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SHE'LL STRING THE ORCHESTRA ALONG

"She's a wild woman!"

Doc Severinsen
Doc Severinsen is a man known, in addition to his musical prowess, for flamboyance of both dress and language.

His conversation may get flowery and dramatic, but he's not prone to stretch the truth.

So when Severinsen says someone is a wild woman, you can believe it, even if the woman in question plays that traditionally most serene of instruments, the harp.

He's talking about Deborah Henson-Conant, who will be the featured soloist on the season's first Buffalo Philharmonic Pops concert, scheduled for Kleinhans Music Hall at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. "I tell you," Severinsen said in a telephone interview from his California ranch, "Deborah is really something to hear and to behold.

"I guess the first thing people will notice is that she's a very exciting performer, extremely emotional and outgoing.

"Sometimes that precludes being tops on your instrument," he added, "but not in Deborah's case. She's really a damn good player, both technically and artistically.

"And on top of all that, she writes a lot of her own material, first-rate stuff at that."

We put Severinsen's claims under scrutiny by listening to two CD recordings of Henson-Conant playing the harp and singing, and watching a video of her TV appearances on both the "Today" and "Sunday Morning" shows.

The first reaction was that he had expressed himself too mildly.

Deborah Henson-Conant plays the harp like a dream, sings and plays the blues with a deep spirituality, expressiveness and harmonic sense matched by few other performers today, and animates everything she touches with a spine-tingling sense of gently propulsive rhythmic drive.

And her compositions?

How can you not be intrigued by someone who would write a suite for dance titled "Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown," whose second movement, "Danger Zone," will be played on the Buffalo program?

That title may be sassy, but several of Henson-Conant's other compositions that will be played with the BPO Pops are on those CDs, marketed under the names "Alter Ego" and "Just for You," and are top notch, even without such provocative titles.

The solo harp piece "Beck's Blues" and her deeply touching birthday song "Congratulations, You Made It This Far" are extremely emotionally involving, while the virtuoso harp piece "Baroque Flamenco" is a razzle-dazzle showpiece of the first magnitude.

Henson-Conant became a harpist more or less by accident. As an adolescent she asked her parents for a "blues harp," which is a slang name for a harmonica. On her birthday she was given a harp.

She was aghast.

"What on earth is this big thing?" she asked, or words to that effect.

"We're sorry, dear," her folks replied, "we couldn't find a blue one."

She ignored the harp for a while, then reluctantly entered into what she freely acknowledges as a love-hate relationship with the thing.

When the musician finally got enthusiastic about the harp she quickly absorbed a lot of the traditional classical literature, then realized that she really wanted to do much, much more with the harp than that.

On her own, she taught herself to make the harp sound like steel drums, a ukulele, a rock guitar, even a flamenco guitar.

Then in performances she started wearing such unusual attire as cowboy boots and a miniskirt.

"When I go out on stage," she explains, "I want my clothing to prepare people for the unexpected."

Henson-Conant also insists humor is an essential part of her art, having been convinced of this by seeing films of "Dr. Harpo Marx."

So now her performance is punctuated by occasional hammy theatrical touches, such as using one hand to simulate a pistol shooting at a string while simultaneously plucking that string with the other hand. It's a cute effect.

"I met Deborah through the Boston Pops," Severinsen told The News. "One time when I was there doing a benefit she was on the program, and we did a number together and got acquainted, and that's how come we ended up doing this Buffalo program."

On that Boston Pops program, Henson-Conant was rhapsodizing to the audience about how impressed she was with Severinsen's personality and trumpet playing and hoping out loud that someday she could work with him, when Severinsen strolled out on stage with a typical wisecrack and they began jamming together on "I Got Rhythm."

It was all an act, of course, but it's typical of the kind of chemistry arising from the interaction of these two immensely imaginative musicians. Expect some of this in the Friday and Saturday BPO Pops concerts.

For his part, Severinsen will also debut a new arrangement of "My Funny Valentine."

"It was a birthday gift to me from the first trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Tom Stevens," he explained, "and I thought this would be a wonderful time to give it a first hearing."

Severinsen also received another musical birthday gift that will be on the program, a piece called "Ode to Doc" by Steve Reineke, which is Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" written as a trumpet solo with variations.

Severinsen will play "Embraceable You" and conduct Walton's "Portsmouth Point Overture" to complete the orchestra's part of the program. Henson-Conant's other selections include "Honeysuckle Rose," "My Mother's Mexican Hat," "Nightingale," and a solo harp piece called "996," of which she says: "It's from a short ballet inspired by stories in 'The Thousand and One Arabian Nights.' This is night No. 996."

You get the idea.

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