From the back of the orchestra to centre stage, the French artist talks to Saeed Saeed about his experiences with the instrument
Xavier de Maistre to bring the full colours of the harp to Abu Dhabi Classics
Being a harpist in an orchestra requires as much as skill as patience. French player Xavier de Maistre had the talent, but it was the waiting around part that got him down.
“In an orchestra, there are times where you wait for hours before you can play extra notes, and people don't notice you really,” he says. “And that's the reason why I felt quite frustrated. I felt I couldn't really show what I was capable of.”
That gnawing need for better expression resulted in the 45-year-old Frenchman leaving the Vienna Philharmonic in 2010 to forge a new career as solo concert harpist. Only to find out the industry was initially bereft of opportunities.
It is not down to a form of snobbery de Maistre says. Instead, the harp’s misfortune stems back to composers not appreciating the complex array of colour the instrument provides.
“They didn't know how to write for the harp. I think lots of the conductors and composers are intimidated by the harp because they don't know it,” he says. "I noticed that when I tried to commission the pieces, they feel like ‘Oh, it's going to take me a lot of time. It's more energy, because It's a very tricky instrument with the pedals.’ They feel a little bit scared. Also, the harp in nineteenth century was not as reliable. The strings were not very good, so tuning was not really possible and the harps were not very powerful. Had composers of the 19th had known the harp as it is now, they would have written more pieces for it.”
This is what makes the de Maistre’s upcoming solo dates as part of Abu Dhabi Classics such a fascinating prospect. Through his eclectic programme, ranging from French composer Claude Debussy to Spanish counterparts Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados, we not only get an insight into what the harp can provide to these celebrated works, but also points to a future where it will be normal for the instrument to stand front and centre in front of an orchestra.
The recitals also provide an opportunity for de Maistre to tackle misconceptions regarding the harp, such as that it can only play ethereal melodies best heard in hotel lobbies and spas.
With 47 strings and various pedals, he states the instrument melodic possibilities are endless as they are powerful.
“It can talk about joyful and painful moments. The harp has big colours, like heavenly colours, it casts a sheen on any other instruments but it can also very colourful, very rhythmical, very holistic, and this is what I try to do in my recitals,” he says. “It is listening to a whole orchestra, and it is very complete.”
It is that zeal that allowed de Maistre to have a successful career as a soloists and recording artist. With each new international tour, he says a mental barrier breaks within the audience and within the classical music industry. The results are more invitations to work as a soloist with esteemed orchestras such as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Cologne Philharmonie and the Orchestre National de France under the baton of master Italian conductor Riccardo Muti.
More satisfying is that de Maistre is now witnessing a new found confidence amongst a new generation of harpists who are prepared to fight for their instrument to be heard. “I am getting new harpists to try new pieces,” he says. “I feel like a lot of young harpists are performing solo pieces and the demand is there. I do think it's a great opportunity and from my perspective I feel like I also have a big responsibility in encouraging that.”
Hence, de Maistre hopes his Abu Dhabi concerts will result in more people seriously considering taking on the instrument.
Not only are there instructors available in the UAE, harp practice won’t disturb the neighbours as much as errant notes of a violin. Also, with beginner harps ranging commanding an eye watering price tag ranging Dh3,600 to Dh18,360 online, de Maistre says it is often a safe investment.
“It can be a sacrifice. I can remember for my family, when they decided to buy a harp for me, I had to choose between the car and the harp,” he says. “The good thing is you can sell the harp in a few years for the same price that you bought it, so it is a good investment. But of course, musical instruments are always a great investment regardless.”
Xavier de Maistre will perform at Manarat Al Saadiyat on December 6 and Bin Hamoodah Fort, Al Ain on December 7. Tickets begin from Dh50 at www.ticketmaster.ae