Alberto Ginastera was the leading Argentinian composer of the 20th century, arguably surpassed only by his onetime student, Astor Piazzolla. Early in his career, he developed a nationalist style of orchestral music—creating an imagined soundtrack for the Argentinian gaucho akin to what Aaron Copland did for the American cowboy. (Copland, in fact, mentored Ginastera at Tanglewood when he received a Guggenheim fellowship to study in the United States, and they remained friends.) Later, Ginastera became increasingly involved with experimental music, gradually shifting his style away from the one that first made him famous.
Ginastera’s Harp Concerto was commissioned in 1956 by Edna Phillips, the principal harpist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the first woman to be a member of that orchestra. She had been a student of Carlos Salzedo, the pedagogue and composer who revolutionized modern harp technique. Building on that tradition, Phillips was always looking for new works to expand her instrument’s repertoire.
Originally her idea was to premiere the concerto at the 1958 Inter-American Festival, which took place in Washington, DC, and featured composers from Canada down to Argentina. Ginastera, however, didn’t complete the piece in time (his String Quartet No. 2 was premiered instead), and he continued to delay until 1964. By that time, Phillips had retired from playing, and so the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered it the following year with the Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta as soloist, conducted by Eugene Ormandy.
The harp is an instrument with ancient roots, but the modern orchestral harp relies on a complicated mechanism developed in the late 19th century. It has just seven strings per octave (corresponding to the white notes on a piano), which can then be set flat, natural, or sharp through the seven pedals. You might notice the soloist’s fancy footwork on the pedals in performance, which allows her to play complex harmonies and change keys during the course of the music.
From the very beginning of the concerto, Ginastera seems determined to take full advantage of the harp, and to surprise listeners with its possibilities. He gives it the opening melody in bare octaves, clear and stark. This melody is weaved throughout the first movement, until a brief cadenza leads to a more brooding place. The movement ends quietly with ghostly harmonics.
The second movement opens mournfully in the low strings, as if emerging from what came before. The harp and orchestra call and respond to each other, then touches of celeste and violins add cold colors and strange textures.
The finale begins with a terrific harp cadenza introduced by six notes that echo the tuning of a gaucho’s guitar. The harpist offers a soliloquy filled with dramatic chords, runs, and murmurs. Finally, after nearly four minutes alone, the harp sweeps into a full-orchestra Vivace, filled with tuneful urgency and the driving malambo rhythm of Argentinian folkdance.