Supposing there are plenty of harps in Heaven, experiencing multiple harps at the Princeton University Chapel must be the closest thing to Heaven-on-Earth.
Harpist Elaine Christy will present her 17th annual “Harp Extravaganza” at the chapel on Wednesday, November 28, at 7:30 p.m. Princeton University harp students will be joined by chamber musicians for an evening of divine music.
There will be solo harp music, music for multiple harps, and music for harp and various other instruments. “Usually I have at least five harps,” Christy says. “This year I will have five or six.”
The free program will feature Gabriel Pierne’s “Concertstuck,” to be played on harp and piano, Jacques Ibert’s “Entr’acte” for flute and harp, and a selection from Alan Hovhaness’ Sonata for Harp and Guitar, subtitled “Spirit of Trees.”
Participating students will include Lila Harmar (Class of 2022), Mara Harwin (’22), Julia Ilhardt (’21), An-Ya Olson (’22), Layla Varkey (’19), and Wendi Yan (’22).
“Each student performs their solo, and then we will be doing some pieces for harp ensemble, where there are three of them playing, or they all play together,” Christy says.
Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango” has been arranged specifically for the event by John Hoesley. Guest artist Carlos Vasquez will join the harpists on Argentinean percussion.
Though the concert is devoted to Christy’s university students, she also maintains a private studio in her Princeton home. She adds that, though it will not be the case this year, sometimes the concerts will include returning Princeton University alumni. Anyone interested in lessons may contact her through her website, elainechristy.com.
The story of how Christy herself came to take up the harp is a remarkable one. One might be tempted to describe it as a calling.
“It started when I was a young kid,” she says. “I was eight, actually, when I started to play the harp. I grew up in a very teeny tiny town in the Midwest, so I’d never seen a harp or heard a harp. It’s still kind of a mystery to me how the idea got into my head.”
The town was Fremont, Iowa, a farming community with a population of only a few hundred people.
“When I was maybe five or six years old, I started to tell my mother that I wanted to play the harp. It seemed like such a far-fetched proposition that she didn’t really take me seriously until I kept asking for a few years.
“Then she just happened to mention it to my music teacher at school, and this particular music teacher knew a violin teacher in a neighboring town who had a harp in her violin studio. That’s kind of how it all started. I studied with this violin teacher, who happened to be a nun with a Catholic girls school. I studied with her until I was through college.”
The nun, Sister St. John Ven Horst, taught at Ottumwa Heights College in Ottumwa, Iowa, for 55 years. Though she didn’t play the harp herself, she offered Christy a gateway to a larger world.
“She was actually a string teacher,” she says. “She taught all stringed instruments. She had over 100 students a week in her private studio. She had a harp in her studio, and she just went ahead and taught it. She and I kind of learned together. We looked at books and looked at pictures, and we figured it out. She ended up having other harp students, as well. She was just a great teacher.”
Later, as Christy continued her studies, she found that it was unnecessary for her to alter her technique.
“I was pretty much right on,” she says. “I think the instrument was just kind of a natural fit for me, so I somehow wound up with a vision and technique that ended up being correct.”
For the purposes of practice between lessons, Sister St. John bought a small lever harp that she loaned out to students on a rotating basis.
“We got to have the harp in our home, you know, maybe for a couple weeks every few months,” Christy says. “But I quickly outgrew that when I wanted the big pedal harp. So really I didn’t have anything to practice on until I was in high school and my mother was able to afford my first harp, which was quite an event, very exciting.”
One can only imagine the truck pulling up to the farm, introducing harp to heartland.
“A lot of people don’t realize that your feet are moving all the time, as well as your fingers [when you play],” Christy says. “There are seven pedals around the base of a harp that your feet are working. Another thing is that you never use your pinkies. You’re only using four fingers of each hand on the strings.”
Christy attended William Penn University in Oskaloosa. She continued her musical studies with harpists Margaret Ling, Jane Weidensaul, and Kathleen Bride. Later she earned a Ph.D. from the Manhattan School of Music. She has taught harp at the University of Kansas and Kansas State University. She has been an instructor of harp at Princeton since 2001.
In addition, she has served on the board of the American Harp Society and has twice won the Ruth Lorraine Close Competition Award for advanced study. She was invited to perform at the World Harp Congress in Seattle/Tacoma in 1999 and Geneva, Switzerland, in 2002.
Christy is particularly active in the New York metropolitan area and Central New Jersey. Most recently she appeared as soloist with the Central Jersey Symphony Orchestra in Claude Debussy’s “Danses sacree et profane,” and at Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium in program of chamber music from the Americas.
On Sunday, December 2, she will participate in a holiday program presented by Westminster faculty member and Princeton Pro Musica director Ryan James Brandau’s Amor Artis at the Basilica of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the Nolita neighborhood of lower Manhattan.
She has appeared at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall and on the Riverside, St. Bartholomew, and Trinity Church concerts series in New York City. She has also appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
At home she is a member of the Richardson Chamber Players, an ensemble of Princeton University performance faculty, distinguished guest artists, and advanced students. She has been published in the American Harp Journal and the World Harp Congress Review. Her music editions for solo harp have been published by Lyon and Healy.
Princeton University Chapel, with 2,000 seats, is the third largest university chapel in the world. Though completed in 1928, its architectural style harks back to 14th century English Gothic. You won’t find a more atmospheric setting for an evening of harp music. “I typically have anywhere from three to ten students per semester, from beginners to very advanced players,” Christy says.
“We have four to six harps, including three concert grand pedal harps, in the chapel narthex. For the event, harpists play together in original works as well as arrangements of classical and pop tunes. It’s all harp, but I try to involve other players from the student body. So we’ll also be doing chamber works that involve some other Princeton University musicians — a pianist, a violist, a flutist. It’s just a great thing to do at the holidays.”
Harp Extravaganza, Princeton University Chapel. Wednesday, November 28, 7:30 p.m. Free. chapel.princeton.edu
For more on Elaine Christy: www.elainechristy.com