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Elbows up

Smith is a Salzedo harpist. This has no essential connection to the fact that she is playing a Salzedo harp — that she likes for its sonic richness, useful for a soloist looking to cut through a symphony’s hum. Rather, it means that she is a student of the Salzedo school, with a pedigree that traces right back to the man himself. She found her second teacher, Patrice Lockhart, when she attended a master class in Omaha given by Alice Chalifoux, principal harpist with the Cleveland Orchestra for over 40 years and student of Carlos Salzedo. (Chalifoux must have been something of a favorite. Smith notes that Salzedo “only taught women, and he married two of his students.” But he left management of the Salzedo Summer Harp Colony in Camden, Maine, to Chalifoux.) Chalifoux — old, cranky, terrifying — “tore me to pieces,” recalls Smith. But Lockhart was in the audience and saw something worth teaching in the tiny 12-year-old. “That summer, Patrice took me to Maine” — to Chalifoux’s Camden Colony. “I was really frustrated with the harp at that point, but she retrained my hands. I learned a new technique — the way my hands were shaped, the strength in my fingers, the way I could get a good tone out of the instrument.” Later, she attended the Cleveland Institute of Music so that she could study with Yolanda Kondonassis, another Salzedo student and Chalifoux’s successor at the Institute. “It just felt very connected,” says Smith.

And why should you care about Carlos Salzedo? Let’s hear from Kimberly Houser, harpist in residence at Louisiana State University, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on “Five Virtuoso Harpists as Composers: Contributions to the Technique and Literature of the Harp.” Says Houser, “I would say that 95 percent of harpists alive today can trace themselves back to a teacher in Paris named Alphonse Hasselmans. It was one of those moments where instrument and player came together. In the earlier part of the Romantic period, the double-action harp had been developed, but it was Hasselmans who adopted it as the instrument of choice for classical music. After that, the harp was finally taken seriously.”

After that, you could get a piece like Debussy’s La Mer (which, as it happens, is also on the program tonight). “He taught the next great generation. The list reads as icons: Lily Laskine, Marcel Tournier, Henriette Renié, Pierre Jamet, Marcel Grandjany, Carlos Salzedo…As performers, teachers, and composers, they created a world for this instrument, one that wouldn’t exist without them.” The harp, an instrument supposedly ancient enough to predate history, only made it into the classical club a couple of centuries ago, and someone like Smith is only four generations removed from the blessed event.

Houser herself studied with one teacher who had studied under Jamet and another who had studied under Renié. That puts her outside the two principal American camps: Salzedo, and the more characteristically French method espoused by Marcel Grandjany at Juilliard. “I looked at both sides as objectively as I could,” says Houser, who is quick to emphasize that they share “the same basic concepts” and are “not that different — it just depends on the player.”

She stresses the similarity because it’s the differences — put crudely, French warmth vs. Salzedan precision — that are famous and, until recently, hotly contested. (The years since the masters’ deaths have served to temper their disciples somewhat.) There is also the obvious difference in how things look. “The French school tends to be more contained, emphasizing minimal movement for maximum effect. The right arm is allowed to rest on the soundboard. But Salzedo developed a problem with his right hand, and detaching his hand from the soundboard was his way of dealing with the pain.” He taught his students to imitate him as a preventative measure. “He said, ‘I’m going to teach them not to have pain.’”

Enter unintended consequences. “Salzedo worked in a trio, and one day, he changed the position of the harp onstage. The audience got upset, because they had been buying tickets in order to see his hands.” Salzedo the performer had a revelation: a new way to highlight the harp’s visual appeal. He began working with a choreographer. “The system tends to focus on the theatrics of the gesture,” says Houser.

(Smith agrees. “Typically,” she explains, “you can recognize a Salzedo player because the elbows are up, the wrists are in, and the fingers are curved and really strong. When you have a curved finger, you have control over each part of it. You can control the sound of the string; you can play stronger. I just feel it’s more convincing playing.” More dramatic, too. “There is a lot of raising up of the hands away from the strings, creating visual matches for the sounds you hear. A lot of it has to do with relaxation, but it’s also to make the music visually appealing.”)

Along the way, his students transformed into disciples. “I’ve got to give it to him as an educator,” says Houser. “To incite the devotion he did was amazing. There was this worshipful approach, almost a religious belief in maintaining the tradition he set forth. And he was a very critical person, very critical of his students. So his students have gone out and been critical. There are great players on both sides,” she insists, but for a number of years, they weren’t on speaking terms.

“I’ve heard of relationships being cut off,” grants Smith. “You’re bonded with your teacher, and you kind of follow in the footsteps. Fortunately, over time, there has been more understanding. I feel like Yolanda, my teacher, has really been an advocate of opening the doors and trying to make it a good place for everybody. You find a technique that works for you.” And for Smith, Salzedo is that technique. Let’s make our way back to Copley Symphony Hall and see what that looks like.

A bird diving for prey

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