Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Spotlight on Helen Winter - guest artiste on our new album!

Helen Winter - Soprano

In honour of the imminent release of our newest CD '4 Girls 4 Harps at Christmas' we thought it would be interesting to highlight one of the special features of the CD. We particularly enjoyed recording three tracks with the soprano Helen Winter - we felt that it would add an exciting element to the main harp-tastic soundworld of the CD and, having listened to the finished product, she really accentuates the Christmas sparkle!

We thought it would be fun to get to know Helen a bit better and find out how she found the experience of working with four harps, so we asked her a few questions....

How did you get involved with 4G4H's new album?

I had been working with Eleanor Turner and we wanted to record some tracks together. Ellie thought about the idea of working with all the girls on a project and we thought that a Christmas CD would be most popular and interesting to work on.  
Have you ever worked with harps before? 
Only one, with Eleanor.
Was there anything that suprised you about the music that you were recording?
The arrangements that the girls had written themselves were really beautiful. They wrote perfectly for my voice. It was also quite tricky in places.
What was the most challenging thing about recording with four harps?
The most challenging thing was the rhythms in some of the carols, and also being aware which harps were communicating with me whilst I was singing. It was vital that I always knew who was my supporting part. It is so different performing with four harps than performing with a piano. The girls are so gelled as one. They know exactly what they need from each other all the time and for me to suddenly come into a close knit group like this, was like a thorn in their side. I also had to try and become one of them and know that each part was just as important as my vocal melody - sometimes I was even used as part of the accompaniment!
What was the most fun thing about recording with the group?

The way we all worked so hard to get it right and the laugh we had doing it. I love the girls, they are fab to work with and we all get on so well which is perfect on these types of projects. I was honoured to be part of it.
Do you have a favourite track from the new CD?

I think out of my songs, In the Bleak midwinter is my favourite, although I love the others too. I am looking forward to hearing all the other tracks they did on the album as I haven't heard them yet. 
 What other projects do you have in the pipeline at the moment? 
Currently I am working on a Poulenc opera which is happening in London on November the 30th. It is a one act opera, 40 minutes long, all in French and only one character in it: me! It is quite scary, but I am really enjoying doing it.
What do you enjoy doing away from the world of music?

Away from music I have a love of animals. I am a trained Rodentologist and keep guinea pigs as this is what I specialise in. I work alongside the Cambridge Cavy Trust helping people with sick guinea pigs. I also have a beautiful cocker spaniel who I adore spending time with, she also sings along with me and my pupils.
What is your favourite thing about Christmas?
Spending time at home with my wonderful husband and my family. I love the sparkle and happiness that surrounds Christmas. 
Describe 4G4H in 5 words
Talented, beautiful, hardworking, great-friends (making that one word :)) and my fifth word: bonkers!

Official release date: 2 December

Monday, 9 September 2013

Group member Harriet speaks to the Journal ahead of our concert for Hexham Abbey Festival on 27 September

Girls with harps descend on Hexham

A novelty of this year's Hexham Abbey Festival is a harp quartet.  David Whetstone talks to founder member Harriet Adie
4 Girls 4 Harps will play at Hexham Abbey Festival
4 Girls 4 Harps will play at Hexham Abbey Festival
Musical groups often come in fours and quite often with strings attached. But what those strings are usually attached to are guitars or maybe the instruments of the string quartet – violin, viola, cello.

Harps seldom turn up en masse. In the orchestra it’s usually a lone exotic beast amid herds of violins and cellos, its contribution an understated ripple of refinement rather than an attention-grabbing roar.
A harp quartet, then, is a novelty. And judging by the success of 4 Girls 4 Harps since the group was formed in 2000 by young women studying at the Royal College of Music, there is a public appetite for its sound.

“We’re pretty unique, certainly in this country,” agrees Harriet Adie – whose gandma, since you’ll be wondering, once established that there is no family link to Wearside-born Kate, the BBC broadcaster.
“When we first started we were the only professional harp quartet in the country. “Another one started a couple of years ago but I think they’re more interested in a mixed repertoire whereas we’re straight classical.”

Harriet, who lives in London, came to the harp as a child through the medium of the ballet. “I loved ballet when I was young and there’s a lot of harp in ballet music, Swan Lake and other works by Tchaikovsky,” she recalls. “It was the sound I was most drawn to and wanted to make.” Harriet comes from a musical family. Mother Penny used to be a singer and now runs a music festival in the West Country where the harp – surprise, surprise – regularly features.

