Meet our harp soloist for Passport to Passion, Marguerite Lynn Williams! Principal Harpist of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Ms. Williams has been awarded prizes in numerous competitions including the American Harp Society’s National Competition, the National Endowment of the Arts Artist Recognition Talent Search, and she is a two-time winner of the Anne Adams Award. Recent performances have included collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming, Maxim Vengerov, Jessye Norman, Sting, Kanye West and appearances as royal entertainment for H.I.H. Princess Thi-Nga of Vietnam. Read on to see what she has to say about life as a harpist.
1) What do you enjoy doing besides music?
Something I really like to do is travel, but I don’t get much time off to do it. Luckily I’ve been able to travel quite a lot with orchestras and for music festivals. I enjoy exploring foreign cultures including their history, arts, food and life styles. My favorite country I’ve visited so far has been Japan and I hope one day to travel to India.
2) Tell us some interesting facts about the harp.
The world’s largest harp manufacturer is located in Chicago on Ogden & Lake, Lyon & Healy Harps. The harp I perform on was custom built for me in 2011. It has 47 strings and 7 pedals which adjust the string length. The strings are made of nylon, natural gut and silk wrapped steel. All harps are made out of the same wood: Maple and Spruce. Harps are extremely sensitive to climate changes, so harpists are constantly tuning. A full sized harp weighs about 85 pounds and yes, we have to transport them in glamorous minivans, station wagons or SUV’s.
3) Is there a difference between playing the harp in orchestra and for the opera?
Yes, in an orchestral setting the musicians follow the conductor unless they are performing a solo. In an opera setting, the musicians follow the conductor but also have to follow the singers by listening carefully and adjusting to their performance aurally. As a harpist, the opera repertoire offers endless solo opportunities usually because the harp becomes associated with one particular character.
4) For a harpist, what makes a good piece of music?
I really enjoy playing music by composers who fully understand what my instrument can do. We have the ability to do many specialized sounds and techniques which are unique to the harp. It’s also great when a composer understands balance within an ensemble, for example Mahler was an expert knowing when a single bass note on the harp would be powerful enough to be heard within one of his symphonies.
5) What advice do you have for aspiring young musicians?
I think the best advice given to me as a young musician was to go out and create work for myself instead of waiting on calls to come to me. I would advise young musicians to explore as many possibilities as they can, especially in the diverse cultural city we live in.