Pair isn't just plucky

Jeremy D. Bonfiglio | Herald Palladium | 7 June 2012

Beyond Pluck

ST. JOSEPH - Paula Bressman met Rachel Miller in September 2010 at the audition to fill the harp vacancy in the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra.

"I looked up and saw this girl that was just a mess," Bressman says, laughing. "Her hair was wet and she looked a little crazed, but she still ended up winning the audition and I ended up coming in second."

When the SMSO needed a second harpist that October to perform Richard Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration" and again in March 2011 for Gustav Holst's "The Planets," they called Bressman to sit in the second chair.

"'The Planets' has two difficult and very exposed harp parts and we just had a blast together," Miller says. "It was during that concert cycle that we figured out how similar we are musically, which is really rare. We have the same rehearsal techniques, and our general attitude toward playing and musical ideas and interpretations all matched so we were really excited by that."

The idea that the two concert harpists should perform together outside of orchestra had just begun to percolate when SMSO music director Robin Fountain suggested they perform as a duo as part of the SMSO's Casual Classics Concert Series. Tonight, at The Heritage Museum & Cultural Center, they'll be doing just that in a program called "Beyond Pluck." The duo also will be performing together Sunday at the Fernwood Botanical Garden & Nature Preserve in Niles as part of the WAUS Second Sunday Concert Series.

"We were already talking about becoming a harp duo and he kind of precipitated us doing this a little faster," says Bressman, who studied under Fountain at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music, where he remains a member of the faculty.

The 27-year-old Bressman, a Nashville, Tenn., native, says she was 6 years old when she discovered the harp.

"I had started the piano at age 5 and my parents could tell that I hated it," Bressman says. "Then they took me to a party and I saw a blonde woman playing a harp and I thought it was the most impressive, beautiful thing I'd ever seen. So I started demanding they get me a harp. They got me a small lever harp and that was it. I've known that I wanted to make it my career since I was 12."

Miller, who grew up in New England but moved to Berrien Springs with her family while in high school, has a similar tale.

"It was a family trip to Boston and I was 3," the 22-year-old says. "I heard this sound and I turned the corner and there it was. The harp is very striking in its look. There was the look of it, and the sound of it and, yes, the lady in a big dress. I started bugging my parents right away but since I was a toddler it took them awhile to find out if I was serious. I had my first lesson on my eighth birthday."

In addition to sitting in on occasion with the SMSO, Bressman, who still lives in Nashville, is the acting principal harpist of the Murfreesboro Symphony Orchestra and Orchestra Kentucky Bowling Green. She also teaches elementary music at Franklin Classical School in Franklin, Tenn., and is a faculty member at Austin Peay State University and Belmont University. In addition to her time at Vanderbilt, Bressman earned a master's degree from the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music.

Miller, meanwhile, remains the principal harpist of the SMSO, recently graduating from Michigan State University with a bachelor's degree in harp performance. She's also an avid national competitor, winning the 2010 Anne Adams Award, and placing third in the American Harp Society's National Competition in 2011.

But tonight's program may not be exactly what audiences might expect from two orchestra harpists. While it does include classical favorites such as Claude Debussey's "Clair de Lune" and John Thomas' lush "Cambria" duet, it also features the sultry Latin flavor of Manuel de Falla and the eccentric sounds of Bernard Andrès. In fact, both harpists say, it's the Andrès' piece, "Parvis," that they are most looking forward to playing at tonight's concert.

"It really pushes the boundaries of what we do technically on the harp," Bressman says. "There are some parts where we'll be using our fingernails, tapping on the sound board, using metal tuning forks to create different sounds you aren't used to hearing. The rhythmic drive in that piece is just incredible."

"It's actually written by a harpist so he fully understands our instrument and how many different things it can actually do," Miller adds. "When you have a composer who is that involved in an instrument himself, he's able to write at a level that perhaps another composer who didn't play the harp would not be able to do."

Another unexpected piece on the program is Johann Sebastian Bach's The Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, which is traditionally known as an organ piece.

"It's something that is known to be overwhelmingly powerful on the organ," Bressman says. "I think it's just as powerful with two harps but the experience is totally different, which is fascinating."

Although tonight's performance is officially their first as a duo, Bressman and Miller have been working on perfecting the repertoire for the past year, which often meant Bressman had to drive from Nashville to East Lansing for week-long stays that included rehearsals and "lots of food," Miller adds.

"It was important for us not to just play the typical, flowery over-the-top romantic harp repertoire that everyone expects," Bressman says, "because our instruments can do so much more."

That's also the reason why these chose the name "Beyond Pluck," for tonight's opening concert.

"It tells a little bit about our instruments, expanding on what harps do," Bressman says.

"It also kind of hints at the courage it takes to try something unexpected," Miller adds. "That certainly takes a lot of pluck."

© 2012 Herald Palladium