Classical Album of the Week: Harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson's Showcase of Works by Women Composers
August 2, 2021. Elisabeth Remy Johnson sensed an imbalance: While there were plenty of female harpists playing in prominent symphonies, there seemed to be disproportionately few works composed by women within the “standard” repertory for solo harp. So Remy Johnson, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s principal harpist since 1995, set out to rectify that imbalance. In 2020, she launched The Even-ing Standard, a project dedicated to transcribing the work of female composers—both historical and contemporary—for solo harp performance. If you’re curious as to how that project is going so far, take a listen to her latest release, Quest, which celebrates women composers of the 19th and 20th centuries as well as a mixture of known quantities, and up-and-comers from today.
Your listening room’s uninitiated will appreciate recognizable names like Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, and the well-trained ears will appreciate Remy Johnson’s fresh, caring approach to works from past epochs.
Her take on Mendelssohn’s hauntingly gorgeous “Mélodie” is demurely transgressive and cinematic in affect and effect. With its combination of brevity and atmosphere, it’d make a turn-key opening credits sequence for a big-budget Netflix drama set in the Victorian age, suggestive as it is of palace intrigue and perfidy at court. Perhaps a young upstart of non-noble birth grows too ambitious and meets an untimely end at the hands of a very well-mannered someone in a very frilly shirt. Meanwhile, the ever-reticent harpist sits in the adjoining salon, disclosing nothing explicitly but revealing an omniscience through her music.
Like any bingeworthy period piece, this one’s addictive to the point that you may find yourself stealing time away from your obligations to play and replay this sub-two-minute track in a quiet, low-lit corner of your home or place of business. You will be wanted, even needed, somewhere else, perhaps urgently, and it won’t matter—because, eyes glazed over and mind in another place and time entirely, you’ll be in thrall to this piece of music; it compels you.
Remy Johnson similarly approaches Schumann’s “Romanze” as a storyteller, though this story’s different. The beginning strikes me as a very purposeful, mature expression of love lost, and you think perhaps this is the preface of an ode to lovelorn resignation. But that’s not quite what follows; the tone shifts and, suddenly, there’s a highly chromatic, soaring surge of Gershwinian-sounding optimism.
Both “Mélodie” and “Romanze” were originally composed—in 1846 and 1853, respectively— for piano. Much of Remy Johnson’s oeuvre consists of works originally composed for piano that she’s masterfully and evocatively transcribed for solo harp.
Her secret to mastering this ostensibly laborious practice?
“First, I get to know the repertoire of the composer I’m exploring and get a sense of which pieces truly speak to me,” she explains in Quest’s press release. “Then, I start playing through them to see which are ultimately going to fit well on the harp.”
Sounds so easy even a Yale grad could do it….
Remy Johnson graduated from Harvard, where she studied music and French and sang with the Radcliffe Choral Society. It was there where she sang “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies,” a traditional Appalachian folk song about unrequited love with versions by a who’s who of folk acts, from Joan Baez to Peter to Peter, Paul and Mary. While PPM’s take remains my all-time favorite, one of the great things about this piece is that no two treatments sound that much alike, and Remy Johnson’s lives up to this tradition of singularity. It evokes both the beauty and hardship, the magical dreams and stark fatalism that make this music’s ancestral home so confoundingly compelling.
And it dovetails most appropriately into a beautiful rendering of Kati Agócs’ “John Riley,” a wide-angled, bluegrass-tinged piece with an epic narrative sensibility and Appalachian roots of its own. Written in 2006 by the American-Canadian-Hungarian composer, it is but one element of Every Lover is a Warrior, her song cycle for solo harp.
While it would be optimal to hear “Riley” in situ, Remy Johnson does afford us that opportunity with her treatment of Mel Bonis’ Cinq Morceaux, from which we’re treated to all five elements. Bonis occupies an exalted place among Remy Johnson’s favored composers, and the latter’s playing here matches the elevated level of her reverence for the music and its creator. This five-part suite is the very best of Remy Johnson; if you listen to nothing else on the record, listen to this. In its entirety. Foundational to the entire recording, these five selections seem to constitute Quest’s spiritual core; the rest radiates outward from here.
Still, so much of Quest remains about platforming contemporary female composers that it would be wise to circle back to works from Sally Beamish (“Pavan”), Freya Waley-Cohen (“Skye”), and Johanna Selleck (“Sprindrift”)—whose pieces, in succession, close out the album—and Niloufar Nourbakhsh, whose title piece opens things.
These dissonance-heavy contemporary pieces, though worth the effort, may be an acquired taste for some—they were for me. They’re much more atmospheric than melodic at times, much more suggestive of a dream-state, of floating untethered through the cosmos, than of earth-bound consciousness.
In between flights of transcendence, cleanse your palate and return to terra firma with Cécile Chaminade’s “Aubade,” which the celebrated French composer intended as an elegantly simple depiction of sunrise. Mission accomplished there. And as an added bonus, take a listen at the 1:30 mark and see if you can identify where Remy Johnson seems to quote—or at least paraphrase— the bridge to the Gershwins’ “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
Chaminade’s composition predates the Gershwins’ by over two decades, so this is almost certainly a coincidence, but it’s always fun to think about how very similar musical sensibilities can—and will—manifest themselves in seemingly disparate contexts. Like the cosmos, it’s all interconnected.