September 17, 2019
Many thanks to Katryna Tan and Loh Jia Hui at Rave Harps Singapore, for the lowdown on what happened at Harpfest VI! By all accounts it was a particularly special occasion – “marked with distinct notes of creativity, inclusivity and a sparkle of magic”, as we’ve heard from those who were there.
The achievements of Singaporean harpists over the last fifteen years have been breathtaking. The scene has gone from non-existent, to flourishing, and a huge source of inspiration to the rest of us. To find out why, read on!
Harpfest VI’s opening concert had everyone’s fingers on the strings, beginning with chamber groups starting as young as five. These groups were the winners of the Rave Harps Prestige Award; a tailor-made honours system unique to Rave Harps, Katryna’s teaching studio in Singapore and Malaysia. The awards motivate students in both solo and chamber categories, and are designed to fill the gaps that forcibly arise in any standardised music exam system. Continuing the sense of progression from first harp lessons, to professional life, Harpfest’s opening concert finished with the premier of “Winged Messenger”, a new harp concerto by Eric Watson written for Katryna Tan.
Katryna also performed new music by Phang Kok Jun. Both his compositions, and Watson’s, reveal a strong South East Asian influence, and include non-Western instruments such as the Dizi (Chinese flute), and the Sheng. Phang Kok Jun also wrote a gamelan-inspired “Pelog Fantasy” for harp ensemble, and Eric Watson composed “Golden Orb” for the same instrumentation. These ensemble pieces were performed by Viva Rave, Singapore’s professional harp ensemble.
Harpfest, day 2: this began with a workshop for adult and senior harpists. Harp ensembles from Tasmania, Indonesia and Singapore performed, and shared their experience of success – and also challenges – at the harp. “In this session”, the Harpfest team reports, “many honest stories were shared about how and why participants came to pick up the harp, what they have struggled to overcome, and the great gifts they have taken away from harping. They’ve made friendships, discovered courage they didn’t know they had, and even arthritic fingers have become stronger, because they want to perform. It was a thoroughly moving session and many audiences were left inspired to play the harp!”
Sylvain Blassel’s solo recital was the highlight of the second evening. His concert mesmerised Harpfest delegates, and left everybody looking forward to learning from him, in masterclass the following day.
Another way Harpfest VI brought people together, was by means of a competition focused on legendary harpist composers. Every harpist knows the names Grandjany, Renié, Hasselmans and Salzedo! The competition was held earlier in the year, and the global finalists showcased and performed their repertoire in Singapore. It united harpists as they heard their contemporaries from different countries playing the same pieces as they did, and many new friendships were made.
Harpfest’s opening concert was not the only chance to hear new music. The festival showcased the winning compositions of a Composing Competition, open to harpists aged 4 to 20. The results of this surpassed all expectations (many an impressive video of the entries can be found on the Rave Harps facebook page). Katryna is optimistic about the future of our repertoire: “there’s clearly a big rising generation of composers for the harp!”
There was even a harp flash mob. All festival delegates, from all over the world, took part – an endeavour rendered doubly exciting by the fact there was no chance to rehearse. Led by Katryna Tan and all the harp teachers of the festival region, over 40 adult harpists joined hands to perform a medley based on 万水千山总是情, a Chinese song of friendship. This brought a lot of happiness to performers and public: everyone was touched by the achievements of this group, who had begun the harp later in life.
The senior flash mob was followed by another huge ensemble, this time of over 80 young harpists, who performed another medley of music from Singapore. Led by the Viva Rave Ensemble and with music arranged by ensemble member, Charmaine Teo, “it was truly a joy”, says the festival team, “to have everyone – teachers, adult harpists, senior harpists, students as young as 4, advanced students and young professionals, all under the same roof, performing and having fun together”.
On the final day of Harpfest, Camac President Jakez François gave a lecture on the history of the harp. This covered the instrument’s beginnings to the present day, including an explanation of how modern harps are built, and some behind-the-scenes insights into our historical harp collection.
The final, and the biggest, event of Harpfest VI was something unique to Harpfest, which has also become an unmissable part of every festival. This is the harp musical – and even for those of us who have been lucky enough to hear several of these, it never ceases to be an amazing experience. Harpfest 2019’s musical was “Legends of the Harp”, and told the tale of how four harp legends save the world from a terrible giant. The entire plot is conceived by Katryna herself, and it brought out many a familiar harp character – including Jack and the Beanstalk, Harpo Marx, King David and the Irish God Dagda! The legends were set to music by Julian Wong, not to mention the full-on production that is a hallmark of Katryna’s harp musicals. Lighting, costumes, makeup, set changes (set changes involving lots of harps), and everyone performing from memory from start to finish.
It is difficult to describe the effect of the Rave Harps musicals if you haven’t seen one. If you were at the World Harp Congress in Hong Kong in 2017, you will know what we are trying to say. The professionalism of the show, and its joyful, magical subject matter, performed with such enthusiasm by a large group of students, gives an extraordinary effect. As Sylvain Blassel put it: “I have never been so moved, from the beginning to the end, by a harp concert. And especially not by a harp ensemble…although they are so young, all the musicians were already incredibly professional. Everything was perfectly adjusted, and everyone gave me the feeling they had performed the show more than a hundred times. It was with unexpected happiness that I applauded “Legends of the Harp”!
Well, we all wish we had been in Singapore. Fortunately there’s a video coming out soon, so keep your eyes on the Camac blog, your one-stop-window on news and views from throughout the harp world. Meanwhile, have fun browsing the gallery below!