One of the advantages of living in a university community where the university has an excellent music school is an ensemble like the University of Arizona's HarpFusion Ensemble. The group gave a concert last night with 15 harpists, with members ranging from full professors to music school freshmen. The theme of the concert was The Cosmos, and the group's response was to play inspirational pieces from many different cultures, such as Japan, Egypt, Native American, Ireland, South America, China, a couple arrangements of western Classical music (Villa-Lobos, Chopin, and Holst), even a Christian pop song. During the opening procession, the performers entered the fog-filled stage playing handbells while one of the group members sang a Gregorian Chant. There were also several guests, including six Japanese dancers, an Arapaho medicine chief who played Native American flute, a theramin (I had never seen one live before), a four-piece traditional Chinese ensemble, and a ten-piece flute choir. The guest performers provided a lot of spice to the beautiful sounds of the harp ensemble.
An evening devoted to The Cosmos needed more than sound, so the troupe provided a dazzling visual display as well. There were two large video screens on each side of the stage whose display included pictures of the different locales, close-ups of the performers from a live video feed, and additional staged material. During the Egyptian segment, for example, the screens projected what was in essence a music video to accompany the segment, where the live ensemble mirrored the action on the video, but the video was set in an Egyptian temple. During one of the pieces, the ensemble wore white gloves and black dresses (the ensemble was entirely female), and the stage was bathed in black light, which gave the impression that the harps were played by disembodied hands. In addition, the harps were wrapped in a shiny, gauzy material that not only reflected the stage lights back in different colors, but had twinkle lights wrapped inside the material that showed through during the finale (an arrangement of Holst's Jupiter movement from The Planets).
Putting all of the music into perspective, Dr. Richard Poss of the UA Astronomy Department gave a very cool presentation about Astrobiology, showing slides with pictures from the various southern Arizona observatories and presenting the latest information on other planets (204 planets are known today, with more being discovered each week), stars, and galaxies. An extremely tantalizing presentation, with my only complaint being that the slides contained a fair amount of written information that went by too quickly to digest, especially since his talk was so interesting. I would not intuitively have expected that an astronomy lecture would be work in a musical context, but an astrophysicist from the Hubble Telescope team recently introduced a concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Apparently, music and space really aren't that far apart.
HarpFusion has a huge amount of talent among their membership. One of the members didn't play at all during the concert, but has spent most of the last year designing the show. Different ensemble members did all of the arrangements and some of the compositions (the piece for theremin and harp ensemble and the pop song were both original compositions). When Dr. McLaughlin introduced the group members, we discovered that not only were they accomplished harpists, but some of them are getting multiple doctorates at the university (harp performance and pharmacology, for example)! The concert was a unique experience that existed in a genre of its own, a real pleasure to experience.