April 11, 2016 marks the 100th birthday of Argentinian composer, Alberto Ginastera. I recently embarked upon the rather giant project of celebrating that milestone with a centennial recording and documentary that features some of his most iconic instrumental works performed by Gil Shaham, Jason Vieaux, and Orli Shaham. I recorded his Concerto for Harp and Orchestra and I’m also co-producing the album with Oberlin Music for a release later this year. Why am I doing all this, you may wonder? I’ve been asked that question a few times already.
To state the obvious, it’s a pretty good sign you did a few good things in your time if folks are marking your 100th birthday long after you’ve left. In addition to composing numerous important works – on his own terms and in his own style – he played a vital role in the contemporary music movement of the mid-20th century and belongs to the illustrious club of composers, such as Bartók and Stravinsky, for the artful ways in which he integrated folk music and dance forms from his native country into a striking and unique musical language.
With some of these conspicuous accomplishments noted, Mr. Ginastera also did a particularly nice thing for me – ok, not specifically for me, but for harpists everywhere. He wrote an extraordinary harp concerto, and that one work has been a cornerstone of my career for the past 30 years. There is a list on my website that names most of the orchestras where I’ve appeared as guest soloist. It’s a pretty long list, but without Mr. Ginastera’s Concerto for Harp and Orchestra, that collection of orchestras would be much smaller and my career would be much different. He composed one heck of a solo vehicle for the harp and no other concerto has even come close in the five decades since it was premiered.
Mr. Ginastera also did another big thing for me. He wrote a piece of music that felt deeply personal to my sensibilities - almost as if he knew my style and tailored a work that fit my musical psyche exactly. As lush and pretty as so much of the harp repertoire is, the bulk of it wouldn’t have sustained me and I knew that early on. His concerto offered me a different voice on this largely romantic instrument and gave me a taste for other beefy harp fare like Hindemith, Carter, Berio, Erb, Takemitsu, and Sheng. His concerto made me want dinner before dessert, so to speak, and that one piece of music has had as much to do with the player I am today as any other single element.
I remember spending countless late nights as a high school student at Interlochen Arts Academy practicing Mr. Ginastera’s thorny licks in the basement harp studio of Thor Johnson dormitory. Every passage I navigated was like a triumph and a path to somewhere else that excited me. Many of us remember the first book we read that gave us a passion for reading. For me, this harp concerto was the musical equivalent of that book, only much, much better because I wasn’t just reading it, I was inside of it – and somehow it felt like like every note I played was my own.
I recently had the honor of interviewing and becoming acquainted with Alberto Ginastera’s daughter, Georgina (that's me with her on the right). I will admit, I had some trepidation going into the meeting. What if she was aloof? What if my perceived closeness to this man and his musical vision became soured by a sense of disconnect with his daughter? Could I take that risk? I needn’t have worried. She was as warm and wonderful as I could ever have imagined and she had just as close a relationship with her father as I had hoped. After picking her brains about his music, I started asking her about him as a person. I asked her things like: what made him laugh? (goofy jokes), was he neat or sloppy? (neat), what was his favorite color? (red), his favorite artist? (Picasso), morning or night person? (night), his temperament? (a true yin and yang - at one moment, an extrovert, and the next, quiet and introspective). Georgina told me near the end of our evening that she had the distinct impression that what she had shared with me about her father was only a confirmation of what I had already imagined of him as I lived in his music. In that moment, she said the exact words that I was thinking and I loved her even more. She was right. My conversation with Mr. Ginastera has been going on for a long time.
I find myself thinking a lot about one thing in particular that Georgina told me. She said that her father had once shared that composing was a painstaking process for him. He did not scribble down dozens of notes quickly as they popped into his head, all in a rush. Instead, he found each note, one at a time, through a very reflective and meticulous progression. This style of creation resonates with me more than I can say, and it is probably at least one reason his music has stood the test of time. So much of our culture today is made to be consumed and discarded - and it is often created as quickly as it is consumed. There is such beauty and substance in work that has been sculpted, revised, sculpted some more and revised again. Mr. Ginastera was fond of saying, “I do not search for things, I find them.”
Happy 100th Birthday, Mr. Ginastera. Thank you for your gifts to the world of classical music and thank you for your gift to me. You passed away close to the time I began learning your harp concerto. You didn’t know it, but you were still alive and well in the basement of Thor Johnson dormitory.