Yesterday, myself, my student Elizabeth and my son Iñaky, drove all the way down to Canterbury in Kent to hear Lavinia Meijer from The Netherlands perform an exciting contemporary programme for the 'Sounds New' festival. It was also part of a harp day by the Royal Academy of Music, although I must say, a poorly publicised one as neither Elizabeth nor I (both of us regularly trawling the internet for our fix of harp events!) stumbled across any adverts for it. Perhaps they just didn't reckon on harp fanatics like ourselves being willing to undertake the 300 mile round trip to hear this concert - but it was well worth it.

Elizabeth and I agreed we wouldn't have missed it for the world. Lavinia's playing is always full of beauty and care - something which is particularly important when executing this kind of fiendish programme - and there was incredible skill in the way she blended the tones and colours on the Lyon and Healy harp she was playing. I now know that it is possible to play a 'pppppppp' dynamic that the audience can still hear! Incredible finger control. 

The programme was mostly compositions she has recorded for her excellent new CD, 'Visions'. Out of music by Garrett Byrnes, Konstantia Gourzi, Jacob Ter Veldhuis, Isang Yun, Paul Patterson, Toru Takemitsu, Luciano Berio and Benjamin Britten, my favourites were Patterson's stunning and moving new work 'Armistice' - a far cry from the comedy moments of other recent compositions by Paul, such as 'Mosquito Massacre' (which Lavinia played as an encore, bringing the house down with her hilarious comedic acting and dazzling playing) - and the Garrett Byrnes and Jacob Ter Veldhuis pieces.

Although executed with brilliance, it was the first time I had heard the Berio Sequenza, and although I have the score, I am not rushing to play that one! Using many of the same extended techniques, however, the pieces by Byrnes, Takemitsu and Isang Yun sounded fresh and beautiful, woven with intricate colours, telling stories and certainly highlighting the capacity that the concert harp has for creating an outstanding array of timbres and keeping an audience spellbound for a whole concert!

My favourite is the piece that I first heard Lavinia premier at the Tenth World Harp Congress in Amsterdam, 'Cities change the Songs of Birds' for harp and boombox (recording of genuine women's voices from the projects of New York, cut, looped and artfully arranged to form a real tapestry of words) by 'Jacob TV', or Jacob Ter Veldhuis! The harp sound is clear and strong and not entirely dissonant - juxtaposed with the brutality of what we're hearing from the speakers; in the first movement a woman is distraught after having her bag - her lifeline - stolen; in the second movement a mother and daughter are at odds over their interpretation of the events of the daughter's childhood and who was most responsible for the prison sentence that the daughter is servicing for drug-related crimes; in the third and final movement 'That's it, your honour' the woman is heart-breakingly describing to the courtroom that it was not in fact her fault - everything that went wrong against her and the crimes she herself committed - it was as if her life was pre-destined by her circumstances. And we, the audience, absolutely believe her. This is a completely convincing work and the sound of the harp is full, intense and rhythmic - often, Lavinia is playing the exact rhythms of the woman's voice, repeated and sometimes with her speaking or shouting the words herself at the same time. The effect is musically satisfying and emotionally it is a really strong piece that leaves me with a real lump in my throat.

Elizabeth and I also felt that Paul Patterson's Armistice, composed for the anniversary of the May 8th Armistice in 1945, is a brilliant new piece for the solo harp repertoire. Paul spoke about the piece, saying that Lavinia helped him to decide on the structure of this piece and it was her idea to have it resolving entirely at the end. There is "about six minutes of sheer hell" where we hear intense dissonance and special effects on the harp signalling air raids, bombs falling and terror (which, typically, Lavinia still made beautiful!) and then a really evocative military motif tapped out by the harpist's foot (Lavinia's beautiful high heels seemed tailor made for this purpose) came into our consciousness all of a sudden, and then just as we were all taken there with the soldiers in our minds, it stopped almost as suddenly as it had started - this had a really poignant effect in performance. Then Paul's 1945 motif reappeared from the beginning of the piece, treated in a different way again, with magnificent chords slightly reminiscent of the Britten Suite for Harp that Lavinia opened her recital with. It was a spectacular conclusion to the work and provided the audience with a real sense of completion and hope. It also looked immensely satisfying to perform. I think this will be another work, like Patterson's 'Spiders', that will become a real fixture in the harp repertoire. I look forward to being able to get the music myself!

So a big congratulations to Lavinia, who is off to do a completely different programme somewhere else in the world, next week!

Highly Strung