Harpfest 2009

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Memorial Day Weekend – the kickoff to summer, famed for beach trips and getaway weekends. The city of Philadelphia clears out a little bit, as people jump at the chance to get away and enjoy the start of the warm weather.

Members of the Performing Arts Tradition of Philadelphia decided to offer an alternative activity for those sticking around the city, holding their second annual Harp Festival of Philadelphia May 22-25 at The Church of Saint Luke and The Epiphany.

Saul Davis Zlatkovski, Philadelphia soloist and artistic director of the festival, credited choosing the timing for the concert to trying to provide a sophisticated in-city activity that appealed to residents and visitors alike. The group of performers that he had gathered together included harpists from near and far-students, teachers, professionals and novices. Besides just watching recitals of veteran performers, classes and harp tutorials were offered to anyone interested in getting a chance to test out what it’s like to play an instrument often the size of their own bodies.

Vince Pierce flew in all the way from his native Texas to act as Assistant Art Director for Harpfest, after attending last year and falling in love with the music. “This festival is meant to bring classical music to a broader audience, as well as to introduce people to distinguished harpists in an intimate setting,” Pierce explained as he was handing out programs to visitors. “Plus, it gives some of the performers a chance to get involved in a different society, and reach out to members of the church and people attending the shows.”

The three-day festival was primarily recitals from seasoned performers including Virginia Flanagan of the MIT Symphony, Alison Simpson of the American Harp Society, and Yan Ni of the Pro Musica Chamber Society. Two to three hours worth of professional recitals were open to the public each afternoon of the festival, with smaller recitals and lessons going on before and during the main recitals.

Philadelphia resident Emily Royce, 27, attended each day of the festival with excitement. While she does not play the harp herself, the slight brunette dancer developed a fondness for the music while listening to it during her ballet classes.

“Harps are some of the most interesting instruments to watch performances of,” Royce explained on the third day of the festival. “They’re so ornate and intricate, but produce this delicate sound that you wouldn’t expect from something so massive. Anyone can play guitar or violin or other string instruments, but a harp? I tried out one of the lessons they offered here and felt a little ridiculous. I have the greatest admiration for everyone I’ve seen perform this weekend-I’d never seen a harpist in person before. It was amazing.”

The festival was mainly attended by neighborhood residents and church members, older people more than young. The first day was the most varied in age, with parents, children and grandchildren all visiting together. The third and most populated day saw a much older crowd, with only one child in attendance. Everyone was dressed in their nice holiday outfits, particularly the harpists who wore black satin pants and burgundy-sequined tops. Administrators of the event, such as Pierce and Zlatkovski, looked the most casual in striped shirts and linen pants.

Performers walked around the pews during intermission, shaking hands and making cheery small talk with the audience. Most of the children and open lessons took place in the first two days, with entire families sitting around tinkering with harps in bewilderment.

The fest was funded both by the Performing Arts Tradition and the Harp Connection, a Salem-based company that rents out harps to people interested in taking a few months to try and learn the instrument. After four months, participants have the option of purchasing a harp to further their studies or sending it back to Salem with fond memories. Rental forms were distributed throughout the fest.

It wasn’t quite a trip to the beach, but Harpfest seemed to be an overall success as an alternative Memorial Day activity. Pierce noted that the turnout was about equal to the previous years, and also stated that “hopefully next year, advertising can begin sooner and more residents can get into seeing the beauty of the harp.”

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