“But it took me two years to persuade my parents to let me play the harp,” recalls Harriet. “They were afraid I’d start to learn it and then give up six months later. In any case, we were living in the Middle East at the time and finding a teacher wasn’t straightforward.” All obstacles were overcome and Harriet ended up at one of London’s principal music colleges with other young women of like mind.“We were just friends who wanted to do the same thing,” she says, explaining how the group came to be.

In the early days the repertoire was fairly limited, with group members having to adapt duets for the four instruments. “But over the past few years we have commissioned other composers to write pieces for the group and two of us, myself and Eleanor (Turner), are both composers. “We take well-known pieces and adapt them for the harp quartet.” The line-up has undergone one or two changes over the years but now comprises Harriet, Eleanor, Keziah Thomas and recent recruit Elizabeth Scorah.

All have thriving careers as soloists and teachers but come together as 4 Girls 4 Harps, having adopted that catchy name three or four years ago “to make it clear what we were”. It could hardly be clearer, although Harriet says with a laugh: “We’ve discussed among ourselves if we can carry on calling ourselves girls if we’re still playing together in 10 years’ time.”

In common with many musicians, professional and personal lives can sometimes pull in different directions. Harriet has a 17-month-old boy and another baby on the way while Eleanor also has two children, a 17-month-old and a 10-year-old. Parenthood, says Harriet, “does make it more complicated but we’re used to having to fit things in. We have rehearsals at my house because it’s the easiest to get to.”

In Hexham you will hear the girls perform pieces by Shostakovich, Faure and Handel as well as Harriet’s new work for harp quartet, Elemental.

The concert is in Hexham Abbey on September 27 at 7pm. Hexham Abbey Festival runs from September 20-28.
Box office: 01434 652477.
Details: www.hexhamabbey.org.uk/festival

Friday, 23 August 2013

Interview with our star bidder: Geraldine McMahon

Those of you that regularly check in with what 4G4H has been doing may remember that a few months ago we hosted an online auction. The auction was to raise money towards the cost of our new Christmas CD, which will be released at the end of this year. The top prize was the chance to book a concert from the group in a venue of the bidder's choice, and we were delighted (and extremely grateful!) when harp impressario Geraldine McMahon was our winning bidder!

Geraldine is a harpist and also runs a successful business Affairs of the harp, catering to harpists from all walks of life, whether it be buying or selling a harp, providing harps for theatres and cruise ships, selling beautiful harp merchandise and even information on how to learn the harp and find a teacher! 

Brocket Hall
Geraldine and her harp

We thought you would like to know a little bit more about Geraldine and her business so we thought we'd ask her a few questions:

What drew you to the harp?
I went to a Grammar school in London and there happened to be a harp there – locked away in the staff dining room !  I was lucky enough to be able to start harp  lessons and I loved it. I was a relative late starter – I began lessons at 12 years of age – but I had played the piano from the age of 7. I used to stay behind after school to practise and go in at weekends – on Saturday mornings. It was a Convent School – so the nuns were always around to let me in and out !I was so lucky to have that opportunity – I was one of a family of 5 and my parents could not afford a harp.  I eventually got my own harp and  that was because my teacher – Gwendolen Mason – was moving from a big house in London to a small cottage in Cirencester. She had to downsize, obviously, and she sold my mother an Erard harp for a “giveaway” price. 

      What harpists do you admire and why?

This is a difficult question ! There are so many fabulous harpists that I admire.  Historically my favourite has to be Grandjany for the technique, repertoire and the legacy that he has left for  harpists. Modern day harpists Xavier de Maistre – his technique and his transcriptions of Orchestral works that are simply wonderful ! Catherine Michel, Suzanne McDonald, Nancy Allen, Marisa Robles, all fabulous harpists who all in their own way are marvellous performers and teachers. My own harp teacher, Daphne Boden, who actually turned my technique around ! It was, I have to admit, pretty appalling – legacy of some awful  teaching – until I went to her.  She was a very patient and a marvellous teacher. She has turned out some phenomenal  harpists- well, 4 girls 4 harps are a case in point !

      Affairs of the Harp is pretty unique! When and what made you decide to start it up?

I came up with the idea in 1998 – I realized that there were no shops around in which to buy second hand harps.  I had begun to import Lyon and Healy harps – I had lived in America for nearly five years ( and in Chicago for 2 years) and that was where my love of Lyon and Healy harps began ! There was also no source of harpists- I would often hear the comment from people that they had looked for a harpist for a function but couldn’t find one. So, I set up the website. It took me nearly two years to get it up and going- the first “webmaster” was good but seemed to lose interest half way through ! The second wanted to present the whole website in a very black and white business like way – but that is not “harps”! I knew what I wanted and eventually got there ! The title seemed very apt !  People laugh when I tell them that the website is called “Affairs of the Harp “ – but they remember it !

