Win­ter Harp marks 25 with sea sounds

The Georgia Straight - - Arts - By

SAlexan­der Varty

in­ger, song­writer, harp vir­tu­oso, flutist, record pro­ducer: Lori Pap­pa­john has ex­celled in many roles dur­ing her 25-year ten­ure as leader of Van­cou­ver’s Win­ter Harp, best known for its an­nual cel­e­bra­tions of Christ­mas and the sol­stice sea­son. And with the re­lease of the band’s 14th CD, Call of the Sea, she’s added yet an­other ac­com­plish­ment to her ré­sumé: swim­suit model.

But it’s no or­di­nary bathing cos­tume that she’s wear­ing on the cover of the new record, shot on a pris­tine Hawai­ian beach. In­stead, it’s a scar­let mer­maid’s tail, as el­e­gant as a ball gown and a whole lot more prac­ti­cal. If, that is, you’re a swim­mer.

“Have you ever tried a monofin?” Pap­pa­john says from her home in New West­min­ster, re­fer­ring to the sleek fish­tails worn by com­pet­i­tive free divers. “They’re fan­tas­tic. In­stead of just snorkelling on the sur­face, you can go right down so fast. And you get down there, and you’re just swim­ming face to face with the lit­tle fish and the oc­to­pus and the tur­tles and ev­ery­thing. And ’cause we had these monofins, I said ‘Well, why don’t we have a mer­maid tail?’ And when I Googled ‘mer­maid’, I was just amazed.”

Pap­pa­john was pleased to dis­cover that she wasn’t alone in her un­der­sea fan­tasy, and set about mak­ing her­self a set of more el­e­gant div­ing cos­tumes, in red, ma­genta, and emer­ald

Call of the Sea.

green. And once she started spend­ing more time un­der­wa­ter—singing and play­ing flute, she notes, help her to hold her breath for up to two-and-a-half min­utes—she dis­cov­ered that she needed a sound­track. Thus Call of the Sea was born, af­ter an al­most five-year ges­ta­tion.

“I had to keep putting it aside, be­cause I was al­ways do­ing Christ­mas CDS,” she al­lows. “So we’d put it aside, and we’d put it aside, and then this year I said ‘Okay, we’re fin­ish­ing this up.’ ”

The end prod­uct is suitably im­mer­sive—and as ro­man­tic as that cover shot of Pap­pa­john on the Maui sand, if not quite as oth­er­worldly as the CD’S gate­fold spread of the mu­si­cian swim­ming with a pod of Hawai­ian spin­ner dol­phins.

“Usu­ally the dol­phins are in one area, and you can just go hang with them,” she says. “But not that day: they were on the move. And by move, I mean move. But when we fi­nally found them, at one point there were prob­a­bly 20 dol­phins, I would say, about 20 feet below me, and one dol­phin left the pod and came right up to me. He stopped—he was up­right in the wa­ter—and looked me right in the eye, and in that mo­ment, I swear to God, he said ‘What the heck are you?’ And then he went back down and re­joined his pod.”

In part, Call of the Sea is Pap­pa­john’s at­tempt to sum­mon the magic of that oceanic en­counter. Sev­eral tracks draw on what the Win­ter Harp band­leader calls the “pre-raphaelite po­etry” of Thomas Moore, Al­fred Lord Ten­nyson, and the ap­pro­pri­ately named Wal­ter de la Mare, while three of the melodies are sourced from Celtic mu­sic, an­other of her abid­ing in­ter­ests.

As to how this new ma­te­rial will fit in with what she has planned for Win­ter Harp’s 25thanniver­sary con­certs, which will be held across the Lower Main­land through De­cem­ber, Pap­pa­john says, plainly, that it won’t. The sea­sonal con­certs will rely on Win­ter Harp’s well-loved blend of orig­i­nal ma­te­rial, me­dieval rar­i­ties, and fa­mil­iar carols, played by an ensem­ble that in­cludes both Ir­ish and con­cert harps, flute, hurdy-gurdy, vi­o­lin, and per­cus­sion. But there is a link be­tween aquatic ad­ven­ture and win­ter, how­ever un­likely that might seem.

