Don't expect an angel

Music: Deborah Henson-Conant's different style will change your mind about harp-playing. And harp players.

April 09, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Deborah Henson-Conant plays the harp, but she's no angel.

When she walked out on stage at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall yesterday afternoon for the first of several pops concerts with the Baltimore Symphony, conductor Marvin Hamlisch took a deep breath, wiped his brow, loosened his tie and asked about her dress -- which began at considerably less-than-shoulder altitude and ended in the middle of her black-stockinged thighs.

"I call it my Evil Tinkerbelle dress," she said, with a knowing look at the audience.

Henson-Conant's got flair, no doubt about it. Most classically trained composer-instrumentalists, with advanced degrees from UC Berkeley in music theory and composition and several NEA, Meet-the-Composer and assorted other grants, usually don't dress this way on stage -- nor do they also wear leather bustiers, flamenco dresses and mad-scientist garb, as Henson-Conant is wont to do.

But then, almost nobody else plays the harp the way she does.

"What I wear is the first way I break people's preconceptions about the harp and about harp players," Henson-Conant said in an interview. "Besides, it's fun to walk on to the stage and get physical with the harp."

The harp is a percussion instrument; it's just that Henson-Conant has taken its percussiveness to a new level. It's not unusual to see her slap, pluck and strum the strings, stand up, tilting it back to max out on body English and, on occasion, even stand on the instrument, damping the strings with her leg and hip.

She may be the most remarkable-looking harpist since Harpo Marx. But much as she admired Harpo, she and the great clown part company on how the harp should be used.

"He was a genius and a wonderful musician, but he perpetuated the myth of the pretty harp," she said. "This nutty, witty guy would sit down and become an angel."

Now in her mid-40s, Henson-Conant has succeeded in destroying that image of the harp. She's uprooted the instrument from its traditional place at the back of the orchestra and used it to play her own jazz-and-blues and Latin-influenced compositions and for her one-woman shows, which approach what is commonly thought of as performance art.

"I think you probably have to have come to the harp by accident if you really want to re-imagine it in a drastic way," she said.

Although she had several brushes with the harp in her childhood and adolescence, Henson-Conant was primarily a pianist and composer who didn't take up the harp until her undergraduate days at the College of Marin in Northern California. Located deep among the state's redwood forests, Marin was then a hotbed of the counterculture. Henson-Conant says it was almost inevitable that she ended up singing and playing in a rock band -- ironically on what she had always despised as "a sissy instrument."

She became more serious about the instrument during her graduate study at Berkeley but, after winning prizes in several international competitions, found herself playing in restaurants.

It turned out to be a lucky break. She knew less than an hour of music for unaccompanied harp and had to stretch it out to cover four hours a night, four nights a week.

"The patrons might not have cared, but the wait staff would have killed me by the second night. I loved jazz improvisation on the piano, so I took everything I knew and transferred it to the harp. It was great! I was getting paid good money to sit, have fun and learn how to improvise."

Almost 20 years later, she is world-famous, but she's still essentially doing the same thing.

"It's all about giving a show," Henson-Conant said. "It's having fun -- for yourself, for the orchestra and for the audience. It's a celebration."

Soloist

What: Deborah Henson-Conant performs with the Baltimore Symphony

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: Tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.

Tickets: $24-$57

Call: 410-783-8000

Pub Date: 4/09/99

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