SAN DIEGO — According to a folk saying common to medieval Britain and Gaul, the three components of a comfortable household were a virtuous wife, a cushion for one's chair and a harp.
If the conscientious modern must discard the first two requisites as relics of sexism and an unhealthful, sedentary lifestyle, the notion of the harp being essential to domestic harmony remains eminently defensible. Through centuries of its evolution, the dulcet tone of plucked harp strings has ranked among the most sublime of man-made sounds.
Although the harp has long been a staple of Celtic folk and classical music, in recent years it has found its way into jazz, new-age and pop music, thanks to the efforts of such contemporary performers as Andreas Vollenweider and Deborah Henson-Conant. If, in the interest of equanimity, one must stop short of declaring the harp's resurgence a major trend, it is safe to say that the harp as a non-orchestral solo instrument has regained a cachet once thought irretrievably lost.
That said, an event taking place this week on the University of San Diego campus seems serendipitously timed. Today through Sunday, the International Society of Folk Harpers and Craftsmen (ISFHC) will gather at USD for "A Quincentennial Celebration of the Harp in America."
The four-day gala, to be held at the school's Hahn University Center and at nearby Shiley Hall, will include harp performances and other activities designed to illustrate the instrument's diverse forms and applications. (This event is not to be confused with the American Harp Society's annual conference, also at USD, which begins Monday.)
The folk harp (as distinguished from the more complex, modern orchestral harp) arrived in the Americas with the first European settlers, but by then it already had a long and colorful history. Although there is no hard evidence to prove it, many historians believe that the first harp was an accidental invention, the result of ancient hunters adding extra, high-tension strings to their bows. Certainly, the first harp-like instruments were simple, bow-shaped models played in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and equatorial Africa.
By the 9th Century, the harp had evolved into the rather squat, triangular "frame" harp favored by the Celtic peoples (it would become the official symbol of Ireland), and five centuries later musicians on the Continent adopted a harp with more slender, Gothic lines. Variations of the Celtic and Gothic harps crossed the Atlantic with explorers and immigrants, and filtered throughout the Americas. Over the decades, the instrument revolutionized Latin American folk music, which previously had been dominated by wind and percussion instruments.
The activities planned for the USD series promise a panoramic look at the harp's development and demonstrations of its uses in various cultures. Each day at the Hahn University Center, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., there will be free exhibits of harps and other unusual instruments, as well as paid-admission lectures, master classes and workshops on topics ranging from music history and appreciation to hands-on harp lessons.
Each of the nightly 8 p.m. concerts in Shiley Hall will feature four harpists. The performers represent a broad sampling of the instrument's cultural and stylistic diversity.
Tonight's concert features Javier Montoya, who will perform the music of the plains region of Colombia; Louise Trotter, a classically trained harpist who specializes in interpreting American folk and pop on the instrument; Twin Harps, the duo of Cheryl Ann Fulton (the foremost American exponent of medieval, renaissance, and baroque harps) and Diana Stork, and Mara Galassi of Milan, Italy, whose specialty is early ensemble music, with an emphasis on Spanish renaissance.
Performers at Friday night's concert include La Jolla's Margot Krimmel, winner of last year's Tucson Harp Festival competition, who plays folk harp; Luis Felipe Gonzales of Venezuela, who will perform that country's folk-harp styles; Cheryl Ann Fulton (solo this time), and Alberto de la Rosa, professor of music at the University of Veracruz, who specializes in the regional styles of Mexico.
Saturday night's concert features Cesar Daniel Lopez, a noted exponent of Paraguayan harp music; Nancy Thym-Hochrein, whose work concentrates on German and Tyrolean harps and rock 'n' roll; recording artist Kim Robertson, who performs Celtic music, and jazz harpist and GRP Records artist Deborah Henson-Conant.
Artists at Sunday night's concluding concert include Cynthia Valenzuela, who will perform Celtic and Northern Spanish harp music; Los Angeles' Sylvia Woods, a former member of the Incredible String Band and 1980's All-Ireland harp champion, who will play Celtic music; Alfredo Rolando Ortiz, who will perform Latin American music, and Ben Brown.