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81 pounds of wood and steel

Valentine’s Day, 2010: Strolling through the outer edges of downtown before heading home for the evening. Passing Salvatore’s Cucina Italiana at the corner of Front and G and glancing through the plate-glass walls at the couples dotting the creamy-dreamy interior and paying homage to romance through fine dining. And just inside the door — of course: a harp, grand and gilt, plucked and strummed by a smiling woman as she sets the mood. Just part of what’s included with your $65 or $95 prix fixe. As Julie Ann Smith, principal harpist for the San Diego Symphony, puts it, “When people hear the harp, they’re, like, ‘Ahhh — the harp.’ It just relaxes people.”

Or, to cite a slightly more ancient source (the Book of Samuel in the Old Testament): “And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took the harp and played with his hand; and Saul was refreshed and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.”

February 27, 2010: A wood-paneled acoustic shield juts out from above the stage at Copley Symphony Hall, the better to carry sound into the grand and filigreed theater beyond. The visual effect of the smooth, undulating planes against all that frillery is striking (a person might even be tempted to use “jarring,” except, well, carrying sound is the point of things in here, and “striking” strives to make a virtue of the necessity).

More striking still is that the same contrast can be seen in the two harps that occupy the stage. Both are from the Chicago-based harp maker Lyon & Healy, and neither is gilt, but wow, are they different. The harp in back, where harps usually stand, is the Style 23 Concert Grand: 75 inches high, nearly 40 inches wide, 81 pounds of wood and steel mechanics built to manage 47 strings of gut, nylon, and wound steel and silk. The Style 23 dates back to 1890, and it looks it: floral carving graces the harp’s crown, column, base, and feet. The look is classic, expected. This is a harp.

Pedal to the medal

But the harp up front, sitting alone on a platform beside the conductor’s podium, the one bathed in the soloist’s spotlight — that harp is a Salzedo, named for the 20th-Century peformer-composer-teacher who helped with its design. (More on him later, promise.) It’s heavier and a touch wider than the Style 23, but the main thing about it is that, besides the swooping arm across the top, there’s hardly a curved line on the thing. It’s all Art Deco angles and layers: a bold and severe Harp for the Modern Age, which is maybe not a thing you ever supposed might exist.

Here’s the funny part: this modern version might actually be more up front about what the harp is: a complicated machine for making music. Seven metal pedals sprout from the instrument’s base. Each pedal may be set to one of three positions, sort of like the shift on a car with automatic transmission. The pedals move rods that run up through the column; the rods move linked metal plates that run through the arm; the plates move one of two double-pronged disks that surround the harp’s strings. When the pedal is in the top position, neither disk touches the string — that’s a flat. Move the pedal to the middle, and the upper disk presses its prongs against the string, shortening the length that will vibrate when plucked and so raising the tone — that’s a natural. Move the pedal to the bottom, and the lower disk comes into play, shortening the string still further — that’s a sharp.

Here’s Julie Ann Smith discussing the preparation of a specific piece — say, the Mozart Concerto for Harp and Flute in C Major, which she will be performing this evening. “I have to sit and study the music and the pedals while I’m away from the instrument, so that I don’t have to rely on muscle memory. In a modern piece, you better have every single pedal change memorized backwards and forwards — otherwise, it could be an interesting night. I think, with harp, that we have to do a lot more homework. You have to have a spatial awareness of the instrument before you can play it. With piano, you see the notes, and you press the notes. With the harp, it’s different. You have to see the music in your head, be thinking of where you are in the piece, what pedal comes next — ‘I have an F sharp, but then I need a G sharp there, and then I’m going to have an A sharp with a B flat.’ When you’re playing a solo, you’re supposed to be playing in the moment, but then you have to be thinking ahead as well.” In short, before your fingers even touch the strings, you have to ready the machine to yield the sound you need. “You have to create that pitch, and so you have to get your whole body in sync with your mind — it goes so fast.”

Smith knows from piano — she played both instruments clear through high school, one of those students who practices four hours a day and spends every Saturday driving to and from lessons in a city two and a half hours away, because that’s where the best teacher lives. Asked what she loved better about the harp, she replies, “It’s the fascination with how the instrument works, the mechanisms that go into it. When I physically play it, I get a rush, you know? The touch of the strings, the way I use my whole body to make it work.” A machine for making music, and she gets to become part of it.

That’s only a mild exaggeration. Smith is small; seeing her in street clothes, you might even think she was slight. It’s only when she strides out onstage in her sleeveless blue-and-purple dress, when you can see the definition and tone in her pale shoulders and arms, that “slight” ceases to fit. Still, when she sits down and opens her knees and leans her 85-pound instrument back against her right shoulder and sets the tips of her high-heeled shoes atop the pedals, it really does look as if the harp is winning. Then she plays.

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