When one thinks of the harp, it tends to conjure up images either of baby angels or, for the less celestially-minded, the logo adorning a can of Guinness. Whatever your personal connotations may be, upon examination it’s a truly extraordinary instrument that lies somewhere between a feat of modern mechanics and a work of art.
APO Principal Harpist Rebecca Harris’ relationship with the instrument began when she was 12. Youth orchestra, study overseas in the UK and a professional appointment in the NZSO followed, until her son was born and the touring musician’s life no longer appealed. In 1981, Rebecca returned home to Auckland to join what was then the Auckland Regional Orchestra - now the APO - making her one the orchestra’s longest serving members.
“It was small beginnings at that time, we had small audiences, but it was a wonderful atmosphere.” The only downside? The orchestra didn’t own a harp, an instrument that really loses marks for portability. “I had to carry mine backwards and forwards all the time, so that was a bit of a drag.”
Today, the orchestra is the proud owner of two of them. The first was purchased in 1991: a reconditioned Lyon & Healy semi-grand harp (Style 17), now used as the APO’s second harp when needed for by certain pieces. The primary instrument Rebecca uses now is also a Lyon & Healy, but this time a Style 23, whose extra string (47 as opposed to the Style 17’s 46) classifies it as a full concert grand.
When this instrument was purchased in the late 1990s, it was Rebecca’s first contact with a brand-new harp: “It was quite a thrill.” Harps aren’t like other string instruments that appreciate with age. Rather, the thousand or so brass moving parts that comprise the action are much like the mechanics of a car; they wear out, requiring consistent servicing to keep them at optimum function.
These moving parts change the length of the strings, thereby determining the pitch at which they sound, a process governed by the all-important pedals. There are seven of them, each with three different positions. “It’s usually the pedals that let you down. If you make an error with a pedal, you’re in completely the wrong key. One famous harpist called them ‘the traitors’”, she says with a smile.
But before Rebecca even gets to the pedals, each of the 47 strings needs to be individually tuned. “These days it’s easy because you’ve got electric tuners, but when I first started my career, you had to tune up by ear before everyone else got here, so it was a real chore.”
Rebecca also has two harps at home. “I’ve actually got a duplication of what we’ve got here … The smaller one [the Style 17] was my original harp that I had all the way through. In the late nineties, the harp that I used to use in the NZSO became available. I got ownership for sentimental reasons as much as anything, and it meant that I could practice on the same sized harp as I was using [in the orchestra] so that was advantage.”
Rebecca identifies certain composers as having an affinity for writing for the harp, and Debussy is right at the top of the list. The APO’s upcoming Newstalk ZB series concert New Directions is bookended by two of his masterpieces, Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune and La Mer, and makes full use of the other-worldly colours the instrument emits. Although Rebecca’s career may have begun a little while ago, she speaks about these pieces with all the excitement of someone about to play them for the first time.