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Royal Wedding Day

Last Friday most of the world watched Prince William of England marry Kate Middleton in a fairy-tale perfect ceremony. Besides all the normal happiness and joy associated with such an event, there was also some raising of harp-consciousness among the general public, thanks to Will and Cate’s request that the Royal Harpist play for their reception back at Buckingham Palace.

Claire Jones currently holds the position of Official Harpist to the Prince of Wales, a traditional post that Prince Charles revived in 2000. Her job is to entertain the Prince’s guests on special occasions and she does so on a beautiful one-of-a-kind gold harp given to the Prince of Wales by Italian harp maker Victor Salvi. Lucky girl!

Royal Harpist and Gold Harp

On the very same day, I played for Afternoon Tea at the Biltmore Four Seasons in Montecito with my own gold harp. Many of the guests wore hats nearly as eye-catching as some that were featured at Will and Cate’s wedding, so with that - plus the sparkling chandeliers, pots of Darjeeling tea, cucumber sandwiches and scones with cream and strawberry jam - I felt as if we were celebrating with Prince William and his new bride, albeit from several time zones away.

Laurie plays harp for Afternoon Tea

King David Plays Harp, Too

I play frequently at a local Episcopal church for Sunday morning services. Last Sunday I noticed for the first time that I wasn’t alone - I had a duet partner in the stained glass window directly behind me.

King David plays harp in stained glass window

Chicago Harp Tour

Recently I was lucky to score two tickets to Lyon & Healy’s 5th Annual Gala Concert on Nov. 14th in Chicago featuring Berlin Philharmonic harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet. I invited my mother to join me for a big harp weekend in the Windy City.

We arrived in town a couple of days early so we could see some sights. On Friday morning we visited the Venus Harp factory, a small family-owned business that has been making fine pedal harps for 40 years. First we were given a fascinating tour of the harp making process.

All the parts of the action are manufactured on site in Venus' own metal shop. Then the plates, discs, forks and action arms are assembled by hand for each instrument.

Venus harp action under construction

It takes a lot of clamps to glue the soundboard onto the body shell.

harp sounboard being glued to body

After the columns are turned on a lathe, craftsmen hand-carve the flowers and other decorative details. These raw wood columns are waiting to be matched to a body.

carved harp columns at Venus

After the harps are completely assembled, master harp technician Kurt Berg regulates them so the pedals will give accurate sharps and flats.

Kurt Berg regulates a Venus harp

After the tour, we spent a few hours playing beautiful instruments in the showroom. My mother is fond of the newest model in the Venus line-up, a 42-stringed straightboard harp called the Seraphim. It has a strikingly powerful yet clear voice for a small harp, with warmth in the bass and mid-range and sparkle in the treble. There were several in the showroom but Mom preferred the sound of this natural maple one.

Karen plays a Venus Seraphim harp

Janelle Lake, the charming harpist who works in the showroom, played the Tailleferre Sonata on the Venus Classic model for us. This one has hand-carved roses cascading down the pillar and a big glorious sound.

Janelle plays a Venus Classic harp

Feeling a little dazzled by everything we’d seen at Venus Harps, we took a bus to the nearby Lyon & Healy Harp factory where they’ve been making harps for 120 years. The factory takes up five floors of the building and it is impressive to see such a large number of instruments in various stages of construction - from building of the action all the way to the final stringing and tuning. At the end of the tour we were taken to the vast showroom full of 60-70 harps, both pedal and lever, gleaming in long orderly rows, just waiting to be plucked.

The sheer quantity of perfect instruments was overwhelming but when I asked Mom which one she liked best she didn’t even hesitate before answering - her favorite is the Style 26 with gothic carvings of angels, 23-karat gold leaf on the column, hand-painted soundboard and bubinga veneer on the neck and body. Only $59,000 - I’d say she has good taste.

Karen with the style 26 gold Lyon & Healy harp

She also loved playing this more modestly priced Style 85CG. The decoration is restrained but the sound is big and rich.

Karen plays a Lyon & Healy 85CG harp

The showroom manager was kind enough to move a harp into a practice room for us so we could spend some time playing it and we both agreed that we’d be happy to take home this handsome mahogany Style 23 - if only we had a spare $31,000.

Laurie plays a Lyon & Healy 23

After a full day plucking on countless lovely harps you’d think we’d be tired but look - we’re happy!

Karen and Laurie with Lyon & Healy style 23 harp

The Concert

On Saturday we did some sight-seeing and then returned to Lyon & Healy for the concert. Five years ago a 200-seat concert hall was constructed on the 5th floor of the factory building. The stage has a breathtaking view of the city lights in the evening Chicago skyline which made a lovely backdrop for the music and the sleek Style 30 that Marie-Pierre had selected from the showroom.

Lyon & Healy style 30 at gala concert in Chicago

Marie-Pierre Langlamet is a powerful harpist, capable of a myriad of subtle nuances and expression on the strings. One fun solo she played was a medley using birds as the theme; The Cuckoo (Louis-Claude Daquin), The Nightingale (Franz Liszt) and The Lark (Glinka). Mostly though, she played duos or trios with the violist and flute player she’d brought along with her from Berlin. These ranged from compositions by Mozart and Debussy to a couple of passionately rhythmic Piazzolla tangos.

What impressed me the most was seeing how much fun Marie-Pierre had in performing and how much she lived her music in the moment. She obviously enjoyed playing with her colleagues, communicating with them wordlessly through eye contact and expressive body language as they told their musical story. Throughout the show I was transported by the magical harmonies woven amongst the three instruments, made all the more real by the musicians’ awareness of each other.

