I could never tell you. I was so transfixed and engaged by his playing that the mistakes didn’t matter. It was in this piece that we saw Sylvain’s most expressive playing. He seemed at once in total control and completely vulnerable at this moment, allowing the audience to experience the music in a truly visceral way.
The Liszt section of the recital came to a conclusion with a performance of the “Hungarian Rhapsody” No. 2. Take a moment to click on the link provided and watch the video of Sylvain playing this piece. Firstly, there is no reasonable explanation for how this piece can be executed on harp… it’s mind boggling! Secondly, you will see something in this video (if you watch closely enough) that just might surprise you as much as it did every festival participant who went to Sylvain’s ornamentation workshop: he uses his pinky finger. Allow this to seep in for a moment. By engaging the forbidden smallest finger Sylvain is able to execute unreasonably fast passages, and produce a more mellow sound for octaves when musically called for. MIND. BLOWN. Also, watch for the right hand trills… check out how relaxed that hand is!!
For the last piece of the recital Sylvain moved diagonally from Liszt to Richard Wagner (1813-1883) (who actually married Liszt’s daughter Cosima) and his “Liebestod” from the opera Tristan und Isolde (1859). Although Liszt did make an arrangement of this work for piano, Sylvain choose to create a transcription of his own to avoid some of the more pianistic elements of Liszt’s version. Sylvain’s feet flew across the pedals in this work often making double movement (flat-natural-sharp in one motion) and requiring both feet to be flexible about the side on which they worked. The end of this work was greeted with an enormous applause and the fastest standing ovation I have ever witnessed.
And then came the encore…
Here we find my second favorite part of the evening: the encore. Standing humbly before the audience Sylvain announced that he would play an encore. He thanked the Virginia Harp Center, and Camac Harps for their sponsorship of the Princeton Harp Festival and then, smiling, announced that he would play the final movement from Beethoven’s last piano “Sonata” Op. 111. Before sitting behind the harp he revealed that he originally was not planning to play any Beethoven on this recital, but upon hearing the acoustics of the venue (the Unitarian Universalist Church of Princeton, NJ) he knew he would have to perform at least a little of this piece, even though he hadn’t played the work in over a year.
I don’t know about you… but if someone asked me to play a piece that I hadn’t worked on for a year I would laugh at them. It was in this moment that it became clear to me that the performance that I was witnessing was much more than just a harp recital, and that the performer, Sylvain Blassel, was much much more than simply a harpist. The music seems to flow through him organically as if each piece of music is a piece of his soul.
This recital was really the culmination of the entire festival for me. It brought together everything that I had learned and made connections for me that I had not yet come to, making me question a number of long held beliefs and opinions. This is the point of art, and the reason that it is so important. Art should make you feel, should make you think, and should make you question the world around you. This musician (I say musician rather than harpist purposefully) deserves your attention. Allow yourself to be inspired in the same way that I and every other member of the audience for this recital were by seeking out his work, and then ask yourself where you might begin to bring a more authentic element into your playing and performing: be it through transcriptions of music you love, letting go of the idea of playing perfectly in exchange for being more present and engaged with your music, experimenting with your pinky fingers, or simply listening and trying to grasp piece of music that maybe isn’t on your normal play list. It is only through innovative artists like Sylvain Blassel and others that our field will grow and continue to remain relevant in the musical landscape. As the slogan to the Princeton Harp Festival puts it:
Want to learn more about Sylvain Blassel? Check out 10 things you don’t know about Sylvain Blassel, and follow him on facebook to keep up with all that is going on in this amazing musicians life!