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Chicago Harp Tour

Recently I was lucky to score two tickets to Lyon & Healy’s 5th Annual Gala Concert on Nov. 14th in Chicago featuring Berlin Philharmonic harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet. I invited my mother to join me for a big harp weekend in the Windy City.

We arrived in town a couple of days early so we could see some sights. On Friday morning we visited the Venus Harp factory, a small family-owned business that has been making fine pedal harps for 40 years. First we were given a fascinating tour of the harp making process.

All the parts of the action are manufactured on site in Venus' own metal shop. Then the plates, discs, forks and action arms are assembled by hand for each instrument.

Venus harp action under construction

It takes a lot of clamps to glue the soundboard onto the body shell.

harp sounboard being glued to body

After the columns are turned on a lathe, craftsmen hand-carve the flowers and other decorative details. These raw wood columns are waiting to be matched to a body.

carved harp columns at Venus

After the harps are completely assembled, master harp technician Kurt Berg regulates them so the pedals will give accurate sharps and flats.

Kurt Berg regulates a Venus harp

After the tour, we spent a few hours playing beautiful instruments in the showroom. My mother is fond of the newest model in the Venus line-up, a 42-stringed straightboard harp called the Seraphim. It has a strikingly powerful yet clear voice for a small harp, with warmth in the bass and mid-range and sparkle in the treble. There were several in the showroom but Mom preferred the sound of this natural maple one.

Karen plays a Venus Seraphim harp

Janelle Lake, the charming harpist who works in the showroom, played the Tailleferre Sonata on the Venus Classic model for us. This one has hand-carved roses cascading down the pillar and a big glorious sound.

Janelle plays a Venus Classic harp

Feeling a little dazzled by everything we’d seen at Venus Harps, we took a bus to the nearby Lyon & Healy Harp factory where they’ve been making harps for 120 years. The factory takes up five floors of the building and it is impressive to see such a large number of instruments in various stages of construction - from building of the action all the way to the final stringing and tuning. At the end of the tour we were taken to the vast showroom full of 60-70 harps, both pedal and lever, gleaming in long orderly rows, just waiting to be plucked.

The sheer quantity of perfect instruments was overwhelming but when I asked Mom which one she liked best she didn’t even hesitate before answering - her favorite is the Style 26 with gothic carvings of angels, 23-karat gold leaf on the column, hand-painted soundboard and bubinga veneer on the neck and body. Only $59,000 - I’d say she has good taste.

Karen with the style 26 gold Lyon & Healy harp

She also loved playing this more modestly priced Style 85CG. The decoration is restrained but the sound is big and rich.

Karen plays a Lyon & Healy 85CG harp

The showroom manager was kind enough to move a harp into a practice room for us so we could spend some time playing it and we both agreed that we’d be happy to take home this handsome mahogany Style 23 - if only we had a spare $31,000.

Laurie plays a Lyon & Healy 23

After a full day plucking on countless lovely harps you’d think we’d be tired but look - we’re happy!

Karen and Laurie with Lyon & Healy style 23 harp

The Concert

On Saturday we did some sight-seeing and then returned to Lyon & Healy for the concert. Five years ago a 200-seat concert hall was constructed on the 5th floor of the factory building. The stage has a breathtaking view of the city lights in the evening Chicago skyline which made a lovely backdrop for the music and the sleek Style 30 that Marie-Pierre had selected from the showroom.

Lyon & Healy style 30 at gala concert in Chicago

Marie-Pierre Langlamet is a powerful harpist, capable of a myriad of subtle nuances and expression on the strings. One fun solo she played was a medley using birds as the theme; The Cuckoo (Louis-Claude Daquin), The Nightingale (Franz Liszt) and The Lark (Glinka). Mostly though, she played duos or trios with the violist and flute player she’d brought along with her from Berlin. These ranged from compositions by Mozart and Debussy to a couple of passionately rhythmic Piazzolla tangos.

What impressed me the most was seeing how much fun Marie-Pierre had in performing and how much she lived her music in the moment. She obviously enjoyed playing with her colleagues, communicating with them wordlessly through eye contact and expressive body language as they told their musical story. Throughout the show I was transported by the magical harmonies woven amongst the three instruments, made all the more real by the musicians’ awareness of each other.

An elegant reception followed where we talked with old friends and marvelled at the number of famous harpists who were in attendance while sipping chardonnay and nibbling rasberry cannoli. It was a star-studded event and very satisfying to see so many talented harpists turn out to enjoy an evening of beautiful music.