The con­nec­tion, Pap­pa­john says, is that both in­volve div­ing deep, tap­ping one’s in­ner re­sources, and then emerg­ing tri­umphantly into the light.

“Tak­ing a breath [be­fore div­ing] is like fill­ing a store­house with all the food you’ll need for win­ter,” she ex­plains. “And then div­ing is like go­ing into win­ter—you go into the depths of the wa­ter, and then there’s a point where you have to come out, and that’s spring. And the fur­ther you go into the wa­ter the darker it is, and when you’re down there, it’s an­other world.

“And, you know, if you don’t come up for air…” she adds, laugh­ing. “So, yeah, I can see the anal­ogy be­tween the two, ab­so­lutely.”

Not ev­ery­one’s go­ing to be able to swim with the dol­phins over Christ­mas, but there are few bet­ter ways to plunge into the sol­stice sea­son than with Win­ter Harp.

dIT’S A WON­DER­FUL LIFE, an ex­cel­lent movie, and an okay stage mu­si­cal.

Frank Capra’s 1946 clas­sic is a feel­good Christ­mas film wrapped around a sear­ing cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ist greed. Its pro­tag­o­nist, Ge­orge Bai­ley, dreams of trav­el­ling around the world, but is re­peat­edly thwarted by cir­cum­stance; he ends up stuck in his home­town of Bed­ford Falls, de­fend­ing the fam­ily build­ing-and-loan busi­ness from the pre­da­tions of cor­po­rate ty­coon Mr. Pot­ter. One Christ­mas Eve, fac­ing a fi­nan­cial cri­sis, mid­dle-aged Ge­orge de­cides to end his life—but is saved by the in­ter­ven­tion of his guardian an­gel, Clarence.

Peter Jor­gensen’s adap­ta­tion is faith­ful to its source ma­te­rial; though he’s dressed it up with pe­riod songs (Gersh­win et al.) and a cou­ple of Christ­mas carols, he doesn’t gloss over the darker edges of Ge­orge’s story. Still, the show strug­gles to find a com­pelling emo­tional cen­tre.

The film’s Ge­orge was played with flus­tered charm by Jimmy Ste­wart— a tough ref­er­ence point for any ac­tor. Nick Fon­taine’s square-jawed hand­some­ness and but­tery singing voice suit the pe­riod, but his Ge­orge goes from grumpy to an­gry to fu­ri­ous with­out much dis­cernible warmth un­der­neath. For­tu­nately, there’s no short­age of that from Erin Palm, whose voice and pres­ence as his wife, Mary, are pure sun­shine.

And Greg Arm­strong-mor­ris works some heav­enly hi­lar­ity as Clarence: he’s obliv­i­ously mat­ter-of-fact about his age (293), sulky about not hav­ing earned his wings yet, and de­light­fully campy as he runs through some clas­sic show-tune moves while singing “Heaven on Earth”. For most of the first act, he has lit­tle to do but stand by and watch the ac­tion; when he fi­nally in­ter­acts with Ge­orge part­way through Act 2, the play livens up con­sid­er­ably.

Brian Ball’s set ref­er­ences the young Ge­orge’s ar­chi­tec­tural am­bi­tions, with blue­print lines and mea­sure­ments on the walls. But its cav­ernous­ness works against the in­ti­macy that the play needs, and the door­way at its cen­tre is un­for­giv­ably awk­ward.

The large cast works magic with Nico Rhodes’s in­tri­cate choral ar­range­ments, and mu­si­cal di­rec­tor An­gus Kel­lett ably leads a 10-piece or­ches­tra. But the songs them­selves aren’t won­der­ful enough to be reprised as end­lessly as they are here.

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