MY History WITH the Ginastera Harp Concerto

“Heidi Lehwalder Exclusive – The Ginastera Harp Concerto”

Harp Centre Australia Newsletter, April 2017.

It has been an incredible blessing to have had the opportunity to perform this concerto, from it's West Coast Premiere, to all but a handful of states until stepping down from concertizing.

With the New York Philharmonic, 1977. Bowing with Alberto Ginastera.

With the New York Philharmonic, 1977. Bowing with Alberto Ginastera.

The Ginastera Harp Concerto has been an integral part of my life and career as a concert harpist. I am delighted to be able to share with the harp community some history about the concerto along with a few stories that accompany performances dating back to February 1968.

Of course, the history of this concerto begins with the great harpist and philanthropist Edna Phillips Rosenbaum. Edna commissioned Alberto Ginastera to write a harp concerto with full orchestral accompaniment in the late1950's. She was to give the premiere herself in 1966 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy.

After a few years went by the concerto had not been completed. Edna told me that somewhere in that period of time Mr. Ginastera had presented her with another version of the work which was far too pianistic in nature, so back to the drawing board he went. She said he began to carefully study the works of Carlos Salzedo, focusing on his Method Book for the Harp and his Modern Studies for the Harp. The date for the premiere was fast approaching and still the concerto was not finished, so she decided to present Nicanor Zabaleta with the opportunity to give the World Premiere if he could help Mr. Ginastera finish it.

The concerto was premiered in 1966 to great success. Shortly after this Edna sent me a photostat of the manuscript to give the West Coast Premiere with the Seattle Symphony in February, 1968.

A bit of history here...There are many things I can be grateful for, but to have had the great pleasure to have known Edna Phillips Rosenbaum was up at the top of the list. I first met her in Camden, Maine in 1962. She came to visit her dear friend Alice Chalifoux who had just inherited the Salzedo Harp Colony after Mr. Salzedo's passing in 1961. Alice and I were going to be leaving shortly for the International Harp Competition in Israel and as a parting gift Edna handed me her little red travel alarm clock and told me it would bring me good luck. Such a memory you never forget! Over the years we came to know each other very well. She and her husband Sam Rosenbaum often held musical soirees at their home in Philadelphia. It was always a thrill to play for these evening parties as she loved to surround herself with the most fascinating and brilliant minds. I always called her the "Auntie Mame" of the harp world. 

My first experience with the Ginastera Concerto was a quick study, indeed.

Back in those days I learned rather quickly and much to my mothers' chagrin I waited until two weeks before the performance to open the music. When I finally did I was a little dismayed wondering how I actually was going to pull it off with neither any pedals or fingerings on the pages. My brilliant harp teacher Lynne Palmer agreed to put in the markings and so all was saved and the performance came off without a hitch. 

Obviously, the concerto was like no other before it. From the moment I began learning the notes I knew this would become the signature work to change the concept of what it was to play and listen to a harp concerto. However, back then I performed the piece to an often negative response from the audience. Many times I heard comments like, "I hated that piece" or "A harp is not suppose to sound like that!" 

I became even more convinced that this concerto needed to be played anywhere and everywhere if the concept of what our instrument was capable of producing was ever going to improve in the eyes of the public and more importantly, in the eyes of our fellow musicians! 

The story I would like to tell you about is when I met the composer.    

In 1977 I was one of four young musicians awarded the Avery Fisher Prize. Each of us were given an entire evening with the New York Philharmonic with Eric Leinsdorf conducting. On my given night the last piece I scheduled on the concert was the Ginastera Concerto. Because there was so much else to practice I never gave it quite as much attention. I assumed that by the time I got to this part of the program I would be totally relaxed. Just before the concert began there was a knock on my dressing room door. There stood Carlos Mosely, President of the New York Philharmonic with Alberto Ginastera. Mr. Ginastera graciously asked me if I had seen the box of twelve long stemmed red roses he had delivered to my dressing room. I was terribly embarrassed, but of course, I had been so busy tuning and warming up that I had never noticed them.

