Local harpist eager to perform pieces learned at university

 Following her freshman year at the University of Toronto, Owatonna’s Abigail Hansen has returned to her hometown for the summer, and she’s eager to show off the pieces she’s learned — as well as the strides she’s made as a musician — Saturday in a concert at the Owatonna Arts Center.

On Saturday, she’ll perform compositions by the likes of Marcel Grandjany, Carlos Salzedo, J.S. Bach, and Marcel Tournier, as well as three pieces written specifically for Hansen by David Occhipinti, a jazz composer and member of the university’s faculty. Saturday’s concert, from 2-3:30 p.m., is open to all, and a freewill donation will be taken to support Hansen as she continues her harp studies in Toronto.

The repertoire she’ll perform Saturday consists of pieces she spent the past year learning for her jury examination, Hansen said. Musicians learn enough compositions to fill an hour, then judges choose from those selections, and students must play from memory.

Though they memorize and practice enough material for an hour, the examination is only 10 minutes, but it represents approximately 35 percent of her GPA, so “a lot is riding on those 10 minutes,” she said. At Saturday’s concert, attendees will get to hear all of those pieces in full from Hansen, compositions she’s spent 900 hours practicing.

“I’ve studied these so long that I know all about them,” so she’ll provide facts and context, she said. “This concert will be a culmination and a celebration.”

Her “grand finale” Saturday, for example, will be Grandjany’s “Rhapsodie,” which she “spent hours and hours on” in preparation for her final performance exam and “nurtured” only to be asked to play just the first page by evaluators, rather than all 14, she said. “Rhapsodie” demonstrates “everything the harp can do,” and it illustrates Hansen’s tone, so “I’m really excited to share it.”

“Like a proud parent, I had the opportunity to see Abigail grow up at the arts center,” said Silvan Durben, creative director of the OAC. “We feel honored to have Abigail share her talents with the community.”

An education in music

For a yearlong class project, Hansen had the opportunity to work closely with a composer, and when she reached out to Occhipinti to see if he knew any students who could help her, he actually volunteered his own services, she said. Many composers avoid writing for harp “because it is daunting,” but, fortunately, Occhipinti is experienced in that arena, and the compositions he and Hansen put together also have a jazz influence because of his background.

She premiered the music in Canada earlier this year, but Saturday will be the first time those compositions are played in America, she said. They’re planning to collaborate again during Hansen’s sophomore year to publish, record, and perhaps even incorporate technology into her harp playing.

Obviously, performers like Hansen spend the preponderance of their time playing pieces by long-dead composers, so to have a hand in shaping this music was unique, with “more give and take,” said Hansen, who practices an average of four hours every day on her harp. “Now, we have this great connection,” which is “really cool.”

Also in Toronto, Hansen played harp for a film score, which was “really crazy,” she said. She was in a soundproof room and had to “play exactly what was on the page,” requiring “a different kind of musicianship,” as typically, performers must balance the composer’s writing with “making it our own.”

An early challenge for Hansen, which turned out to be a major source of personal growth, was her harp studio class, where students perform for one another every Friday and offer critiques, she said. Playing for peers is more pressure-packed than performing for an audience of strangers, no matter how large, and “everyone would call you out” if a performance was lackluster, but she elevated her game and discovered how to listen critically to others.

Growing as a musician

Overall, her first year in Toronto “was wonderful,” and though “I knew it would be a really packed year full of musical inspiration and knowledge, I had no idea how much” that had been true until she returned to Owatonna to reflect, she said. Compared to this time last year, her “musicianship” has improved almost exponentially, as she studied every aspect of music, from history to singing, rather than strictly performance, at college, thereby creating “a very whole musician.”

For example, while driving around executing errands earlier this week, Hansen heard part of a classical piece on Minnesota Public Radio. Because of her college training, she identified the period and believed it sounded like Felix Mendelssohn — and, sure, enough, he was the composer.

Hansen is “more intentional” about every move she makes in a performance, constantly questioning why, she said. “I’m thinking about everything more.”

At the collegiate level, she can no longer rely on muscle memory, and she reached a crossroads shortly before Christmas this year because she was failing in her memorization of pieces, she said. Fortunately, her teacher, acclaimed harpist Judy Loman — who was appointed principal harpist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1959, joined the University of Toronto faculty in 1966, and was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 2015 — helped her.

“I had to train my brain in a different way of thinking,” keeping “a broader view of pieces” and internalizing them, Hansen said. On airplanes, for example, Hansen will perform “mental practice,” visualizing every pedal and note even with her harp nowhere near her.

Hansen now thinks “one step ahead, not in the moment,” she said. “It’s like a ticker tape in my brain.”

A new, different culture

Toronto is by universal acclaimation one of the most popular international cities, and virtually any time Hansen walked outside her door she discovered something new, she said. “I love living there.”

Hansen resides right next to a pair of premium museums, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Gardiner Museum, and “the food is really great” in Toronto, especially sushi burritos, she said with a smile. “My friend and I have a weekly sushi burrito outing.”

Toronto is a genuine melting pot, with so many nationalities represented that Hansen at times feels like a minority as a Caucasian, and “everyone is put together and dressed up all the time,” she said. Her school alone is “three times the size of Owatonna.”

She bonded with her roommate, a fellow music student, as well as the other members in her harp studio, and “I’m enjoying my teacher as much as I thought I would—maybe even more,” she said. “Just being around (Loman) is inspiring and super motivating.”

Looking toward the future

Grandjany was “a huge reformer” in harp composition, and he represents one school of modern harp, Hansen said. Loman learned under Salzedo, who embodied the other branch, so Hansen is learning both camps, making her “a well-rounded player.”

Hansen’s goal for next year is to tackle Salzedo’s “Ballade,” which is “arguably the hardest piece in the repertoire,” she said. “I’m honored that (Loman) thinks I can do it.”

Of course, “I’d rather work hard than walk in and be able to play (a piece),” Hansen said. “I don’t like things that come easy to me.”


Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.