It’s a happy coincidence that in the 250th year since Benjamin Franklin invented the Armonica I have been having all sorts of new musical experiences with mine. In addition to several films and recording sessions with bands earlier in the year, July had the premiere of George Benjamin’s Opera Written on Skin, where the glass harmonica represents an Angel who sidesteps between the present and the past. There are two significant moments for the instrument which underpin the inner thoughts of this character and the sound of the instrument perfectly captures the otherworldliness of the character. I have further performances of this coming up – the next run is in Toulouse in November.
Then in September, along came another operatic opportunity. Not a new piece but the first time I have played the part in Richard Strauss’s opera Die Frau ohne Schatten, The Woman Without A Shadow. In the opera the glass harmonica doesn’t play until halfway through the third act, and without giving the plot away, the moment the glasses first play is the moment where the woman gets her shadow – another mysterious and otherworldy moment!
I’ve known about this part for some time as many percussion colleagues have mentioned that they have played it on a vibraphone in place of the real instrument and it was good to be able to let everyone hear how different and distinctive it sounds on the glass harmonica.
The performance was in the Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by their Principal Conductor, Vladimir Jurowski. It was not the complete opera however but a series of segments selected and strung together by Jurowski, and to my great surprise at the first rehearsal – no singers! Jurowski wanted to highlight the brilliance of the orchestration and had selected mostly orchestral moments for his segments and from the reviews it seems that this must have been effective for those unfamiliar with the opera but for the opera buffs it was rather frustrating. I loved it though – a huge orchestra onstage and a large brass and percussion group offstage with all of Strauss’s fantastic colours being clearly heard rather than suppressed in the pit.
The glass harmonica part goes off the range of my instrument by one semitone so I had to pinch a top F# off one of my wine-glass instruments and mount it in an accessible position. You’ll spot it here beside the larger bowl which I use to moisten my fingers before playing.
The performance was broadcast live on Radio 3 and here’s the shadow-receiving moment complete with repeating descending figure in octaves on the glass harmonica. Listen out at the end of the opera as well to the shimmering sound of two harps, two celestes and glass harmonica flitting in and out of C major like shadows!