Harpist Parker Ramsay performs in the US premiere of The Street at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church during Spoleto Festival USA | Photo by Tatiana Daubek

The Street, a musical reimagining of the Stations of the Cross with music by American composer Nico Muhly and text by American poet and librettist Alice Goodman, will have its U.S. premiere June 7 at 2022 Spoleto Festival USA.

Accompanied by a chorus of eight voices, solo harpist Parker Ramsay will perform 14 meditations on the Stations of the Cross while text from Goodman, who is also an Anglican priest, is read by local narrator Marcus Amaker throughout the 75-minute show.

Ramsay, a Nashville native, studied history at King’s College, Cambridge, as an organ scholar before returning to the United States to learn historical performance at Oberlin College and modern harp at The Juilliard School. His work has been lauded by BBC Music Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and The Independent.

In April 2022, Ramsay performed the world premiere of The Street at King’s College, Cambridge. With the U.S. premiere fast approaching, we chatted about the coming performance, his past work on Bach and his harpist roots.

City Paper: Your bio notes that you play harps from different time periods. Is there a difference between historical harps and modern harps?

Parker Ramsey: Yes. The harp has developed technologically over the last 400 years. In the 17th century, harp was part of a family of instruments. They were associated with the lute, the theorbo and the harpsichord. In the 18th century, harp started to come into its own, often played in aristocratic residences and usually by women) In the 19th century, the industrial revolution increased the size of the instrument and with it, technical expectations. That’s when the modern harp was really born as a solo instrument for public performance. Since World War II, though, harp has taken new direction as an instrument for contemporary music and expression. The instrument’s technology remains largely the same as it has been since the 1830s.

CP: In your 2020 New York Times essay, “Is Bach Better on the Harp?,” you talked about the challenges transcribing Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations. How did you approach that?

Ramsay: I approach music from the point of view that all music is transcription. Even if you play Bach on the piano, you are not playing Bach on the same instrument Bach had, which was a harpsichord. And if you do play Bach on the harpsichord today, you are most likely playing historical reproductions of instruments that are 400 years old – and probably unplayable now. We have a good idea of how they were built and what they sound like, but it’s not the same. That said, when I took the Goldbergs to the harp, it did take a lot of finagling. Some things I thought would be extremely difficult worked brilliantly, and there were things that worked technically, playable on the harp, but did not evoke the right sound. I did my best to find the spirit of the music, and then use the transcription process to find technical comfort. 

CP: What does the harp, as an instrument, mean to you?

Ramsay: The harp is like a mother tongue, the most natural and comfortable way in which I can express musical ideas. After all, the instrument is my first and most authentic exposure to music. My mother is a professional harpist, and she works with many talented students. My earliest memories about harp – and harp music — are of sitting and listening to my mother teach. As such, what I wanted to do artistically with contemporary music and exploration of new sound worlds was always going to be most effective using the instrument I was most familiar with.

CP: From your blog and Instagram, I noticed you also have a great interest in other art platforms, like painting. Can you talk about that?

Ramsay: One of the things I love most about literature and art is how music is approached from an outsider’s perspective. Writers often take music at face value, discussing how it makes them feel, but nothing more. Painters have wonderful ways of evoking sounds in your imagination without using your ears. 

CP: What are you most excited about playing The Street?

Ramsay: As with any new work, I am excited to present something novel for audiences. The Spoleto Festival has an incredible programming lineup this year, and it’s a real honor to be presenting this work alongside things like Omar, Yuval Sharon’s new production of La bohème, or Karim Sulayman’s Unholy Wars. On top of that, I’m excited to showcase a work I commissioned with two artists I really admire, Nico Muhly and Alice Goodman. I feel lucky I get to work with Nico and Alice, who work in new music as well as religious music, in the ways which I have as an organist and a harpist.

CP: What can attendees expect from the upcoming performance at the Spoleto Festival USA?

Ramsay: There is something for everyone in The Street — it’s a big work with many different themes. Audiences should be prepared to be struck by Alice and Nico’s expressive and emotional dexterity, and experience a work that is incredibly impactful and moving.

The Street will be performed 5 p.m. June 7 at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, 405 King St., Charleston. Tickets.

Tina Zhu is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.

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