      What challenges have you faced in running a business over the years? Is the fact you have a selective market helpful or a hindrance?

One of the main challenges has been to keep the business going in a pretty tough economic climate.  It is a very small business and  luckily I do not have massive overheads to pay. Because it is my own business  it is very much a twenty four hour a day job ! I will sometimes get phone calls at 11.30 at night!  I had an agent once phone me at midnight on a Saturday night  in an emergency – a harp was needed to go onto the Queen Mary Cruise ship the next morning at 7.00 a.m. I got it there !  A large corporation could not do that – firstly there would be no-one in the office at 11.30p.m.  to answer the phone ! The fact that I have a selective market is helpful –  the harp world is utterly delightful  !  But mainly from the point of view that I do not want to expand massively and become a huge business . “Affairs of the Harp “ has an identity and individuality that I would not like to lose. I feel  that if the business became very big and money orientated, the charm would go !

      Where would you like to see Affairs of the Harp in 5 years time?

I would love to see “Affairs of the Harp” known and recognized across Europe ! I have had many buyers come in from Germany, Spain, Portugal, Holland and Italy and I would like to see that client base very much expanded. I speak French and some Italian and am doing a German degree – so I hope that that will be helpful in a few years time !

Do you stock any unusual items and have you ever had any strange requests from customers? 

This is a fun question ! Harp wise- I have one unusual harp – well, really, more unique ! It is a stunning Salvi Electra Harp – about 30 years old but in immaculate condition. It belonged to an old lady who had had it from new and she died and her family wants to sell it. It is simply stunning!  The Electra is not made any more  and this harp is simply beautiful – even just to sit and look at !   I also have one harp – unplayable- that  I keep for  theatre productions of “The Price”. It is a play written by Arthur Miller and the stage props include a harp.  It has been in theatre productions all over the country and was even used by the Royal Shakespeare Company.  My “Affairs of the Harp” was named in the  RSC programme ! I am very proud of that !  I think that harp deserves its equity card ! 

I am currently working on a range of excellent quality tote bags and tee shirts all with harp related themes – “Home is Where the Harp is”, “I left my Harp in San Francisco” and so on ! I found a wonderful artist who has come up with some fabulous artwork which I have commissioned !  The items are unusual, unique  and I have to say fabulous! (I am just a little bit biased !)  You can find them in my online shop on “Affairs of the Harp” . 
Strange requests? I get them all the time !  I have people who want to buy a harp that must have a colour or finish to match their dining room furniture. I had one man who hired a harp off me – he was a mature student beginning harp lessons- and I hired out a particularly beautiful old gold and maple lyon and Healy. He phoned me up two days later to take the harp away – his wife didn’t like it because it didn’t go with the d├ęcor of the room. She didn’t like the gold and wanted a plain harp.   I had one lady who wanted an ebony gloss harp because her daughter had “exotic colouring- olive skin and dark eyes”  – and the harp would set off her looks.  I am not making it up !! 

One of Geraldine's T Towel designs

      What is your favourite piece of harp music?

I have several ! I love the Gliere Harp concerto. The Smetana  “Ma Vlast”  transcription .  I also recently heard a concert of Schubert and Strauss Lieder sung by Diana Damrau with Xavier de Maistre on the harp.  There were arrangements of some superb lieder – which are normally accompanied, obviously, by piano, but Xavier de Maistre’s arrangements were stunning.  My favourite was the last of Strauss’ “Four last Songs”Beim Schlafengehen” . The orchestration  for the “Four last Songs “ is simply superb and what Xavier de Maistre did with his harp arrangement  was outstanding – so creative and full of the colour that Strauss put into the original score. 
So, that particular piece tops the bill of my favourites at the moment ! (Along with his “Notte Veneziana “ album  ! )

What made you decide to bid on the 4G4H auction? You bid for the main prize (a concert by the group) - do you have anything specific in mind for this?

I very much admire the group – all excellent and creative harpists – and I have the first cd! When I saw that a Christmas Album was being planned and that an auction was online to raise funds for the cd, I thought I would bid for something.   I bid for a “mention” on the Cd but then thought that I would go for the concert !  There is a series of concerts run every Summer  in Cambridge and I approached the organiser of those concerts. She was delighted with the prospect of having 4 Girls 4 Harps for a concert and from that a second concert in Cambridge has been organised. It is on Saturday November  23rd . There is a wonderful  music scene in and around Cambridge but not enough harp music  and very few harp teachers !  It would be marvellous if more concerts for the quartet came from this – but mainly, lots and lots of cd sales for the group !!

