Tuesday evening’s classical concert at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur demonstrated that the sounds of flute and harp together are an especially good sonic match for the venue. Flutist Christina Smith and harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson, both principal musicians with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, have performed as a duo for 18 years and drew upon the core of their attractive and well-seasoned repertoire for the evening’s musical menu. Their CD, “Encantamiento,” was released in 2008 and includes much of the music heard in this concert.
They kicked it off with the first movement of the Sonata for Flute and Harp by Nino Rota. In direct reference to this sonata, with its copious melody, Rota has been called an “Italian Maurice Ravel.” But he was best known for his film scores for directors such as Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli and Francis Ford Coppola, in particular the Oscar-winning score for “The Godfather, Part II.”
Smith and Johnson followed up with another first movement, from the Sonata No. 2 of Jean-Michel Damase, a French composer perhaps better known for his work as a pianist, having won a Grand Prix du Disque for his recordings of the complete piano music of Gabriel Fauré. But the fact that Damase is also well known as a composer among harpists comes as no surprise: his mother was the renowned harpist Micheline Kahn, who premiered works by Fauré and Ravel.
Johnson took a few moments to demonstrate some techniques of harp playing to the audience, such as plucking strings closer to their ends to get a guitar-like sound and the pedal glissando, which allows for bending a string’s pitch by movement of a pedal. This served as set-up for the eight miniature movements that comprise the Serenade No. 10, Op. 79, by American composer Vincent Persichetti. “Fantasie” by Fauré, originally written for flute and piano, closed the first set.
The second half opened with the first and third movements from “Histoire du Tango” by Astor Piazzolla: “Bordel 1900” and “Nightclub 1960.” Next came another tango, “Pájaros del Mar” by British composer Graham Lynch, who is little known on this side of the pond but whose music is worth exploring. Smith explained that Johnson had played a solo harp piece by Lynch that she liked, titled “The Hanging-Cloud Bridge,” and as a result discovered his tangos for flute and harp.
Whether these works by Piazzolla and Lynch are strictly tangos is not the point, as the tango nuevo influence upon new classical music, and vice versa, has been increasing steadily since Piazzolla’s death in 1992. For 21st-century composers trying to reconnect with the idea of lucid melody underpinned by compelling dance rhythms, evocative nuance and an almost hypnotic sensuality, the tango nuevo has become a wide-open door, even if already potentially subject to overuse.
To continue the thread of Latin dance influence, Smith and Johnson played “Piece en forme de Habanera” by Ravel. They concluded with “Entr’acte,” written in 1935 by the mercurially eclectic French composer Jacques Ibert.
It would be remiss not to mention details about Smith’s instrument, which she talked about from the stage: a solid platinum flute hand made by Verne Q. Powell in 1938, the first of only six platinum flutes personally made by him. Coincidentally, for the first 15 years of her career, Smith played a solid silver Powell flute also made in 1938. “So when I found this platinum flute, it felt very comfortable to me,” she said.
One cannot overemphasize how effectively the combination of flute and harp comes across at Eddie’s Attic. Throughout the attractively melodious concert, one clearly heard the range timbral and articulatory detail in Johnson’s harp playing, down to the softest dynamic, as well as the varied shadings of expressive color and subtle phrasing from Smith’s flute.
The concert did not offer the kinds of extremes often anticipated in alternative venues, but that did not matter in this instance. Instead, it presented the very attentive audience with both nuance and immediacy, which the musicians and performance space both delivered without pretentiousness.