Elisabeth Remy Johnson (credit Lydia Leclair)

CD Review: Harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson champions women composers in “Quest”

Melinda Bargreen | 20 May 2021

For all its celestial beauty, the harp is not always accorded the same level of respect as the more commonly heard instruments – such as the violin, piano, and cello, which have the lion’s share of great concerti and solo repertoire.

That this doesn’t have to be the case is clear from the work of harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson, who is not only a consummate performer but also an adept arranger/transcriber of repertoire for her instrument. The principal harp of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since 1995, she has been featured and widely admired as soloist with the orchestra in works of Debussy, Handel, Mozart and Ginastera. Remy Johnson also is the principal harpist of the Grand Teton Music Festival, and has performed as guest principal with the orchestras of Boston, Houston, and Milwaukee.

Elisabeth Remy Johnson - Quest - CD cover art

Elisabeth Remy Johnson, harp
Release date: June 1, 2021
Label:Albany Records, TROY1863

She is not content, however, to sit back and play the standard repertoire. Remy Johnson has brought to light many excellent solo works for her instrument, and three years ago she founded the Merian Ensemble to further address the neglect of music by women. (This ensemble, a group of her ASO colleagues, commissions and performs chamber music of women composers.) She’s also a member of the Aster Trio, together with her fellow ASO members Christina Smith and Daniel Laufer.

Remy Johnson’s new solo recording, Quest, features repertoire that in many cases she has helped bring to life – not only through her performances, but also (in many cases) through her own transcriptions of some of the pieces. Twelve women composers are represented here, in performances that are frequently revelatory.

“This was going to be a half-hour disc,” the harpist said in a recent phone interview, “but I kept on finding things.” Transcribing the works she wanted to feature was sometimes a challenge – particularly a few of the five pieces by Mel Bonis: “Her ‘Desdemona’ was parts that are just too chromatic, but I came up with a solution. It needed to sound like a harp piece, and I think it does, but it wasn’t easy.”

  • AD ASO-2021-22-CS04 Nathalie Stultzmann
  • Spivey Hall = Jeremy Denk
  • ASO-2122-CS03 (Ad)

Bonis, like so many women composers, had to struggle for recognition.

“She and Debussy were classmates,” Remy Johnson says. “Her professors wrote, ‘She’s wonderful. He’s a little lazy.’”

No wonder Bonis (born Mélanie Hélène Bonis) chose the asexual nom de plume of “Mel.”

Remy Johnson’s continuing research will extend beyond the Quest recording to a planned anthology of her transcriptions for the harp.

“My goal is to include music for all levels,” she explains. “These pieces really should be heard.”

The title work of “Quest” was composed in 2013 by Niloufar Nourbakhsh, an Iranian-American composer working in New York. “Quest” was transcribed for solo harp by Johnson and the composer. In describing this work, Nourbakhsh has said, “Quest was my effort to remain an honest composer while trying to challenge myself intellectually, incorporate dissonances, and grapple with the difficult question I was facing at the time: Do I really want to embark on this quest of being a composer, or not?”

  • AD SPIVEY HALL Sheku & Isata Kanneh-Mason 600 x 250
  • Spivey Hall - Organ Discovery Day
  • ECMSA 2122 ad

“Quest” is well named: its opening phrases are searching, mysterious and mesmeric, oscillating back and forth, gradually growing in complexity, so that it almost sounds like a harp duet. The same eight-note figure transforms and dominates the rising, then falling, trajectory of the music.

The disc also offers four other widely varied 21st-century works, written between 2006 and 2017 by composers Kati Agócs, Sally Beamish, Johanna Selleck and Freya Waley-Cohen. Completing the program: Remy Johnson’s own highly skillful and colorful transcriptions for harp of works by Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger, Fanny Mendelssohn, Mel Bonis, Cécile Chaminade, and Amy Beach. Finally, there’s Remy Johnson’s own charming arrangement of an Appalachian folk song (“Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies”).

Anyone who thinks of harp music as an assortment of dainty arpeggios will be in for quite a surprise here. The sonorities and effects that Remy Johnson draws from her instrument are dazzling, sometimes astonishing. There’s an entire orchestra in that harp, with passages as declarative as a brass section, along with subtle nuances that operate at the level of a whisper.

Several of the works represented here are transcriptions of original piano pieces, a process that requires a great deal of thought and care. Remy Johnson told one interviewer, “First I get to know the repertoire of the composer I’m exploring, and get a sense of which pieces truly speak to me. Then, I start playing through them to see which are ultimately going to fit well on the harp.”

This care pays off. Chaminade’s “Aubade” is full of charming details: a melody carried in the bass with subtle chords in accompaniment, and delicate effects with harmonics. Amy Beach’s “A Hermit Thrush at Morn” waltzes lightly forward with subtly elegant filigree passages that grow in complexity (and, one suspects, difficulty). And a quintet of highly pictorial pieces by Mel Bonis proved evocative and charming – ending with “Cloches lointaines” that did indeed sound liked distant bells.

Some of the works here explore adventurous sonorities, with Johanna Selleck’s “Spindrift” deploying everything from seraphic arpeggios to an unsettling deep buzz. Others are more traditional, like Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s songlike “Melodie.” What all the tracks share, however, is the imaginative commitment of the harpist, who brings all the beauty and power of the music to the fore. ■

Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based composer and music journalist who has been writing for the Seattle Times and other publications for four decades. Her 2015 book, Classical Seattle is published by University of Washington Press. Her 50 Years of Seattle Opera was published by Marquand Books in 2014.