The soft tones of a harp can have the power to evoke strong emotions and carry the soul of a musical piece. The instrument, often associated with beauty, elegance and angels, took to the Missoula Symphony Orchestra stage and its melodies will soon float through listeners’ homes.
“The kind of wedding music we hear, it's soft and it's pretty, but [harps] can be a very virtuosic instrument,” Missoula Symphony Orchestra’s newest music director Julia Tai said. “So, this concert I think is very special. We get to feature the harp because they can do a lot of things that we don't see them do usually.”
The “Harp and Soul” Masterwork IV performance, conducted by Tai, will feature works by timeless classical artists and the talent of harpist Valerie Muzzolini. The concert is streaming this weekend off of Missoula Symphony’s website, so Missoulians can enjoy the classical masterpieces from the safety of home.
Muzzolini has been playing the harp since she was 7 years old, and after nearly 40 years of practice she still loves the instrument that helps her connect to others.
“What makes me happy is making music with other people,” Muzzolini said. “It's such fun, there's a connection that you can't explain ... that's what I love, and so the harp is the instrument, literally, for me to be able to do that.”
Tai explained how the dynamic of the harp coincides so well with other instruments, it can support the other instruments and create soft harmonies, but is hidden at the back of an orchestra. For “Harp and Soul,” the elegant instrument will be front and center in multiple solos, where Muzzolini can show off its range and beauty.
“It's really fun to see what the harp can do, 'cause often we only hear one type of sound from the instrument,” Tai said.
While both women are happy to put together a performance, and are proud of the work they’ve done, they also miss the energy and bonds created in live performances.
“I always say when I'm on stage conducting, I could hear the audience behind me, and that's kind of the excitement,” Tai said. “You can hear if they're into a piece or if they're excited about a piece. And even though my back is turned to them, I have that communication with them, and that's always the part that I love the most about conducting.”
Tai said this is a season of experiments. Since she was hired as music director in November, she’s had to adapt to changing policies on social distancing, capacity limits and masking. She’s had to work with smaller orchestras and give performers air breaks every half an hour, making practices drag out longer each day.
“The musicians really had to go the extra mile to make this work and put out this concert,” Tai said. “So it's harder, but I think we are also very grateful that we can still make music and do something in this time.”
When the weather was still warm last fall they performed outside, but the struggle with that was the acoustics weren’t the same without walls and a ceiling and the sound didn’t carry as well.
And since they’ve been back indoors they’ve had to record concerts to stream online, meaning they played through the entire set multiple times over so videographers could take shots from multiple angles. All-in-all COVID-19 has made music-making tricky, but Tai said a lot of other symphonies and orchestras have put a hold on their performances all together, so she’s just happy to be able to keep performing at all.
“I think it's important that we continue the music making both within the orchestra and also in the community, 'cause I think a lot of people really appreciate having the opportunity to listen to concerts at home during this time,” Tai said.
Both musicians described live concerts as full of energy that’s missing without the audience. They can connect with the crowd in a way that just isn’t the same through cameras and screens.
“I appreciate the technology and the fact that we are able to do this,” Muzzolini said. “(But) there's something about live performances you just can't replace.”
Not to mention there’s something about knowing a live performance is a one-time experience. It can’t be replayed or edited. Each live performance is different from the last.
The “Harp and Soul” performance will feature five pieces: A serenade by Strauss performed by the wind ensemble; Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane performed by the string orchestra and Muzzolini; Concertstück by Gabriel Pierné and altered for strings by Bob D. Litterell, also performed by strings and Muzzolini; Pavane, Op. 50 by Gabriel Fauré, arranged by David Baldwin and performed by the brass quintet; and another serenade by Antonin Dvorak and performed by the string orchestra.
“For conductors, in terms of favorites, I love all of my ‘children’ equally,” Tai said with a laugh, but she did concede that as a string musician herself she is partial to the string pieces. “Those harp pieces are just so beautiful and romantic.”
The two pieces that Muzzolini is featured in were created by French composers. Muzzolini was born in France and her mother was a musician, so she was familiar with the works, in particular the Debussy piece, which she’s performed many times before. Both songs are intimate, she said, as they only require a harpist and some string musicians, allowing for the harp to really shine.
“And you really get to hear such a great future of the harp and what it can do, and it's a repertoire that just speaks to me and then the Pierné is very different, much more romantic in its own way,” Muzzolini said.
She said the Debussy is “show off-y” while the Pierné is sacred in a way.
“I like the name that they came up with, ‘harp’ and soul,’ so I would just say (I hope the audience gets) sort of like the soulfulness of it and the peacefulness,” Muzzolini said.
Tai is excited for the show, her first masterwork with the Missoula Symphony. The musician, who has been playing since she was 4, is working on transitioning her life to Missoula. She’s been working with two orchestras in Seattle, including the Seattle Modern Orchestra, which performs almost exclusively living composers. She’s been back and forth between Missoula and Seattle, hosting performances virtually, but plans to move here this summer. She said she fell in love with the town’s nature and people, who have been so kind and welcoming.
Tai and Muzzolini both hope that people across Missoula, and perhaps outside of our town, will watch the concert this weekend and find some peace and connection within the music.
“I think by watching the concert or being together in music, that we can still have that connection,” Tai said. “And hopefully the connection that we're making with music right now, although virtually, can be brought back when we're back in the hall together.”