Harpist finds ‘Rocky’ road to Q-C Symphony

By Jonathan Turner


While learning to play harp in her native Hong Kong, Lillian Lau had no idea how formative a place Rock Island would be in her future career.

“One of my mentors, Susann McDonald, was born in Rock Island. She’s one of the most famous harp teachers in the world,” Ms. Lau, principal harp for the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, said this week. She went to college at Indiana University to study with Ms. McDonald, who studied in Paris and founded the World Harp Congress. “She’s such a huge deal in the harp world,” Ms. Lau said.

Harpist Lillian Lau

Harpist Lillian Lau

Now 33 and living in Chicago, Ms. Lau auditioned for the QCSO in 2006 at Augustana College in Rock Island, and will solo this weekend with the orchestra in Maurice Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for Harp (including the Sunday concert at Augie’s Centennial Hall).

“It’s very romantic, rhapsodic, it’s almost dreamlike,” she said of the 1905 work, originally a chamber piece accompanied by flute, clarinet and a string quartet. But the piece often is performed using a full string section, and the QCSO did not premiere it until 2003 with harpist Sally Goodwin Vogel.

“That’s why Ravel is such an impressionistic composer. It’s got lots of dialogue going on between the instruments,” Ms. Lau, who has played harp since she was 9, said. “I do like the fact it’s a smaller ensemble, it’s easier for the harp to be heard.”

Ravel’s harp piece came about to illustrate what the heavenly instrument can do, she noted. In 1904, a competition ensued between Paris’ two harp companies.The Pleyel Company had a new, improved model and commissioned Claude Debussy to write a work to demonstrate its new capabilities. Not to be outdone, the Erard Company answered the challenge a year later with its own new-model harp, commissioning Ravel to write a piece as well.

Debussy produced his “Danses sacree et profane,” and from Ravel, his Introduction and Allegro, and both works are staples of the harp’s concerto repertoire, according to the QCSO program notes.

“The French do like the harp,” Ms. Lau said, noting the biggest challenge is mastering the instrument’s seven pedals (one for each pitch on the scale). “Each string is like the white keys on a piano. For the accidentals, pedals change the length of the string. It’s a complicated mechanism.”

Ms. Lau’s orchestral engagements include performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ravinia Festival, Grant Park Music Festival and Elgin Symphony Orchestra in major concert halls throughout Europe and at the World Harp Congress. Just last month, she was featured at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago (the biggest cathedral in the city) at the installation mass for Chicago’s new archbishop.

Ms. Lau also is a founding member of the Lyrebird Ensemble with flutist Ellen Huntington (also a QCSO member). They are dedicated to performing, promoting and publishing repertoire composed for flute and harp and book performances throughout the U.S.

Ms. Lau maintains a teaching studio in the Chicago area and the University of Chicago, and she is assistant editor of the best-selling orchestral guide “Principal Harp Book 2” by Sarah Bullen of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

She has served as a vice president of the American Harp Society, president of the Greater Chicago AHS chapter and National Summer Institute co-chair. Ms Lau holds bachelor and master of music degrees from Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, and a Professional Diploma in orchestral studies from the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University.

Under the direction of conductor Mark Russell Smith, this weekend’s concerts showcase the talents of other QCSO soloists Marc Zyla (horn), Naha Greenholtz (violin), Hannah Holman (cello), Andrew Parker (oboe) and Benjamin Coelho (bassoon).

The program includes works from Saint-Saens, Haydn and Mozart. In keeping with the theme of this 100th season, there is a world premiere piece from one of Iowa’s most acclaimed composers, David Gompper.

“No celebration of our 100th season would be complete without featuring our wonderful musicians,” said executive director Ben Loeb. “Our principal soloists will display their talents in a diverse program that will not only include a world premiere work from David Gompper, but also one of the most beloved works in the orchestral literature – Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor. Attendees will relish the opportunity to applaud these stellar musicians from within the QCSO family.”

“I do have to say my favorite thing as harpist is to play with orchestra,” said Ms. Lau, who was featured in a Signature Series concert a few years ago at the Figge Art Museum. “I play in all kinds of settings, and I prefer orchestra over playing as a soloist.”

Mr. Gompper — at the University of Iowa since 1991, where he’s professor of composition and director of the Center for New Music — has lived and worked as a pianist, conductor and composer in New York, San Diego, London, Nigeria, Michigan and Texas. He studied at the Royal College of Music in London, and after teaching in Nigeria, he received his doctorate at the University of Michigan, and taught at the University of Texas, Arlington.

In 2002-2003, Mr. Gompper was in Russia as a Fulbright Scholar, teaching, performing and conducting at the Moscow Conservatory. In 2009, he received an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City.

Mr. Gompper’s compositions — heard throughout the U.S. and Europe — include “Transitus” (for wind ensemble), premiered in 1999 at Carnegie Hall, and a number of his works have premiered in London’s Wigmore Hall.


© qconline.com 2014


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