After they left the room I quickly scanned the score and berated myself for not spending more time practicing it.

It was the thrill of a lifetime to have him sitting there in a front box in Avery Fisher Hall and then to bring him down on stage to bow with  us. Afterwards, I told him how I ran to look at the music when he left my dressing room. He laughed and said he would not have remembered the piece well enough if I had varied from the correct notes! I asked him to please write a work for just harp and percussion. At the time he was in the process of composing a work for cello and harp. He died only six years later in 1983. 

This concerto has contributed such a lasting legacy from its' premiere to the numerous performances yet to come. It was well worth the wait it took this great composer to finalize his ideas on paper. Whether it be a major symphony or a community orchestra, the challenge is always there because it is a difficult concerto to put together. I have often seen the flip side of this and the great sense of satisfaction orchestras have after performing the piece.

Because of the heavy orchestration in the first movement I came to use a tiny mic placed outside of the harp on the bottom right side. The audience could not see it, but it allowed the harp to cut through just enough without it sounding like a mic was present. One can always ask the orchestra to keep it down in heavily orchestrated sections, but it never is successful in the concert when adrenaline is running high. 

To me, the second movement is sublime! To have an almost entire movement where the chords are expressed in a straight pattern creates a natural hymn. It is a great test to be able to control ones' sound/dynamics without the luxury of rolling chords. 

Once again, at the end of the cadenza going into the last movement I would have the mic turned on slightly to cut through. However, this movement does have more clarity with its' question and answer, dance like interaction between the harp and orchestra. The tempo of 168 always felt slow to me, so my tempo usually was around 210. I felt like the movement really came alive then! 

In the original score the final glisses of the cadenza start down, then up and then down with a crashing sound in the wires into the last movement. This allows the conductor to watch your arms and more easily grab the opening of the third movement on time. It is probably one of the spots in my experience that has been rehearsed over and over as it seems difficult for the conductor to really know when the cadenza ends. Ending the glisses on an upward take does not have nearly the powerful effect and makes it more difficult for the conductor to catch the downbeat.

One brief comment on how I always positioned the harp when playing a concerto. I found it necessary to always be on the right side of the conductor at only a slight angle. I know other soloists face straight out towards the audience, but for me I like to feel part of the orchestra and have a dead on view of the conductor and he of me. Never is this more true than in this harp concerto.

I have always stood firm with my insistence on using the original score. I feel closer to the concerto when I look at the photostat I have always played from and now teach by. When it was edited by Mr. Zabaleta some years after its' premiere I became even more convinced that I would keep to what was on the page in Mr. Ginasteras' handwriting. In my opinion there have been some good and not so good changes and a few simplifications, but long live the original!

After nearly fifty years since that first performance I do not think my concept of the concerto has changed all that much. Of course, one is going to develop and understand subtleties and grasp a deeper feeling with each opportunity to perform the work.

I have certainly become much more aware of the pitfalls that can happen with any orchestra major or not, repeated patterns of where things can get off track, how to get back on and how to help an orchestra hear the harp through hand gestures when the volume drowns the instrument out. It took many years to finally try a small mic, but it made such a difference for all concerned. 

You cannot imagine how happy it makes me to know how popular the Ginastera Concerto has become with both the harp community and with those audiences that once upon a time could not relate to an instrument that could be powerful, dynamic, energetic and cutting edge!

Behind it all lies the brilliance of Carlos Salzedo, eons ahead of everyone, moving the harp into its' own realm of possibilities previously not considered or understood. Many times I felt it was such a shame he did not live long enough to see what those ingenious creations of his would bring forth in the mind of Alberto Ginastera. For me they go together hand in hand. Because of this work and because of my time with Mr. Salzedo the concerto very quickly fell into my head and heart!

Heidi Lehwalder