As principal harpist with the world-class Philadelphia Orchestra, Elizabeth Hainen has given a number of solos over the years. But her solos at concerts next Thursday evening and Friday afternoon will urely be among her most unique experiences.
The Northern Liberties musician will perform the U.S. premiere of a work for harp and orchestra that was commissioned expressly for her.
And unlike a traditional concerto, this is a multimedia work that includes videos as well as music.
The piece, composed by Tan Dun, is titled “Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, Symphony for Micro Films, Harp and Orchestra.” The title refers to a disappearing language created in Hunan, China, in the 13th century.
While Hainen plays the harp, three video screens will project images of the Hunan women singing their ancient songs that were unknown to the rest of the world.
“The audience will be exposed to a hidden culture halfway around the world,” says Hainen.
These videos will be of interest visually as well as musically.
“The video screens will be artfully hung, and they are unusually beautiful,” says Hainen. “The borders look like ancestral hangings.
As for the music: “It’s really captivating,” says Hainen. “It enhances the footage of the village women who sing as I play. ”
The long evolution of this work makes the premiere even more exciting. It all began in 2001 when Dun was composer in residence at the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival.
Hainen, who had heard about composer Dun, first met and worked with him at this festival. “I was so impressed with his excitement and enthusiasm,” she recalls. “He’s a dynamic performer as well as composer.”
Since then, Dun has appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra a number of times, either as composer when a piece of his was performed or as guest conductor.
ldquo;My admiration for him grew,” says Hainen. “I felt he had a true understanding of the sounds of the harp.”
So she approached him about writing a piece for the harp. “I’d like to, but I’m very busy,” was his initial reply.
“But he seemed interested,” says Hainen. So she didn’t give up. “I persisted,” she admits.
And her persistence paid off. Several years later, when the Orchestra was performing in Shanghai on one of its China tours, she saw Dun, spoke to him and followed up with an email again proposing a piece for the harp.
This time, the answer was different. “He replied, ‘Great idea! Let’s do it!’” relates Hainen.
That was six years ago. It’s not surprising, she says, that it took him this long to compose the piece. “When Tan works on a new piece, he does an extraordinary amount of research. For two years, he spent time in Hunan Province, doing research and taking videos of the villagers. That gave him the inspiration to write the piece.”
She first saw the score one year ago. Shortly after, she went to Shanghai and first performed excerpts of this new work at the Shanghai International Arts Festival. “It was very moving, and the audience was deeply touched,” she reports.
Last Tuesday, she returned to Shanghai and performed again at the arts festival this past Sunday, Oct. 20. This time, she played the entire piece, with Dun conducting.
Now she’ll perform it again with the Philadelphia Orchestra next Thursday evening and Friday afternoon. This time, music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin will conduct, and it will be the first time the piece is heard in the United States.
It’s one of three works commissioned for a Micro Film Festival of new works. The project is a key initiative of Nezet-Seguin. The two other works were commissioned for principal flute player Jeffrey Khaner (also performed Oct. 31) and for principal bassoon player Daniel Matsukawa (performed Nov. 1 and 2).
All three commissioned works will be conducted by Nezet-Seguin. “It’s a great honor and a wonderful experience to play under his baton,” says Hainen.
Although soloists usually stand while they perform, Hainen will be seated on the stage when she plays the concert grand harp, which is six feet tall, weighs 87 pounds and has 47 strings and seven pedals.
Because she’ll be out front, the audience will get a good view of this striking instrument.
An award-winning musician, Hainen leads a busy musical life that includes more than her role as principal harpist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. She’s on the faculties of the Curtis Institute of Music and Temple University, where she gives individual harp instructions.
Hainen also has an active career as a soloist and recitalist who has performed all over the U.S. and abroad.
Music has been her focus ever since childhood. But she started out playing the piano and violin: her father, Fred Hainen, was a violinist with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra for 40 years.
At age 10, she found a new interest. “I fell in love with the sound of the harp after I heard it during a performance of ‘The Nutcracker,’” she recalls. “I was mesmerized.”
She pleaded with her parents for a harp, and they finally agreed and got her a student size harp.
It’s been her instrument ever since. She was appointed principal harp with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1994. The harp she plays for orchestra concerts is a handsome instrument in Art Deco design, with an angular shape and white gold leaf on the sounding board.
Next Thursday evening, that 87-pound harp will be placed out front on the stage when it’s time for the audience to hear the U.S. premiere of Tan Dun’s harp concerto, commissioned for Hainen.
ldquo;It’s a much more meaningful expression of art than a traditional concerto because of the inclusion of the videos - and the amazing language they reveal,” she says. “I’m thrilled to be performing it.” ••
The Philadelphia Orchestra presents a program featuring soloist Elizabeth Hainen in the U.S. premiere of Tan Dun’s “The Secret Songs of Women, Symphony for Micro Films, Harp and Orchestra ” on Thursday evening, Oct. 31 and Friday afternoon, November 1 in Verizon Hall, Broad & Spruce Streets. Tickets are available by calling 215-893-1999 or visiting www.philorch.org or at the box office.