DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — The magical sight and sound of one of the oldest musical instruments in the world will be in the spotlight when the harp is performed at the annual Pine Tree Hospice Variety Show Fri., April 26, at 7 p.m. at Center Theatre.
Harpist Isleen Halvorsen of Guilford is one of more than half a dozen acts featuring music, dancing and singing by local performers. Admission to this family-friendly event is by donation. Doors open one hour before show time. There will be an intermission and refreshments will be on sale.
Halvorsen will play her Lyon & Healy concert harp, which is almost six feet tall, about 40 inches wide, and has 46 strings. Also called the pedal harp, it has seven pedals that correspond to each note of the scale. The pedals change the pitch of the strings. The instrument is not as heavy as it looks. Hers weighs about 85 lbs.
Lyon & Healy is a premiere harp manufacturer in the U.S. and its harps have a mechanism with about 2,000 parts, according to an online video tour of the company’s Chicago facility. The curved, hand-shaped, hard rock maple sound chamber is “the skeleton structure of the harp body”, and the handcrafted Sitka spruce soundboard is “the voice of the harp”.
Often associated with a baroque or romantic music, the harp can be relaxing to hear and have a calming effect. It can also be lively and produce startling effects in newer genres.
Halvorsen first learned to play the harp at a Waldorf school on eastern Long Island when she was about nine. The school expected students in her fourth-grade class to pick a string instrument. Most kids chose the violin, but she took inspiration from a classmate studying the harp. Soon she was playing music from the First Harp Book on a rustic, plywood-sounding, 30-40 lb. starter harp. Kids her age played in the school’s string orchestra.
The school supplied her instructor, renowned Long Island harpist Jeanne Fintz Goldstein (d. 2012), who was the reason Halvorsen stayed with the harp. Fintz Goldstein was a “really tremendous teacher” and would even transport her students, if necessary, in order to have a lesson free of other noises. She was demanding and did not dole out praise unless it was earned. Halvorsen took piano simultaneously with the harp, but at some point it became clear she was more of a harpist.
Fintz Goldstein taught the Salzedo technique named after acclaimed French harpist Carlos Salzedo (1885-1961), under whom she studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, PA. Maine readers will be interested to know Salzedo had summer connections in Maine, including the Salzado Harp Colony harp school in Camden he founded.
Salzedo harpists keep their elbows either raised or more parallel to the floor and make upward gestures as they play, explains Halvorsen. The Grandjany method, named after another notable French-born harpist, Marcel Grandjany (d. 1975), uses downward gestures and lowered elbows. Some listeners detect a difference in sound quality and consider the Salzedo method more aggressive, says Halvorsen. One of Salzedo’s goals was to distinguish the harp that can stand on its own and “not simply a ladies parlour instrument of days gone by.”
Halvorsen continued harp lessons through to Wellesley College as well as some post-graduate lessons and has been playing ever since. She earned a B.A. from Wellesley (Art History major, Music minor) and a master’s degree in Art Conservation from Buffalo State College.
She has done a lot of other things, but “the thing that’s been there the whole time is the harp.” After graduate school, she prepared artifacts for the National Museum of the American Indian for three years and played the harp in several pit orchestras for traveling theatre productions as an orchestral harpist, including for The Fantasticks in the U.S. She performed in Encounter 500 based on the story of Christopher Columbus which played throughout central and southern Italy. She also joined a three-month tour of A Chorus Line through Austria, Germany and Amsterdam.
She did a lot of choral and symphony work before moving to Maine and some since, including as a substitute in the Bangor Symphony Orchestra. She has played in churches and houses of worship as well as at wedding rehearsal dinners, ceremonies and receptions, usually outdoor venues on a beach, on a rock cliff, in a garden.
She gives private lessons in harp and piano.