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Dance and Music

I’m not a morning person by nature but recently I was up early to appear live on the local news accompanying the Nebula Dance Lab for our upcoming show, Through the Looking Glass, at the Lobero Theatre on November 1st.


Chichester Psalms

Last week I played Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms with the SBCC Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir. What a dramatic piece of music! It took me several rehearsals to get used to the crazy chords and bluesy notes. Bernstein composed the two harp parts first and then composed the rest of the parts around them. It was nice to have the harps placed centrally and in front instead of being buried in the back of the orchestra behind the trombones - especially because we had such a nice view of the conductor and the rose window in the First United Methodist Church where the concert was held.

Two harps in Santa Barbara Church

Music with my Mom

Recently I had the pleasure of playing my first public performance as a duo with my mother. She’s been playing the harp for about eight years (yes - harping is an illness and she caught it from me). She used to be shy about playing where anyone could hear her but now she gigs practically more than I do, either with members of her local harp circle or on her own as a harper/storyteller.

Karen and Laurie play at Christmas
Karen and Laurie play Christmas carols

On Christmas Eve we provided the pre-service music at St. John’s Chapel in Monterey and it went so well that the bishop asked if we’d come back for Easter. I'm just happy to play music with my mom - how many people are lucky enough to do that?

Harp Recital

Last month I held a recital and 11 of my harp students participated. Ranging in age from 11 to adults and they were all stars! We started the show with a few ensemble pieces to warm up and then everybody played a solo. We had a real variety of music; animal songs from the younger ones, folk tunes, compositions by Marcel Grandjany and J. S. Bach, a jazzy version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz”, a couple of South American dances and even an original composition called “A Mountain Goat’s Love” by an 11-yr-old student.

We played in a church that has great acoustics and the audience was struck by the uniquely beautiful sound that each different harp produced. Also, each harpist, regardless of experience level, exhibited an individual tone quality and style. I was exceedingly proud of everybody’s successful and professional performance. They all told me afterwards they felt excited to play and share their music with the audience and it showed. We’ll have to do it again in the Spring!

Three young harpists
Bridget, Anna and Ginger Rose accept the enthusiastic applause of the audience after their trio performance.

Paddy Keenan concert

Last Thursday I had the great pleasure of opening for Paddy Keenan and Tommy O’Sullivan who were celebrating the release of their new CD, The Long Grazing Acre. The show was at the beautiful Victoria Hall Theatre, packed to the rafters with a sell-out crowd of Celtic music fans.

Paddy is legendary for his unique style on the uillean pipes - an instrument that is quite unique to begin with and one that is difficult to play. He makes it look easy though, a zillion notes flowing and trilling forth to become happy dance tunes or melancholy airs. He plays the low whistle too, which brings haunting mystery to any melody. Paddy’s musical sidekick Tommy O’Sullivan plays driving rhythm accompaniment on guitar as well as sensitive finger-style for his own soulful vocals.

The band I played with for the first set is a new group, all made up of Santa Barbara area musicians who’ve been playing together just a few weeks. Gilles Apap, fabulous fiddler, pulled us all together for this event. Here we are from left to right (band photos by J. Downs): Gary Jensen, bodhran; me; Gilles Apap, fiddle and Eliot Jacobsen, guitar and flute.

Laurie and the Dirty Nellie band

And here’s Treasa McGettigan, our lovely Irish songbird.

Treasa sings wih Gilles and Eliot

At the end of the show Paddy and Tommy invited us, along with a couple of extra fiddlers, to join in on a set of reels.

Paddy Keenan and Dirty Nellie band

While we waited backstage to go on Gilles demonstrated one of his many talents - he can balance his violin bow on the tip of his nose while doing sit-ups. The rest of us are still learning how to do that and when we figure it out we'll all join the circus.

Gilles does sit-ups


I've heard plenty about the famed garden called Lotusland but last Saturday evening was my first visit there while playing for a private party. Flautist Ricardo Gonzales and I were stationed above the lily pond.

Harp and Flute garden duet

From this position our music could waft down over the scene and we had a beautiful view of blooming lilies, dragonflies and hummingbirds flitting about the flowers, and guests meandering with cocktails in hand. In addition to this there were five people dressed as sparkly butterflies walking about on stilts while a mermaid and merman cavorted beside the pond in the neighboring aloe garden. Several strategically placed bubble machines sent iridescent orbs floating through the air, adding to the ethereal ambience.

Laurie and bubbles in the garden

We were extra lucky that July is peak blooming season for the lotus plants in the pond. The gardener explained that these were young plants so the blossoms weren't as "big as basketballs" like they will be when they mature but I wasn't the least bit disappointed. The perfect blooms gave off a surreal glow in the late afternoon light.

Blooming lotus at Lotusland Montecito

Irish Fair Harp Competition

On June 21-22 I missed the annual Santa Barbara Solstice Parade because I was playing at the Irish Fair in Irvine. Temperatures were hovering near 100 degrees so it was miserably hot at the fairgrounds. I felt really sorry for all those bagpipers marching about in wool socks and kilts. Those of us in the harp tent had the most pleasant location near the water where the fountain stirred a bit of breeze to at least keep the air moving. The harp concert stage is located on a small island in the middle of a lake which is quite peaceful and serene...or would be if it weren't for the dratted pipers marching past too frequently. Dennis Doyle and I were adjudicators for the harp competition which was small since this is the first year they've had it. We hope to see the number of competitors increase next year. I had the pleasure of presenting the First Prize ribbon and gift certificate to Jessica, an accomplished and confident 12-year-old.

Harp competition prize winner

Jazz Night

Saturday night June 8th was jazz night. I was invited to play a concert with the Santa Barbara Master Chorale, vocal soloist Art Emr and an assortment of amazing jazz musicians. Director Steve Hodson put together a moving arrangement of “The House I Live In” for the choir and it was a thrill to add my harp to their powerful voices.

Harp and Vibes Jazz Concert

I accompanied Art’s smooth Sinatra-like rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness” along with vibes player Dylan Morrow-Jones. Who knew harp and vibes was such an ideal combination? Although he’s young, Dylan is a master of his instrument and sometimes when he’s soloing smoke even comes from his mallets. Those jazz standards sound so classy on the harp. It’s a joy to play them in an ensemble with musicians who are so comfortable with their craft.

Irish Birthday Party

I’ve been hauling the pedal harp around so much lately that it was a relief when I was invited to bring my lever harp to a party on Memorial Day weekend. It seems so small and portable after maneuvering the concert grand in and out of the car! My friends Treasa, Jan and Solas all have birthdays within a few weeks of each other so this was a communal birthday celebration for all of them. Treasa is a singer of traditional Irish songs and has a voice like an angel. She invited several musicians to the party so... music ensued.

Laurie plays harp at seisiun

Although there are a couple of pubs around town with active seisiúns, I haven’t played at one in years. It was great fun to sit under the trees in a beautiful Santa Ynez garden and jam with three fiddles, a low whistle and a bouzouki. Fiddlers can add such a joyful “swing” to a tune and the bouzouki has that happy bouncy sound. It inspired me enough that I think I'll go to the pub next week (photo courtesy of J. Downs).

A Case of Harp Neglect

Yesterday evening I played at UCSB for a graduate student’s composition recital. The piece for oratorio and orchestra was fairly complicated and there were only a couple of rehearsals so it was a little rough at first but I was impressed with the way it all came together for the performance.

I agreed to play the University’s harp rather than haul mine over to Lotte Lehman concert hall. The thought of looking for convenient parking on campus (it doesn’t exist) and then wheeling my own concert grand a long distance into the theatre wasn’t appealing so I thought I’d be saving myself some trouble by playing a harp that was already on site. This turned out to be not entirely true.

I’d played the school’s harp a few years before and remembered that it was a nice Lyon & Healy style 23 but at our first rehearsal earlier in the week I arrived at the classroom, pulled the torn dust cover off the harp and discovered that it had three broken strings and was filthy dirty. Since the school has no harp program or harp students this poor instrument spends most of its time packed in a trunk and stuffed under a stairwell in the bowels of the music building. The school doesn’t maintain it and certainly has no spare string set on hand, not even a tuning key. For the rehearsal I tuned it up (brought my own key) and just did my best to play around the gaps of the missing strings.

On the evening of the performance I arrived early with my black bag full of harp accessories, replaced the broken strings and tuned feverishly hoping to have the stretchy gut stabilized by concert time. Then I wiped a thick layer of dust and grime off the soundboard and attempted to clean up the deep recesses of the carved column. When was the last time anybody paid any attention to this poor thing? There was nothing I could do just then about the stripped tuning pin on 5th octave A - it would have required vise grips to turn it.

Harp at USCB concert

Despite the dings it has suffered in its 50-year life span the harp began to look its regal self once I had it polished up. And aside from its neglected appearance this instrument has a great mature voice, the classic full Lyon & Healy sound, and is a pleasure to play. There’s plenty of spunk left in the old gal. With a regulation, some new pedal felts and a new set of strings it would be in great shape.

I realize that school harps often live a hard life and that schools don’t have unlimited budgets but it pains me to see such a lovely instrument being treated with so little respect. When that harp was built in the Chicago factory there were countless skilled hands involved in assembling the thousands of parts that make up the action, carving the ornate floral patterns into the column and making sure an even finish protected the smoothly-sanded wood. I know that for some people harps are simply objects, tools we use to create and express, but for me they are also beings and they have their own souls. I feel sick just thinking about the horrible crunching sound of each new ding they acquire.

Grace Under Pressure

Last weekend I had the pleasure of playing three concerts with the Santa Ynez Valley Master Chorale conducted by Chris Bowman. On the program was
Psalm 150 by Cesar Franck and Faure’s Requiem and Cantique de Jean Racine, all of which were new to my repertoire.

The Franck part was very “harpy” with fun pedal changes, at times with both feet on one side of the harp, and some well-placed arpeggios and glissandos.

The harp part for the
Requiem wasn’t too big of a stretch for me but the Cantique certainly was. Some harpists adapt the piano part which consists of flowing triplet figures. Others choose the harp accompaniment written by Marilyn Marzuki (available from which is far more interesting and equally more complicated. There are about a zillion pedal changes but it gives the harp some lovely solo moments and full rich harmonies that weave nicely with the other string parts. I did some creative editing on the Marzuki version so the harp got to shine while the part remained playable for me.

Since there were only two live rehearsals with the chorale and orchestra before the performance I found another way to get familiar with the music. YouTube has several videos of various ensembles performing the pieces I was working on so I practiced
Psalm 150 with a choir in Budapest and Faure with the Bow Valley Chorus from Alberta, Canada. Rehearsing with a recording is helpful but with the YouTube videos I also had the advantage of being able to see the conductor giving the cues. You gotta love the internet - how else could I play with international ensembles from the comfort of my own music studio and without even having to move the harp?

harp with SYVC concert

In the second performance of our concert I was given a good lesson in grace under pressure by Brendan Statom, the double bass player. Due to a pre-existing crack and then an inadvertent tap against the music stand as he played, his bow dramatically self-destructed with a loud shattering sound during the first movement of the
Requiem so he was left with just a handful of splintered wood and dangling strands of horsehair. He simply shrugged, tucked the remains of the bow into the holster, and calmly carried on playing his part pizzicato for the duration of that movement. It sounded great and I doubt most of the audience even knew what happened. Then the conductor took a 60-second pause while Brendan sprinted out to his car to fetch a spare bow and when he returned we launched into the second movement.

If my harp ever snaps a bass wire in the middle of a performance I hope I can remember to maintain the same composure!