Noteworthy's Q & A with Amanda Harberg

by Michael Caruso
Posted 1/20/22

Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra performed the “Piccolo Concerto” of Chestnut Hill native Amanda Harberg, with piccolo player Erica Peel as soloist.

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Noteworthy's Q & A with Amanda Harberg


Could you explain the genesis of your Piccolo Concerto? Have you ever composed for the piccolo before, and do you play the instrument yourself?

Much of my recent work has been supported by consortium commissions, in which groups of performers come together to commission a new work. The consortium model is ideal in how it leads to new friendships, many performances, and an energized community united through the creation of new repertoire. 

My Piccolo Concerto was the result of this consortium model two times over. Originally, I composed my Sonata for Piccolo and Piano in 2018 as the result of a consortium commission from 24 piccoloists, spearheaded by Regina Helcher Yost. Erica Peel, piccoloist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, later commissioned me through a GoFundMe campaign to expand the sonata into a full-blown concerto, for piccolo and orchestra. The concerto was originally supposed to premiere at the 2020 National Flute Association convention, but the gathering was canceled because of COVID-19. As one door closed, another opened, and the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered the work in 2021 on its Digital Stage, with Erica as soloist and Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting. 

Growing up, I had a hankering to play woodwind instruments. I loved how they felt in my hands, and the way that our breathing can create such uniquely singing timbres. I would rent various woodwind instruments and spend time getting the feel of them in my bones. Years later, I still use my beat-up old flute to play through all of my woodwind music when I’m editing phrasing and dynamics.

Happily, woodwind players are enthusiastic about playing new repertoire, and I love writing for them, so it’s a win-win. Back in 2013, I composed a recital piece for flute and piano called Feathers and Wax. This piece caught the attention of many flutists and by extension, piccoloists. I’ve now written extensively for both the flute and the piccolo, as well as for clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, English horn and wind quintet.

The piccolo especially needs repertoire. Historically, the instrument is used in the orchestra to add sparkle and brilliance due to its very high register.  However, due to its high register, its solo repertoire is very limited. When I first started writing for the instrument, I realized how beautiful it is in its lower and mid-registers. And not only does the piccolo have beguiling colors in these lower registers, it can also be an extremely virtuosic instrument. I love the challenge of making the piccolo shine as a soloist, and giving it flattering material that piccoloists will enjoy playing. 

Early on in the pandemic when things were closing down all around us, I created The Prayer Project, for a virtual flute orchestra, as a way of offering comfort to my friends in the flute community. Ninety-five flutists (including piccolo, C flute, alto flute, bass flute, and even the rare contrabass flute) came together, along with harp and percussion, and conducted by Maestra JoAnn Falletta to record their individual parts. My husband, documentary filmmaker Micah Fink, then wove them together into the final video. It premiered on FaceBook where it had 29,000 views. You can find the piece on youtube. 

Seeing the videos of my flutist friends in their Covid-caused isolation inspired me to compose Hall of Ghosts, for solo piccolo, which to me was an invocation for calling back live music to the stage. There is a haunting video premiere of Hall of Ghosts created by Gudrun Hinze - piccoloist with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Germany, also on youtube.

Did you work closely with the intended soloist once the commission was made and once you accepted it?

Erica Peel, the piccolo soloist, and I have a dynamic partnership that began in 2018. We work together frequently as a piccolo/piano duo, exploring new piccolo and flute repertoire together, and with me creating new repertoire for us to play. During the 2020 Covid lockdown, we created many virtual videos for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s online series, and even performed a backyard concert together. The Piccolo Concerto was an incredible culmination to our work together. Erica had many suggestions for new techniques to try out, including the Jethro Tull inspired singing while playing effect, which I used in the third movement. She would record herself playing different techniques, and I would ask her to try out different ideas. Our iPhone Memo apps have been put to very good use over the last few years!

Did you work with the conductor? If so, how?

I was able to be present during the recording session on January 12, 2021 in which Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the orchestra. Yannick was an inspiration in how he communicated his profound musicality, kindness and sense of humor, and all the while managing to problem-solve with incredible efficiency. He was very warm and welcoming to me in the recording session. And while he graciously asked for my input, I didn’t need to give any because his interpretation was already so glorious and impeccably prepared.

I grew up attending Philadelphia Orchestra concerts with my parents. Hearing this great orchestra as a child is part of why I am a composer and musician today. So for me, being present at this recording session was one of the most meaningful musical experiences of my life.

How long will you be in residency at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy? Are you bringing any new music with you?

The Springside Class of 1957 established an Artist-in-Residence program to support a performing or visual artist to work with the students in a public capacity at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. I was very honored when Ellen Fishman, the brilliant composer and educator who has been the Director of the Arts and New Media at SCH for ten years, invited me to be the Artist-in-Residence for 2022. 

My residency will be focused on my work as a composer through the lens of my Piccolo Concerto. Ellen raised funds to give tickets to 25 students to hear the concerto premiere. I addressed the school virtually through a video last December in advance of the premiere, relating to the students how as a Springside lifer and graduate, SCH helped me in my path toward becoming a professional composer. 

I will visit SCH this May for a day of three assembly performances, as well as meeting with students and alumni. Erica Peel will join me in these assemblies, where we will present and perform my Piccolo Sonata together.

To listen to my Sonata for Piccolo and Piano, please click on this link.