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Encores and Curtain Calls

The strings of spring

One concert features harps, the other guitars; you need both

Blessed be the sound of plucked strings. What is it about them that so harpoons the human heart?

If one probes into the earliest historical remnants of ancient Grecian urns, you will find that the first instruments represented there are the aulos, the progenitor of the modern flute, and the lyre, the forbearer of the modern harp and guitar.

Two distinct types of sounds emerge from these two very dissimilar processes: the flute taking its flight from a stream of air funneled through its bore and re-channel hither and yon through various fingering patterns and the harp’s sounds send aloft by a flurry of fingerplucks and shimmering in the air long afterward, due to a complex web of sympathetic vibrations set up by its dozens of adjoining strings.

While these two converge to make beautiful music together, each also sings radiantly when combined with its own family of players. But it is the world of the plucked string that seizes our attention just now, for two very unique offerings are soon to grace the Pioneer Valley.

First, the Happy Valley Guitar Orchestra will perform Friday, April 26, at 7:30 p.m., at the Center for the Arts’ new performance space, First Churches of Northampton, 129 Main St., Northampton. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for students and children. They are available in advance at www.hvgo.org and at the door from 6 p.m. on the evening of the performance. www.nohoarts.org.

The guitar orchestra will also play at Hooker-Dunham Theater and Gallery, Brattleboro, Vt., on Saturday, April 27, at 8 p.m. Bill Klock will join the ensemble on several arrangements. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for students and children. They are available in advance at www.hvgo.org and at the theater door the night of the performance. www.hookerdunham.org.

Second, the Pioneer Valley Harpers’ Guild will perform Sunday. April 28, at 3:30 p.m., in the sanctuary of Christ Church Cathedral, 35 Chestnut St., Springfield.

This concert will feature the eight-member harp band and a harp trio, plus solos and duets in a wide variety of traditional Celtic, classical and original compositions. Audience members will get an opportunity to get a close-up view of Celtic, carbon fiber, cross strung and wire harps immediately following the concert.

Donations will benefit the cathedral, which provides meeting space for the guild. All are welcome.

The HVGO concert highlights the work of composer Frank Wallace and features the premiere of his “Nuevas Cantigas,” as arranged by Blanchette. Also on the program: “vibrant arrangements that run from medieval to contemporary to ethnic styles”

Wallace had this to say about his music: “I hung out with Peter last summer in Spain for about a month; we were both part of a program, playing there in a lot of these ancient medieval churches and one of these pieces I featured in all my concerts there was a piece called ‘Nuevas Cantigas,’ which means “New Canticles” or “New Little Songs.” And Peter heard me play them several times — seven short pieces that I’d written maybe 10 years ago. These were coming out of a period prior to which I had been a lutenist for 20 years, and these were based stylistically on medieval tunes that I knew, so they’re very modal (built on ancient scales). They’re very simple, they’re very easy to listen to. And, of course, they sounded really great in these resonant stone churches we were playing in. And Peter fell in love with them and said what would I think if he arranged them for his wild orchestra — which I still have not heard live — and I was thrilled.”

I’ve written before that my own first love has been the dark, brooding beauty of the classical guitar and that I consider the invention and perfection of the contemporary piano — its miraculous ability to embody virtually all of music in one instrument — one of the eight wonders of the world. I will confess here and now, however, that there is a not insubstantial part of me that could easily be tempted to give it all away if I could live forever in the arms of a concert harp.

Actually, during the period of time when I was composing music for a professional harpist, I did undertake study of the harp — pedals and all — and had one of those majestic instruments sitting in the front bedroom in my home, like a gift from heaven. I could indulge my fondest fantasy and simply sit and stroke it silky strings, basking in the ethereal ambiance that emanated from them without having learned to yet play even a simple measure proper music. What I’m trying to say here is that there really is a special sacredness about this most primal and transcendent of instruments.

The instrument of greatest choice in the facilitation of the passage from life to death in hospice settings is the harp. Neither tradition nor random personal preference are sufficient to explain the enduring preference for the harp in such settings; a few mere seconds spent listening to a harp will yield a profoundly altered brain scan with more balance between the cerebral hemispheres, more endorphins and blessedly greater peace of spirit. What more need be said?

Now, without getting in over my head, I’d like to share an insight about harp and the guitar that may one day win me the Pulitzer Prize for having cracked the code in understanding their respective magic:

First let’s go back to ancient Greek mythology, a world in which Apollo and Dionysus were both sons of Zeus; Apollo being the god of the sun and of reason and Dionysus the god of ecstasy and intoxication. Those of us who know our Jungian psychology will perceive that these are not two distinct beings at all but rather two sides of the human psyche.

This then is my thesis: the guitar and the harp are nothing more than two joined sides of our musical being, strung versions of the Apollonian and the Dionysius within us!

The harp is all wistfulness and water, gossamer and glory and the guitar is all fury and fire, pulsation and passion. Together they create the complete human, one capable of profound feeling as well as luminous awareness. The guitar arouses and the harp soothes. The guitar ignites and the harp extinguishes. The guitar consumes itself in the fire of the present moment and the harp dissolves into eternity.

So, then, there’s only one solution — to experience our total, dynamic human potential, we clearly need to attend both concerts, there are no two ways about it!

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at

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