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Demarre McGill, the flautist for the Mozart piece, joins Smith at the front of the stage. He is young and handsome and full of presence; the light clings to the velvet texture of his jacket. When he plays, he dips and swoons, as if the flute were brought to animated life by the thrill of music, with him merely following its happy gambols. (It’s a delight both to see and to hear; after the piece, the woman next to me says twice, “I’d come to see him again.”) Often, during his interplay with the harp, he leans in toward it, eyes peering through the strings at Smith while she plays.

Smith does not return his look. It wouldn’t be fair to say that she ignores him — their musical parts are too closely intertwined for that. But her focus is absolutely on the harp — less a tool than her first partner in this music-making effort. Her expression — concentration almost to the point of frowning — does not change; her head moves only to bob from side to side in rhythm with her fingers as they speed their way along the strings.

Those fingers, it turns out, will do all the expressing here. Sometimes, they are like spiders working at a web, moving with the same eerie independence as those eight spindly legs. Sometimes, they tumble down the strings, wrists turning her hands thumb-over-pinky. Sometimes, they are all thumbs, or rather, nothing but thumbs, two blunt digits battering the strings with alternating hammer-blows of percussive force. Again and again, her fingers pluck at and then float away from the strings with deceiving lightness, only to descend again and rest flat-palmed, stopping the sound short. The control and sweep brings to mind a bird diving for prey. And Smith is right: it all happens so fast.

Below, the brass pedals flash in the spotlight as she works them up and down. The pedals prepare the instrument’s pitch. Everything else is in the hands — volume, tone, length, shape. The symphony swells its harmonies and countermelodies, but all the while, the harp is busy making its own, descending into the realm of tonal color when the lower register is overcome by violins. Smith’s elbow is held straight out; the twitching muscles in her forearm cast trembling shadows under the spotlight. When she rests, her hand drops to her thigh, where her fingers drum and rub and gently clench.

The performance is a success. The audience stands to applaud, bouquets find their way into the soloists’ arms before they depart the stage, and the Salzedo harp is moved back to its usual place alongside the Style 23 in preparation for La Mer. But first, an intermission — time enough for the second harpist, Elena Mashkovtseva, to come out and give her instrument a final tuning.

My husband says I can’t fix things

“You always have to tune a harp,” observes JoAnn Dickinson Ford as we listen to Mashkovtseva test the sound of her strings against her tuner. Ford is in the audience tonight, but she played with the symphony from 1960 to 1972, back when they rehearsed nights and weekends and you could hold down a day job somewhere else. (She also served as president of the American Harp Society from 2004–2006.) “Orchestra conductors were always saying that if you tune an hour before a concert, by the time it’s time to play, you’re out of tune — because of all the people coming into the room. It can go out so easily.”

It’s just one of the many ways a harp can turn on you. Soundboards can warp from the 2000 pounds of pressure exerted by the 47 tightened strings. Even if the boards don’t crack, the shift will change the way the strings touch the disks, making tuning more difficult. And a string can break, of course, necessitating a trip into the guts of the soundboard to attach a new one. Sometimes, even the metal rods that run up the column can break, and when they do, things get complicated. “There are 2000 parts to a harp, and a lot of them moving,” says Ford. “I had a pedal rod break two days before a major recital. I could have used my teacher’s harp, but you get so used to your own. I had to drive up to Los Angeles to get [a replacement] rod. Then I had to take the harp apart, pull out the base, take the [pedal] springs off, put in the new rod, and put it all back together. And you still don’t know if it’s right until you’re doing those turns of the screw at the top. I was lucky — it was right. My husband teases me, saying that I can’t fix things, but I can fix my harp.”

So much potential for heartbreak, and for an instrument that gets few chances to shine in an ensemble — is it worth it? “You have to be dedicated to your instrument,” says Ford. The drive comes from within, often right from the get-go. “Most of the time, I think it’s kids, asking their parents to play.” Julie Ann Smith, for example, saw a guest harpist perform in the community orchestra of Hastings, Nebraska, where she lived. Once was enough; she fell in love. She was 9, with six years of piano already behind her, and she spent two years convincing her parents she was serious. “My uncle owns a riverboat on the Missouri River; he gives old-fashioned cruises. I would sit on the dock and play old-fashioned songs on a calliope to help bring people in, and I drew a picture of a harp on a gold tin can and set it down in front. That was pretty convincing for my parents. When I was 11, that same uncle found a harp listed in the Omaha World-Herald.”

A local story

Ford’s own story is more local; to hear it, I visit her in her Point Loma home, which is one of the places where she gives lessons. We sit together on the living-room couch, looking out on Ford’s two Lyon & Healy Style 23 concert grands. “My dad wanted me to play violin, but I didn’t like it. One day I was at Thearles, which was this big music store downtown, on the corner of Seventh and Broadway. Lots of people took lessons there” — Ford took piano — “and they had all kinds of instruments. Up on their balcony, they had a harp display, and I kept begging my mom” for lessons. “Later, I learned it was not a playable harp but only a kind of model.” (No matter — the glorious look of the thing was enough.)

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