What is your favourite way to relax?

My favourite way to relax?  Walking my dog ! I have a crazy but adorable dog  and I walk her for miles in my local park or the countryside around St Albans. I also love reading and the theatre but my main passion is Opera ! I head off to Covent Garden when I can and Glyndebourne in the Summer. I just saw the most wonderful production of “Billy Budd “ there- simply superb. I don’t go off on expensive holidays – my holiday is the Opera !

How do you feel about the UK harp scene at the moment - is it vibrant or do you think we need to do a lot more to promote the instrument to a wider audience?

The UK harp scene is very lively at the moment ! There are some great harp festivals taking place around the country and there are some fantastic young harpists on the scene. There is always more that can be done to promote anything in the arts – I despair of the fact that the government is cutting back money for the arts all the time – especially music funding.  In spite of that, music and harp music and performance is flourishing!  The harp has become a more popular and accessible instrument – thank goodness ! When I started out in school there were very few harp teachers  and not many harps – those that were available to students were generally old Erards that had seen better days !  Look at the harp world now ! So very different!

For more information about Geraldine, you can visit her websites http://www.geraldinemcmahon.com/ and http://www.affairsoftheharp.com/

Monday, 10 June 2013

Question time!

We frequently get asked all sorts of questions about the harp by curious audience members at concerts. It got us thinking that it would be fun to do a blog post answering some of them, and any other questions our fans might have about the group. Here are a selection of our favourite questions over the years:

1) How do you transport your harps?

We all have estate cars and travel individually to all our concerts. Contrary to popular belief, the car does not need to be a Volvo but we do need to take care that the car is big enough to fit the length of the harp and still have enough leg room for driving! For short distances we have trolleys to wheel the harps around.

2) What wood are your harps made of?

The most common wood to make a harp with is maple as it is strong enough to take the immense pressure that the strings put on the instrument. The soundboard is often made of spruce wood as it helps to create the mellow tone of the harp.

3) Do you get blisters?

We don't normally get blisters as we have built up hard skin on our finger tips over years of practise. We might get one if we went on holiday and then came back and did a lot of practise in one go as our fingers would have softened in the time away. Sometimes we get a blister if we are playing the harp in a way that we would not normally do.

4) Are all your harps the same?

Three of us play on Italian Salvi harps. Two of the harps are identical models (apart from their colour, one in dark wood and one in light). The fourth harp in the group is made by American company, Lyon and Healy. We love the difference in tone between the harps and try to utilise this when arranging music for the group.

5) What is it like playing in a group with four harps?

We love the chance to play together. As a harpist, one often plays alone, either in the orchestra or with function work, so it is lovely to have the opportunity to meet up with other musicians who know exactly what the challenges and fun bits of playing the harp are. We also enjoy the chance to have a good giggle and a gossip in rehearsals!

6) Is anyone the lead harpist in the group?

Not really - all the parts are equal and it is normally whoever has the tune at that point in the music that will lead the group. If we had to point to anyone it would probably be Eleanor because she is so easy to follow when she is leading.

7) How did the group come about?

Harriet and Eleanor were both at the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music where they studied harp ensemble with Daphne Boden. They enjoyed this so much that they started up a group which was originally managed by Harriet's mother and called the Barkham Harp Quartet. Keziah joined the group in 2000 and the group was taken on by Upbeat Classical Management in 2003. It was around this point that the group changed its name to 4 Girls 4 Harps. Elizabeth joined the group much later on after the departure of our previous member Angharad Wyn Jones and has been playing with us since January this year.

8) What has been your most memorable performance to date?

This is a hard one! We loved our performance for the World Harp Congress in Dublin. Playing for an audience of hyper-critical harpists was very nerve wracking and it was amazing that they were so enthusiastic in their applause! We also really enjoyed performing for the opening celebrations of London concert hall Kings Place as it was great to be taking part in something so exciting.

9) Do you ever wish you had taken up the flute?


10) How often do you rehearse?

We get together for a few days of intensive rehearsal at the start of each concert season. During this time we learn all the new repertoire and polish everything musically. After this, we tend to rehearse on the day of the concert and occasionally the day before if the concert is a slightly different format from our main concert programme.