A new home and some new faces for Edinburgh Harpfest

Returning to live, in-person performances after two years online, next month’s Edinburgh International Harp Festival offers a huge range of styles and genres, writes Jim Gilchrist
Transatlantic Hot ClubTransatlantic Hot Club
Transatlantic Hot Club

Swing jazz, early Irish music, groundbreaking contemporary compositions and even kinetic sculpture all feature in the eclectic programme of the Edinburgh International Harp Festival which, following two years online, returns in hybrid format next month with live performances as well as online streaming.

Its 41st year also sees this year’s three-day, four-night event installed in a new home at George Watson’s College, after 21 years at Merchiston Castle School. The Watson’s campus will host not only concerts but other established festival features such as courses, workshops, a harpmakers’ exhibition and a welcome post-covid return to informal late-night playing sessions.

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Aiming to showcase the diversity of the harping world, the event’s headline concert programme kicks off on 8 April with the harp-saxophone duo of Savourna Stevenson and Steve Kettley, previewing their forthcoming album The Wine of Life (is ours). Stevenson, who’ll be playing both clarsach and pedal harp, has long been at the cutting edge of the Scottish harp revival, while Kettley’s track record includes the genre-defying Cauld Blast Orchestra, Salsa Celtica, his Captain Beefheart tribute band Orange Claw Hammer and theatre work with former Makar Liz Lochhead. The concert will also feature the acclaimed Breton harpist Tristan Le Govic who, among other material, will play compositions by the late Kristen Noguès, a significant figure in Breton music, marking the 70th anniversary of her birth.

Corrina HewatCorrina Hewat
Corrina Hewat

The following night sees another well-known contemporary harpist, Corrina Hewat, revisit her piece The Song of the Oak and the Ivy, commissioned by the festival in 2011 to mark its 30th anniversary as well as the 80th of the Clarsach Society which runs the event. Inspired by a 19th-century tale by Eugene Field, the composition’s four movements encapsulate the diverse styles and energies that have vitalised the harp revival, and will be performed by Hewat along with Mary Macmaster, Wendy Stewart, Bill Taylor, Heather Downie and Le Govic – six harpists deploying ten harps. In support is Cormac De Barra, performing tunes and songs from Irish Gaeldom.

From a very different culture on Sunday, 10 April come the gypsy jazz sounds of New York-based jazz violinist Adrien Chevalier with his Transatlantic Hot Club, featuring harpist Ben Creighton-Griffiths and bassist Ashley Long. There’s further internationalism, too, from Italian classical harpist Gabriella Dall’Olio.

The festival’s final night sees New York-based harpist Maeve Gilchrist return to her native Edinburgh to perform her intriguingly titled Sharmanka Suite: Death and the Polar Bear, commissioned by the festival last year to mark its 40th anniversary but postponed by lockdown. Inspired by the unique creations of sculptor-mechanic Eduard Bersudsky which whirr and clank their mechanical ballet in Glasgow’s Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, Gilchrist’s composition assembles the talents of fiddler Aidan O’Rourke, pianist Fergus McCreadie, viola player Ruth Nelson and cellist Sue-a Lee, as well as pre-recorded sound and film from Sharmanka itself. Also on the bill, sibling harpists Calum and Màiri Macleod explore the close links between the clarsach and their first language of Scots Gaelic.

Afternoon concerts take in music from the Border country and elsewhere by Wendy Stewart and Fraya Thomsen, while, also from Ireland, harpist and scholar Siobhán Armstrong joins Donegal traditional singer Doimnic Mac Giolla Bhríde to explore the songs of the ancient Irish harpers.

Savourna Stevenson and Steve KettleySavourna Stevenson and Steve Kettley
Savourna Stevenson and Steve Kettley

Visiting from Connecticut, USA, Rhiannon Ramsey-Brimberg will perform her composition which won last year’s Iain Macleòid Young Composer Award, while further emerging artists Romy Wymer from the Netherlands, Stephanie Humphries from Scotland and Chinese player Phoenix Zhang are showcased in a New Generation event.

Welcoming the return to live performance, Isobel Mieras MBE, president of the Clarsach Society and the festival’s artistic co-adviser along with Patsy Seddon, stated that the challenge met by the organisers was to “introduce new, inspiring performers, bring back established popular favourites, encourage young talent, include as many tastes and genres as possible – then organise everything into a coherent, stimulating programme for a happy festival.”

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The Edinburgh International Harp Festival runs from 8-11 April, see www.harpfestival.co.uk

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