French harpist, Xavier de Maistre, opened his Australian tour with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra this week in Sydney. Brisbane Stage interviewed the acclaimed musician in anticipation of his Brisbane performance next week.
You started playing the harp at the age of nine. Do you come from a musical family?
No, my parents do not play any musical instruments. My father liked classical music, so my mother sent me to a music school because she thought it would be good for my development. I liked the harp teacher, so that was the instrument I wanted to play. It was more a love story than a musical inclination.
You are currently performing in Sydney with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. What are your impressions of the Australian audiences?
Amazing. The opening night was a huge success. The quality of listening and the enthusiasm at the end were really the best combination. The energy was amazing!
Juggling a demanding career and personal life is a normal thing for you. How do you manage it?
I travel eight months of the year. That’s a big stress on any relationship: family, friendships. You are rarely home, and you can’t make any regular plans. But I get to meet a lot of people, see different cultures. It is a challenge, but I am very curious by nature, and so there are a lot of good things.
You have adapted a lot of piano music for the harp. Do you have a favourite composer or period of music?
I like Romantic music – Brahms, Tchaikovsky. And I have adapted a lot of concertos by Haydn and Mozart for the harp. Usually I find pieces that fit the harp, and which can be played with new colour, new sound. I also commission pieces – ask composers to write music for me to perform on the harp.
In your travelling you must have used a lot of different harps. What was your favourite?
I like Lyon & Healy harps, built in Chicago. Harp is a very large instrument and it is not possible to travel with it, so I have to rely on what is available. Sometimes it is great, sometimes not so great. It is very important to have good strings, and that the harp is well regulated. The acoustic quality of the hall is important too, of course. It’s better to play an ok instrument in a hall with great acoustics than to have an amazing instrument in a place with bad acoustics.
Most memorable performance moment?
My recent new project was playing the harp with a castanet player, Lucero Tena. She is a wonderful castanet player, she is 80 years old and it was actually her birthday! We played at the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie – a wonderful new concert hall there. The hall was packed, 2400 people, beautiful lights, so much emotion. She was wonderful, I felt I can learn a lot from her.
You continually reinvent harp music: you adapt classical piano music for the harp, your latest album combines harp with castanets. What is the next challenge for you?
The castanet album, “Serenata Española,” has just come out. Its focus is on Spanish music, and it is a great success. It is the #3 album in classics charts in Germany. I will be playing two pieces from it in Brisbane next week. I have also just had a piece composed by Kaija Saariaho, which I’m very excited about it. It is about opening new doors, new possibilities in music.
So are you looking for ways of making harp exciting for modern audience? Or is it a more personal quest for you to explore the possibilities of your chosen instrument?
Both. It is very important for me to introduce harp to modern audiences. Classical music is about emotion. The reaction to the harp is always the same, whether you go to Europe, or China, or America, or anywhere. And I have no choice, there aren’t 20 concertos by Beethoven or Mozart written for the harp, so I have to look for ways of finding music for the harp.
Xavier de Maistre will perform with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra Tuesday, 15th of May at the Concert Hall, QPAC.