Amanda Harberg views ‘Hall of Ghosts’ as ‘calling the music back’ to the stage

Amanda Harberg admits that “the pandemic has just changed everything that I’ve been working on this year."

Although some celebrated works have been written for the flute, such as the two Mozart concertos, repertoire for the instrument and its close sibling, the piccolo, remains limited, especially compared to, say, the violin or cello.

That’s where Amanda Harberg comes in. In recent years, the New Jersey-based composer has written a range of works for the two instruments, becoming something of a hero to the flute and piccolo community along the way. “They have a very active, energized, tight-knit community, and they have sort of embraced me and have been very supportive of my music,” she said.

Jennifer Gunn, piccolo of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has recorded one of the newest of those works, Hall of Ghosts, for the March 25 episode of CSO Sessions, the orchestra's ongoing series of small-ensemble concerts streamed on CSOtv. And she has done it with a twist.

Gunn conceived the idea of including a dancer, who evokes the idea of ghosts, as suggested in the music. “I just thought the visual of having the dancer be the ghost would be a meaningful addition to the work," she said. "I was also feeling like we should all collaborate together a little bit more.”

Hall of Ghosts sprang from a project that Harberg completed soon after the COVID-19 lockdown began last year. When she learned that the premiere of her piccolo concerto had to be postponed after the 2020 convention of the National Flute Association was canceled, the composer organized an online project under the group’s auspices. Using a 2011 work she wrote as a meditation on healing when her mother was ill, Harberg invited 91 flutists alongside harp and percussion to contribute taped individual performances; then Micah Fink, her husband and a documentary filmmaker, edited them into a cohesive whole, with JoAnn Falletta serving as conductor. The result, titled The Prayer Project, was meant to be a musical beacon of hope and togetherness during isolation of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The pandemic,” Harberg said, “has just changed everything that I’ve been working on this year and has resulted in some very interesting projects that I never expected that I would have worked on or created.”

One of the musicians who took part in The Prayer Project was Gudrun Hinze, principal piccolo for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Germany. She got permission to tape her contribution alone on the stage of the orchestra’s concert hall, and that solitary performance inspired Hall of Ghosts. “That was a really powerful image for me that summed up so much of the predicament of live music in this time when the halls are all empty and filled with memories and history and ghosts,” Harberg said. She calls the piece, which runs about five minutes, an “invocation calling the music back.”

“There is an expressive line in the outer sections that is interspersed with pauses and silence,” she said. “It sort of evokes the echoes of the hall. Then, in the middle section, it is a livelier dynamism — music that more represents the ticking of time and the instrument striving to make itself heard. So there is the counterpoint between those two materials.”

Gunn described Harberg’s writing for the piccolo as having a lyrical, singing quality: “She uses the middle register of the piccolo a lot, which has a little bit more depth than people give it credit for.” 

Harberg wrote Hall of Ghosts in April 2020 as what she called a gift to the flute community, and Hinze premiered it in May with another taped solo performance on the Gewandhaus stage. Gunn was “really moved” by Hinze’s take, especially the way the German player proceeded on to the empty stage in silence. Gunn was kicking around some ideas for projects with Todd Rosenberg, the CSO's photographer and videographer, and a good friend, and she brought up Hall of Ghosts, suggesting it would make sense to involve a dancer and add a visual element to a performance of the work.

He mentioned the possibility to Cristina Rocca, the CSO's former vice president of artistic planning, and she enthusiastically greenlit the project. Rosenberg also collaborates with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, so he was able to serve as kind of an intermediary, bringing the idea to that company, which welcomed the collaboration. It selected Alyssa Allen, who joined Hubbard Street in November 2019, to participate.

Because of coronavirus restrictions, Allen and Gunn could not be on stage at the same time. Gunn taped her piece and then Allen performed the dance following that recorded performance, with Rosenberg editing the two takes together. “I think it’s going to be really magical,” Gunn said. “The way they set the lights up in the hall was really eerie and interesting.”

Allen improvised nearly all the movement with some coaching from Jessica Tong, Hubbard Street’s associate artistic director, who was with the dancer during the rehearsals and two-hour taping. “Oh, my gosh, I haven’t been on a stage for over a year, so it was amazing to return to that," Allen said. "It was such an honor to work with the Chicago Symphony. Live music is what inspires me in the first place.”

At the same time, she said, there was the joy of “just being able to create something that gives hope to the live arts, that [shows] even in the worst of times, we can still create, and viewers can still enjoy dance and music and the stage even from home.”

In 2018, Harberg composed her Sonata for Piccolo and Piano, which was commissioned by a consortium of 24 piccolo players. The group was spearheaded by Reginia Helcher Yost, the second flutist and piccolo player with the Charleston (S.C.) Symphony Orchestra, and included Gunn. Helcher Yost and Harberg premiered the sonata at the National Flute Association’s convention in 2018. Erica Peel, piccolo for the Philadelphia Orchestra, later commissioned Harberg to expand that sonata into a full-blown concerto.

That work was supposed to premiere last summer at the National Flute Association convention, but the gathering was canceled because of COVID-19. Late last year, the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded the concerto for its 2021 Digital Stage performance series, with a streaming date to be announced. Harberg originally conceived the concerto for full orchestra, but revamped it in November and December for strings, percussion, harp and timpani.

“While we often think of [piccolos as] being shrill and piercing, my concerto exists a lot in the middle register, because it is such a beautiful range of the instrument," she said. As a result, it is not as loud, so "I had to think a lot about that in the scoring.” She also made some other revisions, including extending the first movement, adding a cadenza and giving the work what she called a fun, “rock ’n’ roll-y” ending.

On whether she possesses a special affinity for the flute and piccolo, Harberg said, “It seems that I have. It’s always been very natural for me.” Even though she stopped playing the flute after the sixth grade, she kept her student instrument from that time. “It’s a really bad instrument, and not all the [keys] work," she said. "But I hold it sometimes when I’m getting ideas or play through certain things and make sure they feel good.”