Have harp will travel

Gianetta Baril lugs her instrument all over

The concert harp is probably the least understood of western instruments.

“Very few people know very much about it so I am used to answering every imaginable question” Gianetta Baril says in advance of her upcoming concert. “It’s big and it weighs over 90 pounds. ‘Have harp — will travel’ has been my motto for years. I have a minivan and the harp has his own mattress in the back. He rests comfortably while I drive. I actually don’t have time to go work out anywhere but moving the harp keeps me fit and as long as I am careful about lifting properly rarely have trouble with my back.”

A brief harp lesson once made me appreciate how complex the instrument is. It has seven pedals each of which alters selected pitches of its plectrum. “Because of the seven pedals the feet are also generally quite busy so playing the concert harp is really a full-body workout. It’s like patting your head and rubbing your tummy times at least a thousand. The trick is to keep as relaxed as possible and take the time to let the brain get the info to the correct part of the body so the muscles can develop memory.”

Baril is a Juno winner. Her recorded performance of the Oskar Morawetz Concerto for Harp and Orchestra (with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra) won the 1990 Outstanding Classical Composition Juno but unlike most award-winners she doesn’t have a trophy. “I was living in Germany at the time and back then they didn’t make such a big deal about it. My parents sent me a letter mentioning it back in the days before email and cheap long-distance phone calls. Apparently I could apply to get one of the Juno sculptures now but I don’t have a fireplace mantel to put it on anyway.”

Germany was a cultural mecca for the harpist but it’s a different story here. “Making a living as a freelance musician is definitely challenging. What is really important is to build oneself a niche that not only reflects your true passion but is also a space that preferably only very few people can fill well. I have played lots of weddings in the past but now mostly play chamber and solo concerts quite a bit of contemporary music. I am doing more touring now that my kids are grown and am also moving into more administrative roles. I don’t want to be dragging my harp anywhere when I’m 70. I’d rather be famous enough like my teacher and mentor Judy Loman who always has other people move it for her.”

“When I moved to Cowtown lots of people thought I was crazy but I saw Calgary as a city with immense potential for growth in the arts and felt I could make a difference both as a performer and teacher as well as bring my experience from Europe into the mix. We ‘serious’ harpists have a real challenge to educate the public as our instrument is seen as ‘pretty’ but many have never heard what a really great harpist can do.”

This concert is a program of eclectic and virtuosic works: one for harp and English horn that is like an over-the-top Bellini opera another serious but humourous duo for double-bass and harp and one for solo harp by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in which the harpist also plays about 15 different percussion instruments at the same time.

The concert finishes with Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Flute Viola and Harp one of his most gorgeous pieces. All of the performers are Baril’s colleagues from the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and the concert is part of its Virtuosity Festival. “This seemed like a great opportunity to display some of the exceptionally virtuosic musicians who have chosen to live and work right here in Calgary” she says.