Lynne Aspnes and John Wickey Chat about Music for Two Harps
On a warm, sunny day at the end of April I visited Lynne Aspnes at her Phoenix home. From there via Skype we spoke with John Wickey, who was at the Harp Center in Atlanta. Aspnes and Wickey are the members of the True North Harp Duo. Aspnes’s home is a beautiful oasis in the city with artwork inside and flowers in the garden. It was a lovely place to spend a spring afternoon. Talking with these charming, erudite people made it even more appealing.
Q: Did you grow up in a musical home?
LA: I did. My grandmother was a concert pianist and my mother was a professional harpist. My father was an incredible classical-music aficionado. During his college years, in the late 1930s, he staffed a classical-music program at the University of Minnesota radio station.
JW: I came from a family where music was an important pastime. My sisters played piano. My mother played guitar and piano. Her brothers played the mandolin, so they often sang and played together. I started out playing the piano and I sang professionally as a boy soprano. I did not start to study harp until I was 15 years old and attending Cass Technical High School in Detroit. Cass has had a harp department, a vocal department, and instructional classes in those areas of music since the 1920s. I am a proud product of the Detroit public school system.
LA: John has just returned from Detroit, where he played with three other graduates of that high school program who are also professional harpists. They actually represented four generations of harpists from Cass Tech. I did not start with piano. I started studying the harp with my mother and I studied voice. My grandmother, the pianist, lived next door, but I never wanted to go over there and have a lesson. Both John and I grew up in families where music was part of the fabric of ordinary life.
JW: I sang in the chorus for
so that turned out to be my first opera. At the age of 12, I was one of the older boys. After that I did
Surprisingly, I never sang in
. Later I went to two colleges: Boston University and the University of Michigan.
LA: I did my undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota and some years after that I went to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for my master’s degree. Later, I pursued my doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. After completing each degree I returned to Minneapolis to play professionally. It was fun to go back to school each time.
Q: How did you bridge the gap between school and the profession?
LA: When I received my bachelor’s degree I did not feel ready to start free-lancing as a harpist, so I got a job in Minneapolis, at the Schmitt Music Company selling choral music. I did that for about 18 months. The second summer I was there, however, the St. Paul Opera Company hired me to play full-time for its summer season. After that I did not go back to Schmitt Music, although selling choral music was fun and I enjoyed it.
JW: After I went to Boston, I was always working. I was involved in the early days of technology. When personal computers first started to emerge, I got interested in them. I worked all the way through school but I played some engagements, too. Then Lynne and I started our first duo. Only after I had finished my master’s degree did I decide that working and playing were really too much. I thought that I had to give up one so that I could excel at the other, so I moved to San Francisco and worked in technology there for about 10 years. Then Lynne and I again found each other and we restarted our duo. Now I am working in the Atlanta Harp Center. I sell harps and teach here in the store. It also allows me sufficient time to be part of True North Duo.
LA: While John was involved in technology I was teaching at the University of Michigan. I began working in the administration of the school of music early on, and for the entire time I was there I was both a teacher and an administrator. Actually, for most of that time my main job was administrative. Teaching and playing were relegated to the time I could spend on them. Now that I am at Arizona State University, I divide my time between teaching, practicing, and performing. As a result, I am practicing much more now than I could earlier in my career.
JW: She is always worried about getting enough practice time. She is slightly competitive. [They both laughed about that.] Working here in the harp store, there is a great deal of down time and I really like that. I can get quality practice time in during the middle of the day. Fifty percent of my day is spent playing, arranging, or working on some creative project.
LA: Last year John came here to Phoenix for about nine months so he arranged, composed, and published some of the music that is on the True North compact disc. My favorites are the Debussy and Rameau pieces. His arrangements are really fun to play because nothing is left out. Well, that is after I got cranky about the tempi in the Rameau. No, really, John’s compositional skills are truly remarkable.
Q: Have you won any competitions?
JW: I was a semifinalist in the Bloomington International Harp Competition and I won the American Harp Society competition in 1993.
Q: Are most harps modern or are there any historical instruments in use?
LA: We play modern pedal harps, but there is a movement in Europe to restore 18th- and 19th-century instruments. That is still a very specialized niche. The harps are very different and are not played in precisely the same way that we play our modern instruments. The majority of classical pedal harpists in the U.S. play full-sized 47-string double-action pedal harps.
JW: At a recent meeting with our technicians, someone asked why we did not create a modern single-action pedal harp. I think it is because harpists don’t want that much of a limitation on their creativity. You could only use it for playing Baroque music. The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix has two double-action 19th-century harps. They may have a single-action instrument as well. They also have a hooked harp from the 17th century.
Q: What different styles of music do you like to play?
JW: Basically we are both classically trained and we like to play classical music, but I have a funny dream. If the kinds of harps that we have now were available when I was a boy, I might have been the first punk rock harpist. I love the Baroque and I love Impressionist music like that of Debussy. I love 20th-century music, too. In particular I love the music of composers who really understood the harp. I’m also happy that in the 21st century we don’t have to be atonal to be taken seriously.
LA: I’ve played a lot of 19th-century music. It was in that century that the harp came into its own in terms of being able to play in any key. When we got seven pedals we could play chromatically and achieve various new kinds of special effects. I love the music of Elias Parish-Alvars because he was one of the first to explore the many possibilities for the instrument. Berlioz referred to Parish-Alvars as the “Paganini of the Harp.” At other times all I want to play is Bach. John is much more eclectic than I am. He can tell which piece will sound well when transcribed for harp. I tend to just choose what I like to hear and play it on the harp. John can tell what will not only make the piece sound beautiful but will also make the harp sound beautiful. For example, not all of the Bach partitas are good for the harp. You have to pick the ones that will fit the instrument.
