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Harpist Emmanuel Ceysson Joins SFCM Faculty

Academic and musician Emmanuel Ceysson will join the SFCM faculty in the fall semester of 2022.

November 18, 2021 by Mark Taylor

By Mark Taylor

The SFCM string family is getting bigger. World-renowned harp player Emmanuel Ceysson will join the SFCM faculty as an instructor in 2022. Since 2020 he has been the Los Angeles Philharmonic Harpist, a position he took after nearly 15 years with the Opéra National de Paris, and then five seasons with the legendary New York MET Opera Orchestra. 

The SFCM Newsroom sits down with the harpist and finds out more about how he started playing, his unique approach to performance preparation, and why winning isn’t everything. 

How did you get started in music?

I was born in the suburbs of Lyon, which is one of France's major cities, with a great cultural scene. None of my parents were musicians, but my mother had a taste for classical music, inherited from her dad who was a good amateur clarinet player.  I also grew up hearing my six-years-older sister practicing the piano, and started developing a taste for Scarlatti and Debussy. Usually in France there are 1-2 years of music appreciation workshops before picking an instrument, and I began those at age six, learning the basics of music theory and solfege.

What drew you to the harp? 

I fell in love with the harp during those kids workshops when I was seven-years-old, listening to a recording of French harpist and flutist Lily Laskine and Jean-Pierre Rampal playing Mozart's Concerto for flute, harp and orchestra k.299.

I think what got to me was the particular nature of the harp sound: so warm, sustained, and harmonious. I remember not having an idea of what a harp even looked like, but making the decision to play it right away. 

My dedication actually got me on a TV talent show during my first year, certainly due to the fact that I must have been one the rare boys beginning their harp studies in France at the time! 

What music inspires you?

Anything that sounds good on harp!

More seriously, if I had to choose, I would settle for French (what a surprise...) impressionist music: Debussy and Ravel usually do a good job giving me chills, and flatter my sense of colors and harmonies. One has to say that it was at that particular time (early 20th century) harp started to really flourish in France, inspiring many composers. 

Second come the Russians (Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Glinka), and not far behind Strauss, Wagner, and Brahms... Did I forget to mention Puccini, Verdi and Bach too?

What are you listening to now? 

Most of the music I listen to is related to works I have to prepare for upcoming concerts, comparing versions, analysing scores, etc. 

I am more of a podcast listener when it comes to relaxing.

Having spent 15 years playing Principal Harp in 2 opera pits: the Paris Opera first, and then the MET in NY, it goes without saying that I have an extensive knowledge of the opera scores, but joining the LAPhil recently forced me to dig deeper in the symphonic repertoire.

I have been re-listening to Mahler and Bruckner symphonies, discovered recently and enjoyed Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, that we just played with Susanna Mälkki at the LAPhil. Later this season, I am looking forward to taking a dip in Stravinsky and Bartok.

How do you prepare for performances?

There is not really one answer to that question... In fact, there are as many answers as there are performances! 

With time and experience though, I learned that there was no, "one size fits all" kind of preparation: Factors like repertoire, exposure, stakes, physical and psychological states, time of the day and even temperature, all play a role in performance quality! 

But of course there are a few unavoidable requirements: a deep knowledge of your music (both theoretical AND practical/physical), and a deep knowledge of yourself. It is only through experience and failure that we get a chance at thriving in our art.

When teaching, what do you hope to pass onto your students? 

I think what matters to me the most is to prepare them the best I can for the world out there: being a professional classical musician today is nothing if not a challenge, anywhere in the world.

My role as a professor is to equip the students with tools they will be able to use during their musical life, to make them as autonomous as possible so that when they leave the Conservatory, they are ready for the obstacles coming their way.

Those tools are: 

-Technical (How to correctly use your fingers, hands, and whole body, to produce the best sound possible, enabling you to satisfy the needs the music you want to play demands).

-Theoretical (How to approach any piece of music, what to look for, how to analyse and plan your practice).

-Cultural (Contextualisation, musical history and culture).

-Psychological (How to work on performance anxiety, understanding better the personal impact performing has on you).

-Physical (How to be fit enough to perform in the long run?)

and you name it!

I also consider myself a proud "heir" of the Ecole Française de Harpe, a tradition which flourished at the Paris Conservatoire more than a century ago, and radiated throughout the world... So if my future students could leave the SFCM with a little piece of this "French sound" in their tool box, it would make me a happy man!

What drew you to SFCM? 

It doesn't take much to see that, under the presidency of David H. Stull, SFCM is thriving, and definitely one of the top music schools to go to for any aspiring musician!

I was invited there by Doug Rioth, Principal Harp with the SF Symphony and current Professor at the Conservatory, to give master classes last year, and I was in awe when I witnessed what the students had access to: great campus, including the brand new Bowes Center, great faculty, great instruments, good opportunities for ensemble and orchestra practice, and a comprehensive and well endowed scholarship system, and the chance to live in San Francisco!

After meeting with Dean Jonas Wright and sharing my vision of harp teaching, there was no question I was ready to take over after Doug's retirement in 2022.

I am also thrilled to join my friends and colleagues—conductor Edwin Outwater and oboist Eugene Izotov, both amazing at what they do!

Any funny performance stories you can share? 

During one of my tours in Germany with the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège (a Belgian orchestra) playing the Glière Concerto op.74 (one of my favorites) in 2016, I was driving with my red harp and a rental car from venue to venue, and I hit terrible traffic on one of the German highways. It was so bad actually that I arrived just at the top of the performance, had to "blitz tune" the harp, get in concert clothes, and run so fast on stage that I didn't see the limit and fell down four feet in the first row of the audience! 

Hopefully neither me nor any audience members got hurt, and I played the performance as an adrenaline junkie, barely realising what was happening!

Any advice for young musicians? 

Leave PLENTY of time if they have to drive to a concert venue!

Joking aside, and it's gonna sound cheesy, to believe in their dreams, be innovative, and ready to take on challenges. 

After the Covid crisis, the world of classical music performance seems to be at a turning point. Audiences are looking more and more away from the usual way to enjoy the concert, aka sitting 2 hours in a theatre, or 3-5 in an opera house. If we want to survive, we need to get out of our comfort zone, and try to engage people in new ways, while still of course keeping at heart the respect we owe music and the composers. This is up to all of us, but mainly to the next generation, the students of today, to redefine the standards of classical music.

What would you tell your younger self? 

To not believe too much in the power of international competitions: the best way to be recognised and to thrive is to be a beautiful and genuine artist, not a bloodthirsty contestant! 

We all have something to say with our instruments, and our place to find in this world. 

In the end, Music is what matters.

Anything else you'd like to add? 

I am very excited to start this new chapter of my pedagogical life in beautiful San Francisco, together with my new job at the LAPhil! Can't wait for 2022 and to join the SFCM team!

Learn more about studying Harp at SFCM.