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Suzanne Handel’s heart belongs to the harp

Music

Musician Suzanne Handel, part of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s Virtual Concert Hall series, shares the story of her lifelong love affair with the harp – and the question she’s burning to ask a 19th-century composer.

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Originally from New York and now living in Mylor, Handel says here was never any doubt she’d make a career in music – “the language I speak the most fluently”.

She has been the ASO’s principal harp for 27 years, with her latest performance a duet recorded with violinist Minas Berberyan for the orchestra’s Virtual Concert Hall.

During the COVID-caused break in live concerts, Handel has been enjoying arranging music for the harp but missing the ASO’s beautiful gold concert harp.

How did you choose the harp?

I’ve played the piano since I could sit up, and when my parents put a harp in front of me when I was six, I thought it was much more interesting than the piano!

Do you come from a musical family?
Yes, my dad was a music theory professor and a composer, and my mother was a pianist.

Is there anything special about your harp? 

My heart belongs to my old harp. Unfortunately, harps don’t have a long life, so it has long since bitten the dust. My new harp now has a tough act to follow, but it’s doing pretty well. I call it Jane, after one of my first teachers.

Suzanne practising the harp as a child.

Who has influenced you most as a musician?

My dad, who always made sure I had great music to listen to as a child; my early teachers, and just life itself.

If you could play a different instrument, which would you choose?

Guitar. I would be the most fabulous Flamenco guitarist! Especially if I were Spanish, which I’m not.

Which solo or moment in the harp orchestral repertoire is your favourite?

I love playing the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th (a planned performance of which the ASO sadly had to abandon in March due to coronavirus concerns). Other than that, anything that has a great harp part with lots of big arpeggios, and with a great conductor conducting it.

Your most memorable performance with the ASO? 

I loved playing at Carnegie Hall for G’day USA. My best friends from New York were there and it was so much fun.

What was your first orchestral concert memory?

I remember doing a concerto with an orchestra when I was 11. The conductor walked on and lifted his hand and I started playing till I noticed that nobody else was playing – I didn’t realise that he was just asking the orchestra to start tuning! I remember ending my opening phrase with a very graceful flourish.

COVID-19 has put a hold on ASO concerts. What do you miss the most about not being able to perform?

I miss seeing all my colleagues. I miss the beautiful ASO gold harp. I am sure it feels rejected and lonely without me!

How and what have you been practising at home during this period?

For once, I get to play stuff that I want to play, not that I have to play. I like arranging great old songs for harp, so I’ve been doing that. Also, I have a custom-made carbon-fibre purple lever harp (that’s a small Celtic type harp, with no pedals) and I’m learning how to play it. It’s the same technique with fingers, but vastly different in approach because you are so limited with the accidentals. My house is a big open shed so I practice right in the middle, under my huge ficus tree.

At home with her three harps and dog/accompanist Spike.

When you’re not performing or practising, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Hiking, walking the dog, playing the ukulele and going to the gym, which hasn’t been happening recently.

Other than classical music, what do you listen to?

I only listen to classical music when it’s something I’m going to be playing soon. I like fun, happy, silly stuff, most of which is too embarrassing to tell you about.

Name three pieces of music you love, and why…

Mahler 5 – because it’s the most gorgeous thing ever written.
Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro – because it’s so French and fabulous and I have lots of great memories of playing it.
Suzanne’s Animal Music – because it’s a harp suite my dad composed for me when I was a kid.

Name three things people may not know about you?

I was the only girl in my school who won the Presidential Physical Fitness Award when I was about 13 (my proudest achievement to this day!); I have perfect pitch, which really only makes my life miserable; and I can’t work technology.

What’s your idea of a perfect day in Adelaide?

It’s about 32 degrees and a rare humid day. I’ve caught up with some friends for lunch in a cafe, followed by the beach at sunset with my dog and my partner.

If you could ask one composer one question, what would it be? 

Richard Wagner, why did you write that ridiculous and completely impossible Magic Fire Music harp part in Die Walküre? WHY?

Suzanne Handel and ASO violinist Minas Berberyan have performed Meditation from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs for the orchestra’s Virtual Concert Hall, with the video recording of the performance available to view until midnight tomorrow (June 17).

 

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