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On May 13, César Secundino M.M.’17 was awarded both first prize and the Audience Award at the World Harp Competition (WHC), celebrated during the Dutch Harp Festival at the TivoliVredenburg theater in Utrecht, Netherlands. Known for his lively performances, Secundino saw in this competition an opportunity to showcase his abilities on stage. “Traditionally, harp competitions are focused on classical performers, where compulsory classical pieces are established and judged based on technique, hand position, and how you attack the strings with your fingers instead of judging the performance as a musician. The only requirement to enter the WHC was to be creative, and the only rule was to design your own program to be presented at the festival. I decided to enter because I saw an opportunity to show my work as a musician, not as a technical harp player,” says the graduate of the Master of Music in Contemporary Performance (Product Concentration) program.
A Journey around the World
Secundino designed a program entitled Around the World in 47 Strings,” which took him to the final round. He named it in honor of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days and in reference to the fact that the pedal harp has 47 strings. “I wrote different arrangements based on world music from the countries where I have been playing and learning: fusions between tango, jazz, or classical sounds from Mexico, Argentina, Hungary, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, and the U.S. The target of the program was to show all the possibilities that the pedal harp has and to showcase the techniques that I have been designing to play the instrument in my own way,” he says.
The whole process took around one year and was divided into four rounds. For the first one, contestants had to send a recording with one of the pieces from the 45-minute-long program. From this round, the organizers selected harpists from all around the world to play at the quarter finals. A scout jury traveled to three different venues in the Netherlands, Hong Kong, and the U.S. As Secundino is currently based in Mexico, he chose to play in New York City, where he was asked to perform a 15-minute pitch with at least 10 minutes from the program he composed.
Watch Secundino, M.M.'17, perform at the DHF World Harp Competition Semifinals:
Eight semifinalists were then selected to play in the Dutch Harp Festival, and that is where Secundino performed the complete program. For the final round, where contestants had to play a five-minute highlight from their performance, Secundino admits that he was unprepared as he wasn’t sure he would make it that far. “Thankfully, between the semifinal and the final round, we had an hour to warm up, so I used that time to prepare an arrangement. As I had the honor to be the only Latin American harp player in the contest, I decided to improvise an arrangement mixing Latin rhythms like tango, joropo, son, and Latin jazz,” he says.
The jury comprised Neil Wallace, program director of the De Doelen Concert Hall in Rotterdam and artistic director of Haarlem’s International Choral Biennale; Edmar Castañeda, harp virtuoso; Erika Waardenburg, harpist; Dominic Seldis, double bass player, television personality, conductor, and corporate speaker; Harold López-Nussa, composer and piano player; Amandine Carbuccia, harpist; and Niladri Kumar, sitar player. Secundino recalls the words of two of the members who judged his performance: The first one said, “Far from being a contestant, you were playing for the audience, and I felt that you enjoyed your performance. You have a very good angle to transmit your happiness on stage, and that touched me.” The second one said, “Is it true that you started to play when you were 19 years old? Because if it is true, I am scared. You played things with a strange technique, and I don’t know how you got to play like that. It seems like the harp is an extension of your body.”
Secundino says he didn’t expect to win both first prize and the Audience Award, where the audience could cast their votes through a virtual platform. “Winning both prizes was, and continues to be, a wonderful experience. The first prize acknowledges my abilities to play the harp and reassures me that I can play anywhere I want, not only in pubs, as I was told in the past. The Audience Award recognized the beautiful communication I had with people all over the world through my music,” he says. Secundino also acknowledges that winning this international competition wouldn’t have been possible without the support he received from his family, friends, and teachers, and is thankful to have had the opportunity to play alongside the other finalists because he learned a lot from them.
Secundino and fellow graduate student Lili del Sol perform at La Nit de Berklee 2017:
Opening New Doors
The harpist says that winning these prizes has already opened several doors for him. He has been booked to perform in places like Hong Kong at the end of the year, and, as the winner, will receive an individually tailored career boost: the organization will support him in the development of a professional project. “Another benefit is that in the next two years, they will arrange for me to play in different concert halls. As a matter of fact, I already gave my first concert, which took place a week after the competition, at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam,” he says.
Secundino is back in Mexico now, where he has been composing, performing, and working on projects, like the recording of a new album, as well as preparing his summer tour around his home country and, later on, in Europe. He fondly remembers the year he spent at Berklee’s campus in Valencia. He shares that the biggest learning experience for him was understanding that when preparing a concert, it’s not just about playing a number of pieces, but about defining an idea and establishing all the elements needed in order to make a complete performance. “With all the tools that Berklee provided me with, I was able to design an original and complete program for the competition,” he says.
With a bright future ahead of him, the performer says he wants to “keep learning from life to translate those experiences into the music I want to keep on playing.” He explains that for harpists, it’s extremely difficult to play in styles other than classical music. “I found an area of opportunity, which I focused on during my culminating experience: to create a methodology that allows me to teach the improvisation process over the pedal harp. This way I can help others understand what I have been learning during my harp career in an easy way,” he concludes.