March 27, 2011 “Josh Layne Harp Recital” (Review)

“The Fascinating Pedal Harp”

Many people have never seen a pedal harp up close.  It’s the only orchestral instrument that makes use of both hands and both feet, but usually we just see its top at the back of the orchestra.  The audience at St. Michael’s church in Chemainus  on March 27th had the rare treat of seeing one played solo at close range, when the Victoria harpist Josh Layne gave a recital as part of the “St. Michael’s Presents” series.

It’s hard to know which was the more rewarding part of this fine recital: the beautiful music, or the fascination of watching this great artist’s technique.  The music was partly original to the harp, including a piece by Layne himself, and partly transcriptions of pieces by Bach and others.  The literature of the harp includes a great deal of music by French composers, some of them relatively unknown.  Hasselmans (1845-1912) and Grandjany (1891-1975) are not household names, except to harpists, but their music is well worth hearing.

The intimate atmosphere of the church permitted some of the audience to sit near enough to Layne to help him play, but he clearly needed no assistance.  His mastery of his instrument was helped by his remarkably long fingers, which flew over the strings, plucking and stroking and sounding harmonics, while his feet worked the pedals that changed the pitch of the 47 strings.  The most rewarding piece was a transcription by Grandjanay of  Debussy’s familiar “Clair de Lune.”  Layne brought out the real essence of the piece, and under his fingers, it really sounded as though it should have been composed for the harp rather than for the piano.

–Bill Morrison