Harpist spends months preparing to play John Williams' music for 'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial' with Grand Rapids Symphony

Grand Rapids Symphony musicians typically spend more time preparing and rehearsing music by Mahler, Prokofiev and others for the orchestra’s Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series than they do for other programs.

But several months ago, personnel manager Erich Peterson reached out to principal harpist Beth Colpean about a particular show in the Fox Motors Pops series.

The score for Grand Rapids Pops' upcoming performances of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial arrived with a note, suggesting the music be provided to the harpist earlier than anyone else in the orchestra.

“I got the music in May,” Colpean said. “The part is 90-plus pages long.”

Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday, Nov. 4 through Sunday, Nov. 6 gives three performances of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film, a story of a little boy and a lost alien who become fast friends.

The movie starring Henry Thomas as Elliott won four Academy Awards including the Oscar for Best Original Score to composer John Williams.

“John Williams writes some extremely challenging music for all instruments,” said Colpean, principal harpist with the Grand Rapids Symphony since September 2000.

Williams writes a lot of great music for brass instruments. The main themes for Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark feature trumpet prominently. But the five-time Oscar winning film composer also favors other instruments such as the celeste, featured prominently at the opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

“I have noticed in the years I have watched John Williams' films that he often uses the harp in very unusual ways – rhythmically challenging, technically challenging and totally exposed,” said Colpean, who has performed at Tanglewood Music Festival, at the Seventh World Harp Congress in Prague in the Czech Republic, and in a two-harp recital with her mother at the American harp Society Conference.

The 120-minute score for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial includes four or five major passages including two that are almost entirely a solo for harp alone.

“Most are indicated as ‘solo,’ but some aren’t,” said Colpean, who formerly was principal harpist with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra before coming to Grand Rapids.

After months of studying and practicing her part, Colpean finally sat down in September to watch ET,with the music, a metronome, Post-It notes, and a sharpened pencil at hand.

“It was extremely helpful for me to watch the movie and read the score at the same time because I now know exactly what is exposed,” she said recently.

The first major solo comes early in the film. Elliot gets out of bed after everyone is asleep and waits for ET outside. After Elliot makes contact, he uses handfuls of Reese’s Pieces to lure ET into his home and up to his bedroom.

That’s where the harp solo – marked “molto rubato, dream-like,” begins.

“The passage is roughly two minutes long or so and accompanies the scene in which ET mimics Elliot – rubbing his face, touching the mouth, bending an index finger, that sort of thing,” Colpean said. “The music disappears when Elliot finally cannot keep his eyes open any longer and falls asleep.”

The second prominent harp solo comes when Elliot’s mother, Mary (Dee Wallace), is reading a bedtime story to his sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore) while ET, hidden in a closet, watches through the door. Moments later, Elliot cuts himself on a saw blade, and ET and his glowing finger come to the rescue.

“It’s a memorable scene because of ET's healing powers,” Colpean said. “For me, the technical challenge was figuring out how best to play my left-hand bass notes. It’s a tremendously wide chord pattern, and it took me some time to figure out the best way to execute it.”

See for yourself how it’s done with Associate Conductor John Varineau leading the Grand Rapids Symphony with live music while the full-length film is screened in HD on the big screen in DeVos Performance Hall.

If not this weekend, come back in January when the Grand Rapids Symphony does the same with John Williams’ score to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Colpean, who previously has shared the spotlight on the Grand Rapids Symphony stage with jazz harpist Deborah Henson-Conant, said she’s already anticipating what’s in store for her with that musical score.

“We’ve played some of the published parts, and there is a duet in that movie with the contra bassoon that is equally as challenging as the ET score,” she said.

One thing she knows is she’ll have to prep a little quicker for those shows.

“I won’t have the luxury of obtaining that score as far in advance as ET's,” she said.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 10:30
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