Covent Garden hacks out Swan Lake without a harp

Covent Garden hacks out Swan Lake without a harp


norman lebrecht

June 20, 2018

From one of our readers:

I had a ticket for a Swan Lake performance on Friday 8 June at Covent Garden as a gift for my retirement. The show was due to start at 7.30pm but it did not. The audience was waiting patiently. After 20 minutes, Kevin O’Hare announced that they were missing a harp player. A few minutes after that, the performance started.

There was no harp for the whole of Act 1. As soon as Act 1 finished, Kevin O’Hare reappeared on stage and announced that the famous harp cadenza and violin solo accompaniment in Act 2 would be played on the piano from the wings by an ROH repetiteur who had come in from home. O’Hare said this would make it a more special experience. Many in the audience got up and left. Those of us who stayed witnessed piano playing with lots of wrong notes, on an instrument in desperate need of tuning. Later on during the interval we heard that the pianist was Koen Kessels.

The performance finished with 25 minutes overtime.

No mention of this improvisation has been permitted to appear among Covent Garden’s adulatory audience comments. The season’s last performance of the ballet is sold out.


  • M2N2K says:

    Wasn’t it Stanislaw Lem who said that a harp was a striptease of a grand piano? If that simile is correct, then the audience in this performance got a musical taste of an unattractive and poorly dressed impostor who was trying in vain to masquerade as a perfectly shaped superstar nude model.

  • Jackyt says:

    I’m pleased you reported this, as I have a friend who had taken her daughter and granddaughter to this performance, and told me all about their disappointment, particularly the out-of-tune piano. Until this report I had not found any other mention of this. Even worse for them, I had been raving about the 6 June performance with Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov, to which I had taken my daughter, promising her they were all in for a huge treat!

  • Patrick says:

    Oops, Mr. Lebrecht…the last part of a sentence was left off. It should read:

    “Later on during the interval we heard that the pianist was Koen Kessels, who will never answer his phone again.”

  • JLMus says:

    As Carl Nielsen said (I checked the NY Times for this) “‘A harp in an orchestra is like a hair in a soup.”

  • Andrew Cumine says:

    Has anyone found out where the harp player was?

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Should have at least used a synth. They have harp patches that sound almost exactly like the real thing and don’t go out of tune.

  • V.Lind says:

    They can fly in replacement Carmens from Paris hours before a show.In all of London there was no replacement harpist available? And any pro harpist would have known Swan Lake.

  • Vaquero357 says:

    But…..Covent Garden is in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities with, one must assume, more than one competent harp player that could come in on short notice and pinch hit (oops, American analogy there) for an ailing/AWOL/trapped in traffic harpist. They had all of Act I to sort this out (ca. 45 minutes) and could come up with no better solution? And Covent Garden has no contingency plans for backup tactical harp support in the event of such an emergency? Sigh.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    They should have just asked, “Is there a harp player in the audience?”

    There are probably several at any performance of Swan Lake.

  • Bruce says:

    It happens sometimes: a musician simply fails to show up, with no advance notice. Maybe the harpist was in a traffic accident and was unconscious. Maybe they were stuck in traffic (conscious but immobilized). Maybe they forgot what day it was. Maybe they just got really drunk. Maybe they chose a spectacular way of quitting.

    It happens more often than you’d think, but it’s usually a string player and the concert can go on just fine without them. (Statistics, I guess: there are strings than anything else, so it makes sense there would be more absences in the strings)

    I would guess there was a fair amount of frantic phone calling backstage once curtain time came & went and they realized the harpist wasn’t coming. Just because London is full of harpists who know Swan Lake, that doesn’t mean there was one available right this very minute, even if they are on the Covent Garden sub list.

    Sometimes you just have to do what you can with what you’ve got.

    • Bruce says:

      ^ I just reminded myself of a line from “The Silence of the Lambs” (the book — the line didn’t make it into the movie).

