Harpist, Elizabeth Morgan-Ellis is on a mission to prove that her instrument of choice is not just for weddings, dinner parties, and the Lawrence Welk Show. So how does one take the harp out of the shadows and onto stage center? Very carefully! OK, so you’d get the joke if you had witnessed Morgan-Ellis gingerly “walk” her harp around the stage last night to fit the wide variety of staging configurations throughout the evening. The fact that the concert was part of Philadelphia’s every growing Fringe Arts festival was a clear indication that we were about to take part in a unique and creative experience.
Over a year in the making, Morgan-Ellis prepared a program full of new music and Philadelphia roots. How refreshing to see only born dates listed for the composers of classical music. Three of the composers, Andrea Clearfield, Jan Krzywicki, and Anne Neikirk, call Philadelphia their home, and the locoMotives by Neikirk was a world premiere commissioned for this performance. Each work was matched with a unique visual element. Visuals can be tricky business in the world of classical music but Morgan-Ellis proved that they can not only be effective, but also help to set a tone for each work that helps to clearly differentiate it from the others. Our brains are so visually inclined that even now, when I think about each work the first thing that comes to mind is not the music, but its unique visual element.
The first half of the program featured dance in two works and a starry projection for Krzwicki’s “Starscape”. Audience members were even encouraged to lie on a few mats on that were placed on the floor to allow for even more introspection during the performance. The second half started with the largest musical ensemble: violin, viola, cello, flute, and harp to perform Clearfield’s “Rhapsodie”. During a video interview that proceeded the performance, Clearfield described how she literally “sees” colors in musical notes (synesthesia), and that this piece was associated with Monet’s waterlily series. We all experienced this vision as it began with a projection of one of the paintings. Animation based on the musical waveform began to bring the painting to life and then it progressed into more abstract displays. The combination of these visual effects and the music was fascinating and beautiful.
The final work of the evening was a combination of harp and recordings. Composer, Anne Neikirk, operated various recordings and altered sounds of the regional rail trains to blend and sometimes oppose the music from the harp. Simple but very effective projections were cast upon the front wall from a large table in the back. Andrew Huston, visual artist, moved a bright light behind the models which produced a shadow on the wall that appeared as if we were watching the landscape from within a moving train. Huston frantically replaced models and kept the projections moving to create the illusion that the train was rolling past bridges, churches, and other scenery. I have to admit that I was drawn to the the activity involved in producing these effects as if the “Wizard had been revealed behind the curtain”. I may have missed some of the more nuanced aspects of the performance, but this is also the beauty of live concerts. There’s no camera forcing you to look at the subject on stage and if you find something more fascinating, then your actual experience may not be the exact intention of the artist. Each person walks away with a different view and unique perspective of the event and the result is an individual experience that cannot be replicated by recorded media.
Elizabeth Morgan-Ellis accomplished her mission of proving that harp music is contemporary, vibrant, and perfectly suited in a modern chamber setting but I’m sure that she will not be resting on her laurels. To see what she comes up with next, follow her progress by “liking” her Facebook page or listen to samples of her on Soundcloud.