Q: What do you like best about teaching?
JW: Buying stickers for my pupils! There isn’t as much fun in giving the sticker. It’s the shopping for them that I like. [Aspnes is laughing her head off at this point.] Actually, I like the problem-solving aspect of teaching. I try very hard to help the student accomplish something, and I enjoy solving the problems that allow them to play better. It could be their hands or their position or even how they are thinking about the piece. It might be how they are practicing a certain passage or the fact that they are not practicing it. I like to figure out the puzzle.
LA: I think the thing that really pleases me the most is seeing the student take off and start playing well. I don’t care whether any of them become professional musicians or not; that isn’t my goal. When they take off and understand what they can do with what they have learned, when they know what they are capable of, and when they realize where they can go with their music, that’s really fun for me. I get a lot out of working with students. Stickers are good too, though.
Q: What are some of the most interesting places that you have played?
JW: The performance I remember most dramatically was playing at the Hollywood Bowl. I was very proud of myself for achieving that and then I looked out at the huge audience and all I could hear was wine bottles clinking with each other. I had arrived. I was playing the big room and they were out there drinking wine. At least I think it was wine. It could have been beer.
LA: We’ve played on Mackinac Island, which meant we had to take our harps across a ferry. That was a bit of fun. Some of the most interesting places we have worked were schools. We worked with fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders in a school in San Bernardino, California. This year we worked with students at the Arizona School for the Arts. The most exotic thing I’ve done was teach in Tasmania, which I did in March. That’s farther away from home than I ever thought I would venture. I’ve also done a master class for students from the Paris Conservatory.
Q: Have you played with symphony orchestras?
LA: Yes, we both have done it but neither of us has had a full-time orchestra job. I’ve played second harp with the Detroit Symphony when I was in Michigan, and through the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, I had the opportunity to play with Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. We did the Strauss
Four Last Songs
with Jessye Norman. I also played with the Budapest National Orchestra and that was fun. We’ve both done summer music festivals.
JW: I’ve played at Tanglewood and at the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina. By now I feel old because I’ve also played with Cab Calloway, Neil Sedaka, and Mel Tormé. I do have a taste for music that is not strictly classical, but the time for that has passed. I don’t want to be the middle-aged pop harpist. I would, however, like to expand our horizons a bit and do more of what is classified as world music. I think we can get inspired by a region or area and work on the music that comes from there.
Q: Have you commissioned any works?
LA: We have only been performing as a duo for about two years, so we have talked about more commissions but have not completed them yet. Some pieces that were written for me could be updated for the duo. That is a big project in the next phase of our duo.
Q: Tell us something about the music that you play on your latest compact disc.
JW: Carlos Salzedo, who was an important French-American harpist, transcribed two of the Mendelssohn pieces for harp. Salzedo and his second wife, Lucile Lawrence, who was my teacher, recorded it. Thus, I grew up playing his transcriptions. Lynne found the third Mendelssohn work in a transcription by French harpist Gerard Auffray. We know very little about him, but he made an excellent transcription and we enjoy playing it.
LA: John transcribed the Debussy and the Rameau. The Ravel
Suite transcription is the signature piece that brought us together as a duo. Many years ago a harpist and organist named John Escosa toured with Columbia Artists Community Concerts. I knew him very well and when he passed away I wanted to do something to honor him. Since I was playing the opening concert of the American Harp Society’s convention that year, I asked John Wickey to do Escosa’s transcription of the
Suite with me. From that was born our original duo. At that time we called ourselves Two-Part Invention. The Franck Prelude, Fugue, and Variation was arranged by one of Salzedo’s pupils, Dewey Owens. Although he was an organist by profession, Owens went to Salzedo as an adult and said he would like to learn to play the harp. Salzedo looked at him and said, “We’d better get started right away. There’s no time to lose.” Dewey Owens did a phenomenal amount of composing and transcribing, all of which is incredibly good.
JW: Owens made a great many transcriptions and was a big proponent of the lever harp movement that was in vogue in the mid ’80s. Owens liked that kind of less expensive harp because he thought it would reach a larger public.
LA: Domenick Argento was my college opera-history teacher. I played most of his operas in their original forms with the Minnesota Opera Company. He wrote
The Angel Israfil
for my mother’s 75th birthday. The single-harp arrangement was completely bitonal and to some degree unplayable, but when he arranged it for two harps it enabled the listener to hear all those harmonics. It’s a great piece that my sister, who is also a harpist, and I played first at the birthday party for my mother.
Q: Are you ever concerned about repetitive stress injuries?
JW: I am no longer concerned with that. I know my body really well and I’ve had good instruction all along. I know how to fix something when I am doing it wrong. One of the hidden blessings of not playing in a symphony orchestra is that you do not have to keep going when you know you have a serious problem. In teaching, we make students aware of what their bodies are doing and when they need to take a break. If you do a job long enough in the music factory, there will be fallout. Knock on wood, we’ve both been really healthy so far.
Q: What other composers have written important music for harp?
LA: Carlos Salzedo and Marcel Grandjany have written beautiful works for the harp. So did Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy. Writing in the 19th century were Elias Parish-Alvars and Ludwig Spohr. Among contemporary composers, Murray Schafer writes unbelievable music for the harp. Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich also writes beautifully for harp. Of course, my all-time favorite is Benjamin Britten.
True North Harp Duo
SOUNDSET 1034 (54:09)
Songs Without Words:
Huntsman’s Song; On Wings of Song; Spinning Song.
Tambourins 1 and 2; Rigaudons 1 and 2.
Prelude, Fugue, and Variations.
Minstrels; Les Sons et les parfums tournent dan l’air du soir; Les Collines d’Anacapri.
The Angel Israfil.