      Agent Starling asks Hannibal Lecter if he really fed pieces of the Baltimore Symphony’s principal flutist to a group of symphony board members. He replies:

      “You know how it is, Clarice, when you’ve got company coming and no time to shop. You just have to make do with what’s in the fridge.” It’s a good movie, but it’s a great book.

      • Derek says:


        As you are a flute player, were you able to sleep after reading that or go anywhere near a fridge? Then again, you are probably as tough as old boots! 🙂

  • M2N2K says:

    A conductor who is no longer with us used to say: “Harpists are those who tune their instruments for two hours before a concert in order to play them for two minutes during the concert – out of tune!”.

  • Zalman says:

    Harp insults aside, here is a good reason for an orchestra to own its own harp, so that any substitute could have run over and played. There probably are a number of people in London who could do so. Perhaps they failed to notify the harpist of the performance. But any major opera house should have at least one second harpist who would also understudy the first harpist. I recall that they were looking rather desperately for a top-notch harpist in the late 1990s. There are not that many who specialize in ballet, even fewer than those in opera.
    Carl Nielsen is one composer who’s music I rarely bother listening to, because he has no harp parts. At least we don’t have to play his music.

    The harp is the ORIGINAL stringed instrument, older than any others. The violins, guitars, virtually all other stringed instruments descend from the lyre. And anyone who calls a lyre a harp is a liar. It is the only “plucked” string instrument in the orchestra, and it is indispensable, as this sad occurrence demonstrates. Despite being undervalued by conductors and other orchestra members for centuries, due to ignorant German traditions, the harp is one of the most important members of any orchestra. (Berlioz, in his amusing memoir, relates the frustration of not being able to have performances of Symphonie Fantastique in Germany due to the lack of adept harpists with adequate harps. It is because of that condition that the false notion evolved that the harp should be somewhere way in the back of the orchestra, barely audible, if ever, contributing just a vague sense of atmosphere.)
    And tell that to Marin Alsop, please. She has neglected to have one for too many years in the Baltimore Symphony, not to mention whoever is leading the New Jersey Symphony. They are the only professional orchestra I know of, perhaps anywhere, that do not have a full-time principal harpist, to their shame.

    • Cubs Fan says:

      The harp is indeed an important and essential instrument that adds so much color. Think of the Sibelius 1st, Shostakovich 5th, Elgar 1 & 2 – they aren’t the most flamboyant parts, but so piquant and couldn’t have been scored in any other way. I can’t entirely blame conductors – the harp is just a mystery to many. The technique, of what is possible and what is not, is mind boggling to non-harpists. Arrangers and composers are often at a loss. The composers who really seemed to understand it were the Russian nationalists and the French composers. Debussy, Ravel, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov really knew how to make it sound. So did Tchaikovsky. Film composer Bernard Herrmann really loved it. I took a one-semester Intro to the Harp course in college to learn how to write for it, and finished the course quite humbled. My teacher, Susann McDonald, was quite blunt: if you don’t learn the harp as a child and grow up with the instrument, you will never be a master harpist. And I thought violin was hard!

    • Harpissima says:

      Carl Nielsen wrote the hauntingly beautiful piece “Tågen Letter” – The Fog is Lifting” for harp and flute. If you do not have that in your repertoire, or indeed have not even heard of it, well then … shame on you!

  • Michael Julian says:

    Joining this conversation very late:

    1) We attended the Friday 8 June performance, harpist AWOL, special occasion.
    2) Kevin O’Hare actually said that the harpist was “indisposed” and that the piano substitution form the wings “would make the performance marginally less unattractive”; it was clear from his body language that he did not relish the solution, but considered it preferable to a cancellation and total refund. It seemed worth the risk.
    3) The piano sounded honky-tonk and pretty awful.
    4) Overall the first half of the performance was spoiled in an otherwise faultless production but…
    5) Ecce homo! The harpist suddenly appeared for the second half. Maybe had missed the bus.