Heavenly Talent on Strings

Remy van Kesteren was the winner of the 2013 harp competition.

Remy van Kesteren was the winner of the 2013 harp competition.

The current issue of “Harp Column,” a magazine published with the stated purpose of providing “practical news for practical harpists,” features on its cover a beaming Susann McDonald. On that cover, she is described as “America’s grande dame of the harp.” Inside, she is acclaimed as a “living legend” and “the great ambassador.”

Susann McDonald has given her life to the harp, that angelic sounding instrument so devilish to play. She’s done so as practitioner, a world class artist heard in major concert venues far and wide. She’s done so as teacher, as distinguished professor of music, a mentor both at her home base, Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, and in master classes at uncountable places. She’s done so as artistic director of the World Harp Congress, an organization founded and designed to assist harpists and promote the instrument. And she has done so as founder and artistic director of the USA International Harp Competition, the 10th of which gets underway this coming Wednesday afternoon here in Bloomington, that endeavor’s welcoming and only home.

Forty-three young harpists from 16 countries will be here to compete. Many of them, 26, by choice, will stay in local homes, having accepted invitations to do so. A few will be with friends. Two will be hosted by the Meadowood Retirement Community. All, as has been the practice since the competition’s founding, will be pampered, so much so that word has spread over the years about Bloomington as the place to be, a competition site to covet.

Finding those receptive homes is difficult, says McDonald. Raising sufficient funds to run the competition is difficult, sometimes a “frightful worry’ almost right to the opening ceremony. Somehow, undoubtedly in no small way aided by the prominent and trusted presence of founder McDonald, the homes and the funds have been located. “It is a constant struggle, but the effort is worth it,” she says. “Think of the fine musicians we’ve given a boost, not only the medal winners but so many others. I know competitions are not for everyone, but there are many players who have benefited from the challenge, the pressure of preparing, the discipline of sticking to a goal, the opportunity to learn new repertoire and hear the upcoming harpists of the moment. There’s value in such an experience.”

Erin Brooker Miller chimes in. She’s the competition’s program director, a classical and Irish harpist herself, earning while still learning by fulfilling the duties of a job that has her willingly taking on some of McDonald’s administrative burdens. “The contestants here,” says Miller, “are required to master a massive amount of music. What we demand can be discouraging, but it pushes a young artist toward greater achievements. A serious competitor will have spent perhaps two years preparing for our event. That will have stretched the harpist’s repertoire and quite possibly assisted her or him in finding management.”

McDonald notes with obvious pride that the USA International “has become so important. It is the largest harp competition, and it stands today as the primary competitor of the longer-standing International Harp Contest in Israel, the 20th of which is due to take place in 2018. “We’ve come a long way,” says McDonald, “and if we find the means, we should have a thriving future. The Jacobs School’s involvement as host gives us access to space for the four rounds of competition and for guest recitals and for the use of an orchestra in the finals: All that gives us an edge and enriches the experience for the participating harpists. I’m so grateful for that.”

McDonald and colleagues have rounded up a stellar group of judges; their vitas can take one’s breath away. Judy Loman of Canada, the jury president, for instance, long served as principal harpist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. She teaches at the Curtis Institute and the Glenn Gould School of the Toronto Royal Conservatory of Music. Her concert career has been vast, and she was honored recently with the Order of Canada for her service to the arts.

Others on the jury include Emmanuel Ceysson of France, gold medalist in 2004 at the USA International and now principal harpist at the Metropolitan Opera; Jason Chang of China, professor at the Shanghai Conservatory and formerly a principal with several orchestras, including the Phoenix Symphony; Sarah O’Brien of Switzerland, former principal with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and the Munich Philharmonic; Florence Sitruk of Germany, recipient of an Artist Diploma from IU, a very active concert artist and currently professor at Cracow University in Poland; Caryl Thomas of the United Kingdom, head of the harp department at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and an acclaimed soloist; and Irene Zingg of Russia, professor of harp at the Civica Scuola di Musica Claudio Abbado.

