Artful Strings exhibit provides extensive culture of harp making and Celtic music
Published: Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 17:02
In an interactive and visually stunning exhibit, the Albin Polasek Museum of Winter Park teamed up with the International Harp Museum to present "Artful Strings: Four Centuries of Harp Making." The exhibit offers a wealth of information on the history of the instrument, its cultural influences and a hands-on experience with a model harp that visitors can play. In an effort to demonstrate the range of the harp as an instrument, the International Harp Museum is also hosting a harp concert series at the Broadway United Methodist Church in downtown Orlando.
The Albin Polasek Museum is one of Winter Park's hidden gems and a perfect match for Artful Strings. The museum's works include sculptures by Albin Polasek, demonstrating the Czech artist's love for music.
Museum curator Rachel Frisby hopes to show a different, more accessible side to the instrument through the exhibit.
"Harps are seen as performance art pieces, and it's intimidating," Frisby said. "The exhibit gives visitors an opportunity to interact and have fun. We want people to enjoy the harp."
Artful Strings functions as a user-friendly exhibit to those interested in the instrument. There is a chance to experiment with a wooden, double-action model harp where visitors are encouraged to sit and play, with colored strings to mark different notes and octaves.
Thirty out of the 50 harps in the museum's collection can be seen in the Artful Strings exhibit, including contemporary African, Asian and South-American harps. The museum's traditional African folk harps are unique, as different tribes practice various methods of creation, which include snakeskin that is stretched over a gourd with twine used for strings. Other harps originating from Myanmar, Paraguay and Europe vary in materials. The exhibit includes a display of the gilding process used on many harps by using gold leaf, an extremely delicate material applied by hand.
From ornate 17th-century harps to traditional folk pieces, the exhibit gives visitors an appreciation for the grandiose instrument.
"There is a definite conservation challenge for some of the older pieces in the exhibition. The harps are transported very carefully one at a time by the collectors," Frisby said.
Older pieces in the collection are made of plaster and are extremely heavy and cumbersome to move Frisby said.
In addition to an admiration for the aesthetics and craftsmanship of the harp, the exhibit portrays the musical skill set that is involved in playing. While deemed simpler in the construction of the instrument, Celtic harps are also known as lap harps, and while they have a more limited range, they must be tuned by hand.
"It's easier to tune a pedal harp, and a [Celtic harp] is more difficult because musicians have to tune it themselves. You might have to tune in the middle of a song while performing," Frisby said.
Julia Lane of the Celtic harp pair Castlebay exhibited this difficulty during the concert at Broadway United Methodist this past Sunday, tuning in between songs to accommodate each different pitch of the set. A prominent part of keeping Celtic traditions alive, Castlebay comprises a husband and wife, Lane and Fred Gosbee. Lane began playing the harp at 32, realizing that the harp as an instrument was integral to Celtic history.
"It was more of a curiosity than a passion. I played guitar and piano, and I have a Celtic family background," Lane said. "When I realized the importance of Celtic history, and that the harp was a big part of it, I began playing. Celtic folk songs and tales are like fairy tales set to music."
Lane's husband, woodworker and musician Gosbee, crafted her harp by hand. He has made 12 harps so far and is in the process of building three more.
Orlando Harp Society member Janet Emens appreciated the unique nature and style of Castlebay's music. International Harp Museum founder and director Meko aimed to provide concerts to share his love of the harp, including as wide a range of musicians as possible.
"It was very different, the harp concerts held here have been so diverse," said Emens, who has played the harp for two years. "You see all different techniques, but it's hard to keep track. You learn the rules and then you break them I guess."
Concertgoers such as Norma Jeane Young felt joyful listening to the harpists.
"The harp is the ultimate instrument of joy," Young said. "It felt like I was back in old Ireland. They were so unified and harmonious."
The Artful Strings exhibition runs through April 15 at the museum, and harp events in conjunction with the exhibit run through April 1. Upcoming events at the Broadway United Methodist Church include the Aletheia Duo Harp and Flute concert on Sunday, March 25 at 3 p.m. and classical harpist Elizabeth Hainen at 3 p.m. on April 1