Dynamic duo

Beverly Colgan and Joe Venuto on harp and vibraphone

What can you do with one of the world’s oldest instruments and one of the newest? Just about anything: jazz, classical … and maybe hip-hop.

What can you do with one of the world’s oldest instruments and one of the newest? Just about anything: jazz, classical … and maybe hip-hop.

Photo By David Robert

Beverly Colgan and Joe Venuto, the harp and vibes duo, will play at the Southwest Reno United Methodist Church, 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Dec. 24.

“There are a couple other harp and vibe duos in the country, I’ve found out,” Beverly Colgan says of the unexpected marriage of the harp, one of the oldest instruments in existence, and the vibraphone, a relatively new electric instrument used primarily for jazz.

Colgan is the principle harpist for the Reno Philharmonic, Nevada Festival Ballet, Nevada Opera and the Reno Chamber Orchestra. Her husband, Joe Venuto, was previously a percussionist for the Nevada Opera and the Reno Philharmonic. Prior to that, he was a New York recording musician and played with the Sauter-Finnegan Orchestra. They began performing as a duo when she was rehearsing a Mozart flute and harp concerto. As the story goes, she had Venuto play the flute part on the vibraphone, and they loved the sound.

“We didn’t really think of it before that, but the sound really knocked us out, so we thought, what else can we do?” Colgan says.

Playing as a duo provided the two musicians with challenges and opportunities that were not present in the larger groups.

“In the beginning, we had to learn to practice and not destroy our marriage,” Colgan says. “Because I’d be going, ‘You missed the B flat. You don’t love me anymore.'”

But the two-piece setting freed the pair from orchestral arrangements, which would often leave them counting bars for long stretches of time.

“My part,” Venuto says, of playing “The Nutcracker Suite” with an orchestra, “was mostly hitting a triangle …”

"… every one hundred bars. Now we can do the whole ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ all by ourselves,” Colgan adds.

They arranged and found plenty of music, both classical and jazz, that worked, and the pair now features about 100 selections in their repertoire.

“We’ve got Christmas stuff, we’ve got jazz stuff, we’ve got Hanukkah stuff … We’ve got a bunch of New Age music ‘cause that was popular when we were starting, classical stuff,” Colgan lists.

Venuto recently even found a Kwanzaa tune for the duo to perform. They play music by Scarlatti and by Dave Brubeck. Carl Stalling’s Looney Tunes theme is a big hit for them when they play schools as part of the Reno Philharmonic Discover Music program, and they even perform a version of “Dueling Banjos.”

“The only thing we haven’t done is some Eminem,” says Venuto.

And the duo apparently isn’t against the idea of tackling some hip-hop.

“I love rap music,” Colgan says, “but it’s kind of hard to do …”

“On a harp?” I ask.

"… under the circumstances.”

Though it may be some time before we get to hear their interpretations of Public Enemy, the duo has recorded a CD of holiday music called Harp & Vibes Holiday, available from Amazon.com. As the title promises, the disc features interpretations of 14 holiday classics. The only instruments used are the harp and vibraphone, with occasional percussion added. On slower tunes, the two instruments blend to create a sound reminiscent of a music box, while on faster numbers, Colgan accompanies Venuto with a convincing imitation of jazz guitar. The unexpected marriage of harp and vibes works surprisingly well.

But they still haven’t explained the unexpected marriage of a percussionist and a harpist.

“Why do percussion players marry harpists? You know what we finally figured out? After the job is over," Venuto explains, "we’re the only two left packing up."