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Eugene Weekly : Music : 3.17.11

 

Hip Harpist

Killing the Twee with Deborah Henson-Conant

by Brett Campbell

When her parents rented a harp and tried to encourage young Deborah Henson-Conant to play it, she dismissed it as sissified. But a decade later, the half-dozen lessons she took got her a gig with her college band, which needed someone to play the instrument. She soon left classical music behind, lugging her six-foot concert harp into jazz clubs and jamming. But if you billed a show as featuring a "jazz harpist,” you probably wouldnt get many more audience members than strings in the instrument, so Henson-Conant started singing as well.

Now the Grammy-nominated "hip harpist” wields her concert harp in venues where its seldom gone before, and also straps on and plugs in a cut-down version that she can strum, pluck and tune while belting out blues, boogie, pop, even gospel and show tunes in a sturdy alto voice, sometimes sounding like Sandy Denny (when she does a Celtic harp show), sometimes Carole King, sometimes Dianne Schuur, sometimes like a blues guitarist.

Henson-Conant, who appears at The Shedd on Tuesday, March 29, is an engaging stage presence, fond of telling stories and jokes in her one-woman show. She also performs with orchestras, including the Boston Pops. Maybe it took Joanna Newsom to finally kill the image of the harp as delicate, twee and old fashioned, but Henson-Conant is happy to dance on that outdated images grave.

Another string virtuosa hits town Thursday night, March 17, when Sarah Chang ã whos continued her artistic growth beyond her prodigy years, has played with most of the worlds major orchestras and is one of todays leading violinists ã joins the Eugene Symphony to perform one of the pillars of the Romantic repertory, Brahmss big Violin Concerto. The orchestra will also perform one of the greatest works ever written for orchestra, Claude Debussys three symphonic sketches, The Sea. Few works have so movingly depicted any subject, in this case the wind, waves and light on the Mediterranean. The concert opens with another nautically inspired work, Felix Mendelssohns stormy Hebrides Overture, which evokes the famous Fingals Cave on a Scottish island and the roiling ocean around it.

While celebrating the Portland Baroque Orchestras appearance here last week and its new relationship with our own Oregon Bach Festival, we shouldnt overlook the fact that Eugene has its own period instrument ensemble. The members of the Oregon Bach Collegium, led by harpsichordist Margret Gries and violinist Michael Sand, have devoted years to studying and performing Baroque chamber music on the instruments the composers intended. Their March 22 concert in the intimate atmosphere of United Lutheran Church at 22nd and Washington features the music of Antonio Vivaldi, going way beyond the usual Four Seasons to explore sonatas, other concertos, church music for voices, chamber cantatas and more.

Two other refugees from the classical music world, Tommy Cappel and David Satori, headed abroad to explore the music of other cultures, including the musical hotbeds of Bali, West Africa and Serbia. But its Middle Eastern music ã including belly dance rhythms and performances by dancer Zoe Jakes ã that forms the foundation of their band Beats Antiques danceable fusion of electronica, world beat and pop sounds. The San Francisco-based band plays at the McDonald Theater on Thursday, March 31, and were telling you about it early because their shows have been known to sell out. Another Bay Area-based electronica artist, Eskmo, opens.

Speaking of belly dance, our own Middle Eastern Dance Guild has been bringing that joyously jiggly performance art to local stages for two decades now. On March 18, theyre hosting former Silicon Valley software engineer Jim Boz, whos now a leading dancer, choreographer and teacher ã and, like the Beats Antiquers, he also composes and remixes Middle Eastern influenced electronic interpretations of classical Arabic sounds ã to Cozmic Pizza. The restaurant also hosts jazz pianist and bandleader Solomon Douglass Swingtet on March 28. The ten-piece band specializes in the danceable music of the great Count Basie Band and Duke Ellington Orchestra, along with other big band standards.