While the ranks of international violin, piano and cello soloists are always well stocked, few other instrumentalists can sustain similar careers because the concert opportunities for them are so limited. That is especially true of harpists. Just a few have managed to achieve fame in the 20th and 21st centuries, including Carlos Salzedo, Nicanor Zabaleta and one of the instrument’s best-known practitioners today, Yolanda Kondonassis.
The latest harpist to buck such professional challenges and gain attention is Xavier de Maistre, a French soloist who has gained considerable acclaim in Europe and Asia but has not performed much in the United States so far. Providing a significant boost to his profile in this country will be his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut Sept. 24-29, when he will perform Ginastera’s Harp Concerto, Op. 25, under Riccardo Muti. The two last performed this work together in 2010 with the Orchestre National de France, and Muti was obviously impressed enough to invite the harpist to Chicago.
Of the work, which received its world premiere from conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Philhadelphia Orchestra in 1965, with Zabaleta as soloist, de Maistre says, “It’s definitely one of the best harp concertos that we have. It’s very original. It is far away from the clichés you have about the harp. You don’t have the angel-like sound. The harp is treated very much like a percussive instrument. It’s based on folk music and folk rhythms [of Ginastera’s native Argentina], so you need a very good sense of rhythm and you need be very precise and [you need] to have quite a lot of charisma to bring it to the audience. After listening to that piece, people usually have a very different opinion of the harp and the possibilities of the instrument. So that’s why I really love to perform it.”
De Maistre, 41, has attempted to expand the boundaries of the solo harp by performing his own transcriptions of solo works and famous concertos originally written for other instruments, such as Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19 in F Major, K. 459, which was featured on his 2013 recording, simply titled “Mozart.” “Does it work?” writes Jeremy Nicholas in a Gramophone magazine review. “Triumphantly so … de Maistre produces such a wide range of color and dynamics, executing tapered phrase-endings and ornaments with astonishing ease, and all with such elegance, that the ear is very quickly persuaded into thinking that this is an original harp concerto.”
In addition, de Maistre has commissioned new concertos from Krzysztof Penderecki and Kaija Saariaho. He met Penderecki in Warsaw while playing in a Beethoven festival there, and the esteemed Polish composer agreed to compose something for him. The resulting work is scheduled to receive its debut this fall with the Orchestre de Paris and London Philharmonic. Saariaho, a Finnish composer who lives in France, learned of de Maistre from some of the Finnish conductors with whom the harpist has collaborated, and she came to one his concerts in Paris three years ago. Impressed by what she heard, she, too, began writing a piece for him. Its premiere is set for August 2016 in Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Japan.
“It’s very exciting to be a kind of pioneer on my instrument,” de Maistre said. “Before, everyone would say that it’s not possible to be a soloist as a harpist, and now people tell me, ‘You’re so lucky, because you have no competition.’”
While studying music theory in his hometown of Toulon when he was 9, de Maistre became interested in the harp because it was the instrument of his teacher. He later completed his training in Paris with Catherine Michel and Jacqueline Borot, winning his first international competition there at age 16. After taking part in several other such contests, he won first place in 1998 at the prestigious USA International Harp Competition in Bloomington, Ind. That same year, he joined the Vienna Philharmonic as its principal harpist, a position he held through 2009, when he decided to strike out on his own.
“I just couldn’t imagine myself doing the same thing for 40 years,” he said. “Also, I wanted to become the actor in my life. I’m not a very patient person, and as a harpist in the orchestra, you spend 95 percent of your time just waiting for the next star to play. I always noticed when I was playing solo concerts that the reaction was good, so I decided to go my own way and try to expand the harp repertoire.”
The gamble paid off. He regularly appears with many of the world’s top orchestras, and in 2008, he signed an exclusive recording contract with Sony Music. He released his sixth album on that label in April, a collection of solo romantic works titled “Moldau.” Most of the selections are the harpist’s transcriptions of orchestral works, including Smetana’s The Moldau and Dvořák’s American Suite in A major.
“I knew I would play,” de Maistre said. “I knew I would have fun. But I never thought I would play so many concerts with big orchestras. This season and next season, I play 90 percent of my concerts with big symphony orchestras all over the place, and I also keep playing in the big halls I was performing in before with the Vienna Philharmonic. So it’s beyond my expectations.”
FOOTNOTE: In October, de Maistre will perform for the first time in the Jean Nouvel-designed Philharmonie, a 2,400-seat concert hall that opened in January as part of the Cité de la Musique complex in Paris. Among its tenants are the Orchestre de Paris, with whom he will appear, and the celebrated early-instrument ensemble, Les Arts Florissants. In the meantime, de Maistre has attended two concerts in the facility and is impressed. “The acoustic is really good,” he said. “It’s very warm. You have a lot of sound, but it is very precise. You can hear very well from everywhere, and you have a lot of contact with the stage.”
But the harpist does not care for its exterior, a rock-like mass of faceted forms covered in a gray, bird-patterned mosaic. “I don’t think it is a very friendly structure, but the concert hall itself is a very big success,” he said. Although the hall is far from the western neighborhoods of Paris, where many of the city’s traditional classical fans live, he believes it is attracting a new, younger audience with less conservative tastes.
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic for the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.
VIDEO: Xavier de Maistre performs Ginastera’s Harp Concerto, from YouTube: