[Scene Magazine] A Sacred, Profane and Firebird-ish Encounter
Santa Barbara Symphony principal harpist Michelle Temple is featured as a soloist this weekend on Debussy’s ‘Sacred and Profane Dances’
By Josef Woodard, New-Press Correspondent
In the scheme of the current, 60th annual concert season of the Santa Barbara Symphony, this weekend’s program arrives with special fanfare. Music meets dance, and different arts organizations collude, when the Symphony meets State Street Ballet for a newly-choreographed production of one of Stravinsky’s great ballets, “The Firebird.” This will be an encore collaboration, after a music-dance partnership on the theme of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” three years ago.
But in another way, for the opening piece of the concert, the weekend’s program turns a special spotlight inward to the orchestra’s own musical ranks. Soloist-wise, the Symphony’s principle harpist Michelle Temple will take center stage to play the classic Debussy harp piece “Sacred and Profane Dances,” also heard last fall via Camerata Pacifica, with harp soloist Bridget Kibbey. Ms. Temple has long been principle harpist with the Santa Barbara Symphony as well as the Pacific Symphony, and has worked with many other classical music groups around Southern California, along with doing studio work.
We checked in with Ms. Temple recently to discuss her spotlight moment, and other relevant matters.
News-Press: The upcoming Santa Barbara Symphony concert is a special program, with the “The Firebird” music and dance collaboration as the centerpiece. Is there a sense within the orchestra’s ranks that this concert is a special moment on the season schedule?
Michelle Temple: Well, I hesitate to speak for all the musicians. Many of the players have approached me, since the season was announced, to tell me how eager they are to play and hear the Debussy “Dances.” It is always very special when a member of the orchestra is featured in concert. These are some of the warmest, most supportive people you could hope to work with.
I will also say that as excited as we may be to play “The Firebird,” there is a bit of sadness in my heart each time we move to the pit, because most of us can’t see any of the dancing.
NP: You will be the soloist on Debussy “Sacred and Profane Dances,” a piece which was commissioned by a harp company, correct? Is this a piece you have been connected to?
MT: The piece was commissioned by the Pleyel company, in order to feature a new invention of theirs: the chromatic harp. This harp is different from the harp I play, because it had two rows of intersecting strings: one row tuned like the white keys on a piano and one tuned like the black keys (the sharps and flats). It allowed for all 12 notes of the chromatic scale to be available at once.
The pedal harp, which nearly every concert harpist plays today, has a single row of strings, and a seven-pedal system that allows each string to produce three pitches: natural, sharp and flat.
The chromatic harp had less resonance and couldn’t produce the signature chordal glissandi of the pedal harp, and fell out of use fairly quickly.
The Debussy “Dances” was subsequently adapted in very small ways to suit the pedal harp, and has become one of the great standards of the harp repertory. It is actually the very first harp concerto I learned, and is one of my favorites.
NP: Harp is such a fascinating instrument. How did you come to settle on the harp as an instrument, and when did a serious dedication to music enter your life?
MT: I was one of those kids who goes around humming and whistling, constantly. It was like a music fountain, pouring out. I began singing in groups at school and at the Santa Barbara Mission when I was seven. While I kept up choir and chamber singing through high school, I also knew I didn’t have a golden voice.
My older sister began harp study through an after-school program in the Goleta School District. She took lessons with Maryjane Barton for a year and a half, before deciding the harp was not for her. My parents had purchased the instrument, and I was eager to try it out, so I jumped at the chance to begin playing the harp when I was in 3rd grade.
The thing that really hooked me, right from the beginning, was the ensemble music-making. In the after-school program, we started out in a group of six little second- and third-grade harpists. Playing well with others was the challenge and the joy. When I first played with an orchestra as a 10-year-old, something just clicked. By 15, I had decided that I wanted to be a harpist with a great orchestra some day, and I’m grateful to have achieved that dream.
NP: You have performed with the Pacific Symphony and the Santa Barbara Symphony for roughly 20 years, and many other musical settings in Southern California. Have you found that this region is especially rich when it comes to the quality of classical culture, and the level of musicianship?
MT: I have found the level of musicianship in Southern California to be extremely high. There are some really wonderful orchestras, filled with talented players. Actually, the number of excellent players and orchestras of all sizes in the region is something that probably only compares to the New York City megalopolis.
NP: Were you always interested in orchestral music, or is chamber music also something you’re involved in?
MT: My first and best love is the incredible power of being surrounded by, and a part of, a large orchestra. There really is nothing else like that feeling. From my seat in the back of the orchestra, I can see everyone’s intense effort, and feel buffeted by the fortes from the brass and percussion.
I do really enjoy chamber music, as well. The intimacy of that kind of musical communication is very special. My harp/flute duo Arioso, with my dear friend and fellow Pacific Symphony musician Cynthia Ellis, is an important part of my life. We’ve explored some really interesting repertoire, and I feel like I’ve grown tremendously as a musician through our collaboration.
NP: Your resume as a studio musician includes working on Frank Sinatra’s “Duets” album. Was that a special session? And are there other sessions that stand out as memorable for you?
MT: The “Duets” session was pretty strange. The recordings were done in a very fragmentary way. As I understand it, each duet was recorded by the principals separately. So, Kenny G or Anita Baker were never in the studio with Frank Sinatra. I recorded the instrumental intros with a small orchestra, which were then tacked on to the main body of the song. While the intro to “All the Way” has Kenny G playing, he had already recorded his track by the time my group recorded the orchestral part, so I never saw him or Frank.
It was all very interesting to a neophite, like me. That was one of the first recordings I worked on.
NP: Would you say you feel a desire to spread the gospel of musical appreciation to younger listeners and potential future classical music audiences?
MT: I love sharing the harp and music of all kinds with young people. Exposure to classical music, in particular, should be a vital component in education for all ages, really. I’m glad that Santa Barbara Symphony has continued to offer the “Concerts for Young People,” each year. I only wish we could do more free concerts geared towards families.
NP: Are there particular projects you’re looking forward to, coming up on your schedule?
MT: My duo Arioso is in the pre-production stage on our first recording. We’re hoping to record a CD this year, that will highlight our favorite short works for flute and harp. We also have a few recitals to look forward to, next season, in Fullerton and Hemet.
I also can’t wait for the SBSO May concert set, because I’m a major Mahler fan. I wish we could do Mahler and/or Shostakovich every season.