Rachel Neiman
September 27, 2009, Updated September 12, 2012

In October, the 17th International Harp Contest takes place in Israel. It’s one of the country’s most successful musical endeavors, and has set the standard for harp competitions worldwide.

Israel’s Knesset, which generally deals with the earthliest of matters, echoed with the strains of heavenly music this month. Below the famous Chagall tapestry of King David playing the harp, prize-winning harpist Sivan Magen played at a ceremony honoring the issue of a special stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of the International Harp Contest in Israel.

The stamp, a stylized image of the current first harpist of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), celebrates a jubilee for one of Israel’s oldest and most successful musical endeavors that has set the standard for all harp competitions worldwide.

The 17th International Harp Contest in Israel takes place from October 6 to 20. During the two weeks of the competition, 30 aspiring young harpists from around the world compete for the First Prize – debut recitals in London, New York and Israel, as well as a gilded Lyon & Healy concert harp valued at $50,000 – playing from a required repertoire spanning 400 years of music history.

“We are considered the number one harp competition in the world, without a doubt, and our contest winners are the top harpists in the world,” Esther Herlitz, harp contest chairperson, tells ISRAEL21c.

“This is not a student competition. We demand proof of prior performances, diplomas, previous competitions and not everyone is accepted. Contestants must be between 18 and 35 – though there are a very few young geniuses who get in – such as Gwyneth Wentink, a Dutch girl who won at the age of 17 in 1998. She will perform at the opening gala, says Herlitz.”

Israeli contest helps harpists blossom

Winners from the previous 16 contests will play at the opening gala concert at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium, in the presence of President Shimon Peres and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. They will be accompanied by the IPO, whose music director for life, Zubin Mehta, is also honorary president of the Harp Contest’s 50th Anniversary Celebration.

Mehta stated, “I am proud to note that the level of performance on the harp, the abundance of new music composed for the harp and the greater public awareness of the beauty of this heavenly instrument that has blossomed over the past half century, is primarily fruit reaped from the Harp Contest in Israel. Many talented young harpists have been launched on their way to fine careers.”

The contest was founded in 1959 by AZ Propes, a member of the Prime Minister’s Office with a flair for creating and marketing cultural events. After coming to the new state of Israel, Propes founded the Zimriya choral competition and the Israel Festival.

“He was always coming from a marketing perspective but with the highest possible quality,” notes Herlitz.

“In order to attract visitors, he suggested holding an international harp contest in Israel. Since no such contest existed anywhere in the world, Israel, he thought, was best suited since the harp originated in the Middle East,” she adds.

Propes made contact with New York-based Israeli violinist Isaac Stern, who put him in touch with leading harpists. “Interestingly, most of the great harpists at that time were men,” notes Herlitz. “And they built the repertoire, came to be the judges at the first contest. In fact, the American Harp Society was actually founded in Jerusalem,” she smiles.

An international impact

Among the list of prestigious sponsors are US-based manufacturer Lyon & Healy and the Victor Salvi Foundation, which promotes the harp to a wider audience.

The Israeli contest has had an impact on the harp world overall, says Herlitz. “Ours was the first major international harp contest. Bloomington was second and that was founded by Susann H. McDonald, who has served on the jury of our harp competition. Now there are major harp competitions in France, Japan and Spain. Also Ireland, but that is specifically for the Irish harp, which does not have pedals.”

Israel is also an active member of the World Harp Congress, which meets once every three years. Herlitz adds that, “actually, the second meeting ever was held in Kiryat Anavim in 1985.”

In his will, Propes endowed funds to create new Israeli compositions for solo harp and the AZ and Mara Propes prize has helped correct an imbalance in the harp world.

“One of the harp’s problems is the lack of repertoire, especially concerts for harp and orchestra,” says Herlitz, who goes on to explain that as far back as the planning stage, the first contest commissioned Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim to compose a solo for harp. Poem premiered at Carnegie Hall and was subsequently performed at the 1959 contest.

“Today, Israeli composers, like Maayani and Natra, have taken on the challenge of writing harp music and their works for harp are now played worldwide.” Out to Infinity, the new composition by last year’s winner, Yitzhak Yedid, will premiere at the 2009 contest.

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