Lipman Duo Concert

September 24, 2011
4:00 p.m

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The Silicon Valley and Bay Area Chapters of the AHS
jointly presented the wonderful Australian harp duo of
Sebastien and Sayo Lipman


Concert Review

Pictures and review by Bob Glaser

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When a harpist attends a harp concert, there are common expectations. You look at technique; you pay attention to difficult passages. You may even, if only subconsciously, look for errors. Sometimes, however, you attend a performance where the timing, musicality, technique, and ensemble playing are so refined that you notice something different: the actual music. The beauty, emotion, and transforming quality of music that envelops the listener in an experience. The concert by the Lipman Harp Duo was just such a performance.

The Concert was a joint presentation of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley Chapters of the American Harp Society. It was given at the Immanuel Lutheran Church in San Jose. After brief introductions by Linda Wood Rollo, Rev. Lynn Bailey, and Dominique Piana the couple came out and introduced each work succinctly. The performance began with the Largo from Partita No. 3 and the Bourée from Partita No. 1 by J.S. Bach. It was an elegant and sonorous performance where the rubato and dynamics were effective without being harsh. The subtle interplay of polyphonic lines were nuanced. If you closed your eyes, it seemed as if only one person were playing.
Following that was Grandjany’s famous Aria in Classic Style for harp and organ in an arrangement for two harps that was played as if it had always been written for two harps. This was followed by the beautiful and rarely heard (in recent years) “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen” by Grieg from his Lyric Pieces for piano - a bucolic and programmatic piece that was Grieg’s forte. Following that was Fauré’s Berceuse. This is not the more commonly heard Op. 16, often played on a solo flute or violin with harp accompaniment, but rather a transcription of the Berceuse from the “Dolly Suite” for piano four-hands. At this point, I begin to notice that the works were so
effortlessly presented that the virtuosity, required by these and several of the subsequent works, became invisible.
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The first half ended with the wonderful Sonatine by Damase. This is one of the two works in the program that were composed originally for two harps. Damase’s fondness for using brief motifs for melodic material and constructing larger segments from them is somewhere between Bach and Phillip Glass. Though the repetition is used often throughout his works, it takes a real aesthetic approach to keep them from sounding like technical marvels or etudes meant for study and not performance. This is where the aesthetic subtlety of the artists comes to the foreground and shows that simply playing the work correctly isn’t sufficient. This is the kind of performance that I imagine a student and teacher sitting together listening and watching and the teacher saying with gentle authority “That’s what I meant when I said that playing it correctly isn’t enough.”


The second half opened with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Probably one of the most famous organ works written and most frequently performed as such. This was really something to behold. To hear two people play as one. The performance was one done in the romantic style that was popular in the first half of the twentieth century. Powerful dynamic sweeps and rubato phrasing was used judiciously throughout. The most amazing balancing act was in that there was never a moment where it became, or even approached, schmaltz. The other wonder of this performance was as melodic lines shifted from Sebastian to Sayo and back and then there would be moments of unison or octave doubling between them, it sounded like one player. Perfectly timed music never losing a millisecond of registration through any change of tempo no matter how slow or quickly they came.

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John Thomas’ Adagio from the Grand Duet followed. As the only other work that was written for two harps, it is a sentimental and melancholy work, typical of the lush style of the Romantic era. This music is very traditional in its use of harpistic writing, but not excessive. It came across with the fluidity of emotion that only harps can provide.

The next two works from the French school, though only 4 years apart when completed, were stylistically from two eras. Debussy’s Rêverie, composed in 1890, is a beautiful example of French impressionism. Its atmospheric and programmatic harmonies when performed with such musicality as the Lipman Duo possesses, allows one’s mind to fill with such lovely imagery. Saint-Saëns “The Swan” from the “Carnival of the Animals” was composed only 4 years prior to the Rêverie and yet it is a product of a classical style so dear to Saint-Saëns. Quiet and serene, it allowed the listener to continue in the same emotional mood. This is a piece that I know well and their playing, again, was so seamless that it allowed me to simply bask in the musical ripples in the water as a swan solemnly floats by.
Second to last in the program was Bernard Andrès, Le Jardin des paons (The garden of Peacocks.) Though the work is modern, it was never inaccessible or unmelodic. The performance seemed to evoke a story and time that made you wish you knew more of the story. Lastly, the work “On Airs from Carmen”, most of the familiar themes from Bizet’s opera are presented in a straight-forward and grand virtuoso manner fitting for the closing of such an incredible concert. Never treated as a mere crowd pleaser, the Lipman Duo maintained a wonderful aesthetic without dampening the excitement of the work.

As a delightful encore for an already enthralled audience, was Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song”; served and accepted like an extra helping of dessert after the finest of meals. It is interesting to hear a duo that is so in sync with each other that you almost wished you could stand between them and hear the lines of melody shift from one performer to the next. While at other times their performance made your mind believe the sound was coming from one harp, only to be betrayed by the sight of two people playing. Any duet where the pair are playing the same instruments are often the least forgiving; for the slightest inconsistency of timing, rhythm or dynamics can appear as a glaring error. Nothing of the kind was evident here. Here was harp playing at its finest.
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Most of the works on this program require a masterful harp technique. You never found yourself saying, “Wow, I can’t believe they did that so flawlessly!” Instead, you find yourself mesmerized by truly beautiful music that should be the true intent of the performance artist. I have no qualm with a showy performance but too often if it isn’t merely distracting, it is intentionally done to shift focus away from mediocre performances that may be heartfelt but technically flawed or technically perfect and soulless. There was no egocentric or flamboyant quality to the presentation of these works. They were works that were best described as beautiful. A rare an astounding achievement in today’s world where, rarely, if ever, does the performance supersede the performer.