Harp composition competitions

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    carl-swanson on #215428

    I just noticed that the USA Competition has announced it’s latest competition for a new piece for harp. I’m old enough now to have seen many such competitions come and go. What I have to say now is probably going to open up a hornet’s nest of controversy. But again, I’m too old to worry about it!

    There are literally thousands of contemporary compositions for harp, written in the last 60 years or so, that were the result of either competitions or commissions by orchestras or individuals. I remember seeing someplace a thick book that listed all of the concertos written for harp since the late 1940’s. There are at the very least 100’s of them, perhaps thousands. Only one of these competition pieces, concertos or solo pieces, has made it into the standard repertoire for harp, and that is the Ginastera Concerto.

    I remember years ago talking with Suzanna Mildonian. During her career she premiered many contemporary concertos for harp. But she got to the point where she refused to do any new compositions. She told me she would work 6 months or more on some new concerto that had been commissioned by an orchestra or some other organization. She would play it 2 or 3 times for the scheduled premier performances. And then never get another chance to play it again. She was sick of learning new(and difficult) pieces that were not going to be of any use to her.

    My point here is this: Composition competitions do not work for adding useable repertoire for our instrument. They are a total waste of money and time. We need to find another way of adding repertoire.

    There have been new pieces for harp that have entered the standard repertoire. The Sonata by Germaine Tailleferre, as well as her Concertino. There are two pieces by Jesus Guiridi that are wonderful. And of course we have lots of good repertoire added by Bernard Andres.

    I believe that the key to getting good and useable pieces for harp is using composers who understand the harp well. I’ve said this before here: If we want composers to write well for the instrument, start by giving them a year of lessons on the instrument BEFORE they write anything for it. It’s critically important that anyone writing for the harp have a clear understanding of how the harp sounds, and what works and doesn’t work on the harp. So the American Harp Society, or the USA Competition, or Israel Competition should include in their composition competitions a way for the contestants to work for an extended period of time with a harpist BEFORE they enter the competition.

    carl-swanson on #215430

    I want to add here another problem with composition competitions, and that is that most of the time these competitions are judged by academics: other composers, composition teachers, etc. That is the worst way to assess new compositions. There is a looooooooong history of academics getting it wrong. The judging should be left to the audience!!!

    catherine-rogers on #215431

    Preaching to the choir here, Carl. I’m afraid many composers are more focused on winning the prize than wanting to write for the harp for its own sake and would claim they’re too busy to spend a year studying the needs of the instrument. If they really cared, they’d jump at the chance or think of it themselves.

    carl-swanson on #215442

    Catherine- I do think the problem is two pronged. The first is asking composers to write for an instrument that they truly do not understand. Many of them now use a keyboard with a “harp button” and think that if it works there, it will work on a real harp. The other problem-and this is true of many artistic disciplines- is having other composers(academics) judge these competitions, and the results are always disastrous. You can see the same thing in architecture, where the competitions for a new building design are judged by a panel of archetects. Same in theater. Competitions for new plays are judged by academics, with equally disastrous results. If you look at the history of Broadway, both with musicals and drama, not one great work ever won an academic competition. For some reason, the 20th century turned over control of the arts to academia, with horrible results!

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #215712

    The competition juries also want to reward “contemporary” sounding works, even though audiences are unlikely to enjoy them. Many fine works have won competitions, particularly the one run by the Northern California Harpists Association, so it may have something to do with the caliber of the jury and what standards they may agree on.
    There are many fine contemporary concertos besides the Ginastera, which has some real faults of its own, but sadly, too many are copies of the Ginastera. The others do not get played. Susanna Mildonian should look at the concerto by Maurice Thiriet, which was apparently written for Lily Laskine, Introduction, Chanson et Rondes. Harry Somers wrote a superb concerto introduced by Judy Loman.
    If conductors aren’t willing to lead harp concertos, that’s a whole other side of the problem.
    I re-introduced the Concerto by Nicolai Berezowsky, and found it to be extremely effective, dramatic and colorful. Sea Chanty by Paul White is another such work. There were others also commissioned by Edna Phillips.
    It would help if knowledgeable harpists were doing more commissioning themselves, and helping the composers. Charles Fox began a concerto years ago, and would love to have a commission to finish it ($50,000 is all it would take).
    Damase wrote more than one concert for harp.
    Concertos for harp are, amazingly enough, the most popular genre for harp among composers, so I’m sure that was a thick book, indeed, but I’ve never seen a book that only listed concertos for harp.
    Norman Dello Joio wrote a beautiful concerto, but I decided against playing it because it has no ending, it just stops. It needs one or two more bars added to make it effective.
    One of the problems is that, because of the Ginastera, I assume, composers get stuck in writing one note at a time for the harp, patters of intricacy, but limited in sound.
    Salzedo’s Concerto for Harp and Seven Winds is extremely effective, and his Second Concerto is very strong, premiered by Jennifer Hoult. However, the orchestration is missing and may need to be re-done.
    I was so taken by the Malecki Concertino for two harps that I programmed it three different times at HarpMusicFest: the International Harp Festival of Philadelphia, and I was prepared to always have it on, as it got better with each listening.
    Francaix composed Jeu Poetique for Harp, rarely played, and also a concerto for two harps.
    More importantly, one of Andrzej Panufnik’s symphonies is his Symphonie Concertante for flute, harp and string orchestra, a magnificent piece that is not that difficult.
    So, either conductors are to blame, or harpists are to blame for not knowing the literature, or perhaps there is just too big of a literature to know it all when there is no central listing of it all, or a complete bibliography of harp music. The closest thing to that was the catalog of Lyra Music, published by Don Henry in the 1980s.

    Gretchen Cover on #215734

    Interesting comments, Saul. To be honest, I knew nothing about any of the pieces you mention. Jeu Poetique is such an incredible work for harp, I am posting the clip here.

    BTW, perhaps AHS could get a grant and work on a bibliography of harp compositions. Perhaps you could suggest that to AHS.

    Gretchen Cover on #215756

    Here’s another wonderful seldom performed work: Concertino in Jazz by Deltour.


    Tacye on #215759

    Saul, I think you must not be aware that Mark Palkovic has published harp music bibliographies. I think three volumes now, though I only have the solo and ensemble one.
    Chamber and concerti:
    Solo and ensemble:

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