An elegant reception followed where we talked with old friends and marvelled at the number of famous harpists who were in attendance while sipping chardonnay and nibbling rasberry cannoli. It was a star-studded event and very satisfying to see so many talented harpists turn out to enjoy an evening of beautiful music.

Princess Sakura Harp

The National Association of Music Merchandisers (NAMM) holds an enormous trade show every January, the largest event that takes place at the Anaheim Convention Center all year. Manufacturers of musical instruments of all kinds come from far and wide to exhibit their products and there is a constant cacophony over the four days as all these instruments are being played at the same time. I worked at the Dusty Strings booth, playing their lovely harps and doing my best to be heard. I was pleased to discover this harp also on exhibit:

Aoyama Princess Sakura model harp

It's Aoyama's newest model, the Princess Sakura - easy to identify with its cherry blossom inlay. It was on display at the booth of North American Hardwoods who had provided the spruce used in the soundboard. I had a chance to play it against the background din of electric guitars, didgeridoos, cellos and amplified fiddles, etc. Although it's still a new harp, it had a full rich tone and smooth pedal action and I would have enjoyed plaing it in a quieter atmosphere.

The Harp Doctor is In

Today I returned to the Salvi showroom in Anaheim to fetch the Wurlitzer I’d left last week with Peter Wiley, the harp doctor. Pedal harps need to be seen by a harp technician once every year or two for a regulation because the use of the pedals over time causes all the thousands of moving parts in the mechanism to get out of alignment. At a certain point, intonation is affected enough that the harp no longer plays in tune. An annual regulation is just part of good harp maintenance.

Because of some other repairs that need to be done to my harp first, Peter wasn’t able to do my regulation this time around but we had a good time talking and I learned so much more about the intricacies of the inner workings of the instrument. Peter is one of the world’s most patient people - not only does he take the time to perfect every little nuance of harp intonation and repair, he also expertly soothes the jangled nerves of over-wrought harpists (and we
are an easily over-wrought bunch).

Peter Wiley repairs a harp at Salvi
Peter Wiley, the Harp Doctor

I took the time to play some of the exquisite instruments in the showroom and found that lately Salvi has been making great refinements in their designs. Smaller harps with sensitive soundboards are delivering bigger fuller tone. Showroom manager Alexandra Perdew played her favorite instrument for me, the beautifully inlaid Arianna model. I don’t have words to describe the lush rich sound that came from that harp even though it’s brand-new. As it gets played over time it will open up and develop an even more tremendous voice. It had already been sold and will soon be on its way to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY where some very lucky students will get to play it.

Alexandra plays an Ariana harp
Alexandra plays Salvi's Arianna model harp

Salvi Harps in LA

Over the weekend I drove down to the Salvi Harp showroom in Anaheim to drop off my Wurlitzer. Peter Wiley the harp technician will be in residence this week so my harp will wait along with many others for its annual regulation. When I dropped in I found that the charming Mr. Salvi himself was visiting from Italy.

Mr. Salvi and me
Mr. Salvi and me

I haven't had the chance to visit the Salvi showroom since they opened a couple of years ago so it was great to have an opportunity to see all the shiny harps and especially some of the newer models.

Lyon & Healy Harp Factory Tour

Lyon & Healy harp factory in Chicago

Two days after running the Chicago marathon Chanel and I hobbled on wobbly legs over to the Lyon & Healy Harp factory where, for over 100 years, exquisite harps have been hand-made by Old World craftsmen and women. I haven't been there in 12 years so it was nice to visit and see the new concert hall. We took a guided tour of the harp-making process but weren't allowed to take photos, lest we divulge any harp-making secrets. What I can tell you is that we saw stacks of lumber being gradually shaped and carved into divinely intricate instruments. Scattered around the five floors of the building are heaps 'o harps - more than I could count.

Lyon & Healy harp show room

By the time we finished the tour and arrived at the showroom we felt giddy and dazzled by all the beautiful instruments we'd seen but Chanel didn't have any trouble finding one to bond with. Now she's hatching a plan to sell her house and talk her husband into spending the profits on this 44-string semi-grand.

Chanel plays blonde harp

I confess that I'm attracted to the beauty of quilted maple and the bling of gold leaf so I was fond of this gilded Style 11.

Laurie and gold Style 11 harp

It wasn't just the looks - it sounded fantastic, too. But I'd have to save a while since the price tag on this lovely shiny harp is $49,000.

Just as we were getting ready to board the freight elevator on our way out Chanel heard a gilded Style 23 speak to her and say, "Psssst, take me home!" Lucky for her bank balance, it was already sold.

Chanel plays gold Style 23

Harp Parking

Playing the harp is so much fun - I wish I could say the same for transporting it. The harp and all related gear - bench, amplifier, music, music stand, etc - must be schlepped to the car and stacked carefully inside. Then I have to find a place for the clothing I'll wear to the gig where it won't get too crumpled (I change into it after I've worked up a good sweat hauling the harp). Drive to gig, dump gear on the sidewalk and go park the car. Return and hope to find harp etc, where I left them. This evening I played at Yoga Soup and while I parked the car my harp lurked in the bamboo shrubbery pretending to be an innocent bicycle.

Harp at bike rack

Harp As Hood Ornament

You just never know where you're going to spot a harp. This morning I took a long run (11 miles!) along the Santa Barbara waterfront, past the weekly Sunday Arts and Crafts Fair near the pier. There was a van in the parking lot that was a work of art all by itself. It had an amazing array of things glued to every surface but what caught my eye was the small harp prominently affixed to the top of the car.

Car as art

The harp was surrounded by several Star Trek characters, even the Starship Enterprise, and the android Data was plucking the strings. Finally, an appropriate use for one of those "hand-carved rosewood" harps from Pakistan - better known as "harp-shaped objects."

small harp on car