Ruth Wall
Live@LICA: Ruth Wall – The Lady with Three Harps

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Ruth Wall
Courtesy of Live at LICA

Oh the agony and the ecstasy of having to write a review for such a transcendental concert. Oh the pain and the glory of having to put pen to paper (well, digits to computer keyboard) to describe such a spiritual experience.

Billed as ‘The Girl with the Three Harps’, Ruth Wall performed some of the most extraordinary folk, baroque, tango, medieval and contemporary music I have ever heard. Indeed, after hearing her play her first song, I decided no longer to participate in the continuous infantilisation of modern Anglophone society and shall from now on refer to Ruth Wall as the lady with the three harps. After all, she was a lady who created heavenly music that made me feel a man and not a boy.

It was Thursday evening, 17th November. Inside the Great Hall: a room full of people sitting around a raised platform and eagerly awaiting ‘The Lady with the Three Harps’. On the platform: three harps – a Scottish lever (a standard or common harp with levers on top that allow the harpist to change key and tone), a Gaelic wire harp (a high pitch delicate instrument that is plucked with finger nails rather than finger tips) and a Renaissance bray (a whale of a harp that sounds a cross between an orchestral harp, a bass Appalachian dulcimer and a lute – and equally as temperamental as a lute!). Outside: mysterious portents and enigmatic omens cloaked in the warm wetness of a mild autumn night. In the sky, the moon was busy chatting to the North Star.

Inside the Great Hall (hail the Great Hall!) the lights dimmed, an anticipated hush descended from the spandrels of the rafters onto the buzzing audience and, enter ‘The Lady with the Three Harps’, the Cornish-based Scottish harpist Ruth Wall.

Proceedings kicked off with a sweet, melancholic rendition of the Essex folk song ‘The Blacksmith,’ which was succeeded by lute songs transcribed for the harp. Wall’s playing was incredibly dextrous, her music evocative and her interpretation of Philip Glass’ ‘Opening’ breathed life into a usually dull piece of music; it positively shimmered.

Between songs, Wall would occasionally talk about her harps and their ancient, glorious history – along with her partner Graham Fitkin. And this was remarkable, as composers and musicians tend to either waffle between songs or say nothing, but Fitkin and Wall kept it short and sweet and straight to the point.

However, my one tiny quibble of the evening was that Wall had for some reason or other decided not to follow the order of the songs announced in the concert pamphlet. And although she did announce every song in the second half of the concert, the audience was more often than not left to its own devices to work out which piece was being played in the first half. A shame as the music was fantastic.

Before I move on to talk about the second half, I should mention that the one song that was clearly announced in the first part, was Astor Piazzolla’s ‘Chanson de la naissance’. Intrigued, I leaned forward to listen carefully, as I was baffled by how tango music could work on a harp. It did.

The second half of the evening started with another brief lecture on the history of the harp (Invented around 3000BC by man – nice one, man!), then a performance on the Gaelic harp of the mystical Irish tune ‘O Carolan’s Welcome’, followed by a magnificent rendition of Händel’s ‘Passacaglia’ on the Scottish lever that worked incredibly well. The Baroque elements were not over-emphasised (which is always difficult with Baroque music, especially suites), and yet Wall mentioned to play simultaneously the appropriate notes and chords (which is difficult on the harp) that gave off a festive early 18th Century feeling – an excellent remedy against the melancholia of mid November. After Händel’s earworm came Arvo Part’s minimalist piece ‘Pari Intervallo’. Now, at first I found it just a bit too minimalist (especially after Wall’s celebration of Händel), but ‘Pari Intervallo’ slowly grew on me and eventually I had to concede that it was a pleasant and very romantic piece of music.

Wall then turned her attention to the bray to play a traditional Welsh folk song arranged by Graham Fitkin. ‘Y Gog Lwydlas’ (‘The Grey Cuckoo’) was the climax of the evening: it made me want to storm the cave and slaughter the dragon; storm the castle and save the damsel in distress; storm the mountain and purge it of all evil.

What a piece of music! What an instrument! What a musician!

Returning to the lever, Wall performed a quiet piece called ‘Farewell to Stromness’ by Peter Maxwell Davies. A tranquil song, it was a tale about sea sickness and being sick of the sea. Of all the music performed that evening, ‘Farewell to Stromness’ exemplified the most that harp music is beautiful, intricate and contains as much variety and depth as, say, piano or guitar music. In short, Ruth Wall proved that harp music ain’t hippie-trippie seraphic muzak. Alain Stivell: eat your heart out! Andreas Vollenweider: take a page out of Ruth Wall’s book and learn to play the harp with love, dignity and respect!

Finally, proceedings ended with Fitkin’s esoteric composition ‘Wynter’, a piece that evoked mysterious wonders and wondrous mysteries.

The evening had flown by and Ruth Wall, an elfin figure who had descended from Asgard to tame her instruments of choice and regale us mortals with music from Valhalla, was obliged to bid us au revoir – but not farewell! She bowed and left, the audience slowly got to its feet and flowed out of the Great Hall (hail the Great Hall!) and I was left for a while with my thoughts in a empty room while the moon bade farewell to the North Star.

She’s quite agreeable, that Ruth Wall.

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