Despite the watered-down role accorded the harp in European classical music -- the stirrings of spring, the tinkle of a waterfall -- the instrument has traditionally been treated more akin to the guitar than the cello.
That is to say, it's been a portable pop accouterment used for accompaniment by wandering bards, court jesters, minstrels and folk singers.
And when harpist and vocalist Deborah Henson-Conant takes the stage at the Brevard Music Festival on June 25, you can count on pop.
Henson-Conant's work doesn't fit easily into any narrower classification -- she calls her music "cross-genre." Her influences encompass not only pop but jazz, comedy, folk, blues, flamenco and Celtic, while her impressive resume includes touring with the Boston Pops, opening for the late Ray Charles at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival and starring in the PBS special Celtic Harpestry. Along the way, she's picked up encomiums from such disparate personalities as Joan Rivers and Big Band bigwig Doc Severinsen.
Little surprise, then, that many reviewers assert she is as much an entertainer as a musician.
Toledo's The Blade may have overstated the case when it called her "a visionary harp virtuoso" -- because Henson-Conant's strongest recorded work is light jazz, a pleasant enough background sound in the mode of guitarists George Benson or Chet Atkins on an off day.
But ultimately, her style is geared to work visually.
The Boston Globe once dubbed Henson-Conant "a combination of Leonard Bernstein, Steven Tyler, and Xena the Warrior Princess," while The Glasgow Herald has astutely noted the harpist's "ability to swing her head off" -- wherein her multicolored dreadlocks, sexy outfits and agreeably corny stories become part of a larger show.
One Henson-Conant song, a paean to the watermelon, even seems straight out of Lake Wobegon. How fitting: The instrument of the angels plucked beneath the vapor lights of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility.
Deborah Henson-Conant plays Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 25 as part of this year's Brevard Music Festival. Tickets are $25 and $28. Call the Brevard Music Center box office (862-2015), or visit www.brevardmusic.org for tickets and information.