Those seven teachers and artists require vast knowledge of instrument and repertoire. They also require stamina and patience as the competition moves through the rounds. Like the players, they must understand the rules, in themselves not an easy task. Take one paragraph from the written explanation: “In the final stage, the competition winner is determined based on overall performance. Each juror awards a single numerical score between 21 and 25 (inclusive) to a contestant. Stage 4 jury scores are totaled and averaged, as in stages 1, 2, and 3. The average scores from the four stages are then summed for each contestant, resulting in an overall competition value. The first prize goes to the contestant who has the largest summed total. Second prize goes to the next highest summed score. In the event of a tie, the jury president will cast the deciding vote.”

Several paragraphs of such instruction need to be mastered. And then, there are hours upon hours of listening as the contestants supply hours upon hours of playing. The top eight contestants get prizes; in addition, there are special awards for the best performance of the composition written for this 10th competition; another for the best performance of the Alberto Ginastera Harp Concerto, and one, interestingly, to the highest ranked Italian contestant.

The bounty collected for the winner among winners is substantial: a Lyon & Healy Concert Grand Harp worth an estimated $55,000; a debut recital at Lyon & Healy Hall in Chicago; a CD recording; a recital in Hong Kong; a trophy; a five-city tour in China; a $5,000 prize given by avid supporters of the USA International, David and Linda Rollo in memory of Mindee Rollo; and an exchange recital that sends the USA winner to Israel and brings the winner of the Israeli contest here. Impressively substantial, wouldn’t you say?

The road to victory goes through four stages, each requiring the candidates to learn works for the harp. In stage one, they must play two movements of a Jon Ladislav Dussek sonata plus two more challenging pieces chosen from a list of four. Those who make the 50 percent cut to stage 2 must choose three works from a list of eight. The eight candidates chosen to continue must perform a recital of 40 minute duration that includes Jeremiah Siochi’s “Sublimation” music that won the Competition Contest. The three finalists then join the IU Festival Orchestra to each perform the Alberto Ginastera Harp Concerto, Opus 25. And, of course, since all 43 contestants probably consider themselves as potential winners, they must arrive in Bloomington prepared to handle all those requirements. A heavy assignment, indeed!

You are invited to partake of the rounds, from the initial to the climax, along with several evening recitals that spotlight former contest winners and a group of rising stars. Consider Bloomington, from June 8 through June 18, as harp capital of the world. And know everything that happens started with an idea that came to the head and heart of Susann McDonald who will be feted with a Celebration Gala, a musical tribute for what she so heroically has accomplished.

If you go

• Wednesday, June 8, at 5 p.m. in Auer Hall: Opening Ceremony.

• Thursday and Friday, June 9 and 10 – 9 a.m. to 1:20 p.m. and 3 to 6:30 p.m. – in Recital Hall: Stage 1 performances.

• Saturday, June 11 – 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 2 to 3 p.m. – in Recital Hall: completion of Stage 1

• Saturday, June 11, at 7 p.m. in Auer Hall: Laureate Recital featuring 2013 Silver Medal winner Marta Marinelli.

• Sunday, June 12, at 1 p.m. in Auer Hall: Composer’s Forum.

• Sunday, June 12, at 3 p.m., in Auer: 19th International Harp Contest in Israel Winner Recital by Yuying Chen.

• Monday and Tuesday, June 13 and 14 – 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 3 to 6:30 p.m. – in Recital Hall: Stage 2 performances.

• Wednesday, June 15 – 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2:30 to 6 p.m. – in Auer Hall: Stage 3 performances.

• Thursday, June 16, at 7 p.m. in Auer: Stars of Tomorrow Concert.

• Friday, June 17, at 3 p.m. in Alumni Hall of the Indiana Memorial Union: Celebration Gala, A Musical Tribute Honoring Susanne McDonald.

• Saturday, June 28, at 7 p.m. in the Musical Arts Center: Final Stage performances, followed, at 9 p.m., by the Award Ceremony.

And to switch instruments: this evening at 6 in Auer, the Summer Guitar Academy offers a closing recital. It, as all of the above, is free of charge.

Contact Peter Jacobi at pjacobi@heraldt.com.

© Herald Times

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