Unique mix of experimental with a touch of the elemental

Stamford-based harpist, instructor and composer Eleanor Turner.
Stamford-based harpist, instructor and composer Eleanor Turner.
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MUSIC REVIEW: Thomas-Turner Harp & Guitar Duo, South Holland Concerts, South Holland Centre, Spalding

A harpist right at home in south Lincolnshire and a guitarist from Atlanta, USA, provided an enchanting musical mix in Spalding.

The third in this season’s South Holland Concerts brought Stamford-based harp angel Eleanor Turner to the South Holland Centre for the third time in as many years.

But unlike Eleanor’s previous visits with harpsichordist Douglas Hollick (2013) and string sisters 4Girls4Harps (2014), the mum-of-two shared the stage with a true innovator in guitarist Alan Thomas.

Together, the pair took a sizeable South Holland Concerts audience on a magical tour of Spanish sounds as the duo played works by composers Antonio de Cabezon, Manuel de Falla and Joaquin Rodrigo.

Throw in works by Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla and a bonus encore right at the end composed by Cuban harpist Dr Alfredo Rolando Ortiz and the audience would be forgiven for not knowing their Basque and Andalusian from their Catalan and Murcian.

This showpiece night of live music was everything and more what Alan Thomas called “a real blessing with which to show people what you can do”.

Eleanor said: “It’s lovely to come to the same place where you’ve been before (South Holland Centre) because you know where everything is, with nice technicians here and you always get lots of help.

“We were trying to find a combination of things that people will know, without doing anything too new.

“I started off by having a few lessons with Alan and I came across a few of the compositions he had written.

“Then I was doubly respectful and fascinated because there were so many facets to this musician.

Alan added: “The guitar, for better or worse, is known as ‘the Spanish instrument’ and, by adding the harp, it augmented things so much and that’s why we liked the combination so much.

“The different colour it brings but it also makes for one giant, plucked instrument and what I can’t do (on the guitar), Eleanor can do on the harp, in terms of range and loudness.

“We found that we could both write music for the duo, with the computer playing because I’m very much into using computers in music.

“That augmented the combination further and made things even more interesting for us.”

Eleanor’s journey as a harpist started as a five-year-old when her mother hired out a small harp for her to learn how to play an instrument which dates back to ancient Egypt in biblical times.

Now head of harp at Birmingham Conservatoire and a music teacher at schools in Stamford and Uppingham, Eleanor attended the Royal College of Music aged 11 and made her performing debut at the age of 15 with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra in London.

Alan and Eleanor said: “We always find it strange and surprising that there aren’t more collaborations between harp and guitar, but then we’re really lucky because we’re both so creative and just compose loads of new arrangements.

“We don’t actually play any original music that’s been written, apart from the stuff we’ve written ourselves, and that’s probably why there aren’t many guitar and harp duos.”

Alan both grew up and studied in the USA before moving to England in 1987, achieving the rare feat ten years later of being the only guitarist ever to win the International Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition in Holland.

As well as composing, performing and collaborating with musicians, Alan also lectures at the Universities of York and Loughborough, along with Loughborough Music School.

Eleanor said: “Elusive Symmetry came out of a project we did with a hip-hop dancer Lizzie Gough, video, us two playing and a computer all on stage.

“It’s all based around the art of M.C. Escher, who we are both fascinated by, and especially the way that his ideas can be mapped out onto music.

“We just thought that we needed to record this and for me, it was a labour of love and it was something we both really enjoyed doing.”

Both Eleanor and Alan fit their performances in around their family lives which, in Eleanor’s case, includes a teenage son and daughter of pre-school age.

“My kids are great and understanding, so they both roll with the punches a bit to a certain extent,” Eleanor said.

“My son is 13 so he helps me quite a lot with the little one, but it’s just determination and a complete ‘I will fit this in’ - and a little sleep deprivation.

“At some points, I can be a bit more of a giving mum and at other points, I have to get back to the harp.

“But it’s a passion, so we can’t complain, and it’s the best job in the world.”

Currently, Alan is on a tour of the western USA, with events in Colorado, Arizona and California before heading across to Illinois, Florida and Wisconsin after Easter.

Meanwhile, Eleanor will be performing over the next few months in places as diverse as West Sussex, Leicestershire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.

Alan said: “The world of music is so big and it leads you to all these different things.

“One of the interesting features of so-called classical music in the last 20 to 30 years has been that the barriers are coming down for a lot of people and, while we’re classical musicians, we also play with jazz people or world music people.

“It’s great that it’s opened up so much and a lot of what classical musicians end up doing can be described as a labour of love.

“But we totally bring it on ourselves because it’s a passion and therefore it’s a blessing to be able to do it and we just feel it’s a privilege, and lucky, to be able to do it.

“Music is an ephemeral thing, especially live music, as it’s there for that time and then it’s gone.

“Unlike a recording, it’s just the experience that’s left and so you want people to enjoy it, you want to introduce some new sounds to them and get them to think about some aspects of music that they may not have thought of before.”

Eleanor added: “Hopefully, people will have seen things in a different way, heard things in a different way and at least take a memory away.

“There’s usually one piece that stands out for each person as being something they relate to, like as if you’re going around an art gallery and hone in on one thing.

“That would be ideal, if people found our concert really memorable and they had a special experience.”

The Dussek Duo

Keyboard and strings in perfect harmony

The natural, the magical and strangely neo-classical

Review and interview by Winston Brown