If the city seems to strike an angelic note this week, maybe it’s because the American Harp Society is holding its 41st National Conference at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel from June 22-26.
The five-day conference will showcase some of the world’s finest harpists, along with local jazz musicians and members of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.
All events, including seminars, rehearsals, concerts and dinners are open to the public at varying ranges, from full registration to individual concert tickets starting at $15.
The first New Orleans harp conference is the culmination of efforts by the New Orleans Harp Society and its secretary, Catherine Anderson, well-known as a teacher and performer in New Orleans.
When asked how that came about, Anderson replied, “I just raised my hand and volunteered.”
Now, as the AHS conference chairwoman, who will also be performing and teaching there, Anderson is committed to making the event a success.
“The mission of our society is to promote the harp and harpists, along with education and excellence in the performance and building of the instrument,” she said. “Our objective is not only teaching the instrument, but also writing music for it and making it available to the public.”
The conference will feature large-scale performances and smaller chamber concerts, plus seminars, instructional sessions and vendors.
The conference will kick off Sunday at 8 p.m. at St. Louis Cathedral with an opening recital performed by Baltazar Juarez, principal harpist of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico. The event, which is followed by a second-line to the Crowne Plaza, is free and open to the public.
Once thought of as solely a concert instrument, the harp has, over the years, merged into other musical genres. The Beatles and other rock groups occasionally used the harp, and it has even been adapted to jazz and contemporary musical formats.
One of the conference’s guest artists will be Deborah Henson-Conant, who plays what she calls hip-hop harp. She dances to the music and does standup comedy, Anderson said. Other jazz harpists will be Park Stickney from Switzerland and Riza Printup.
Locally, in addition to Anderson, New Orleans will be represented by jazz harpist Patrice Fisher, frequent Jazz Fest and French Quarter Festival participant. Fisher’s specialty is Latin jazz, and she’ll teach a class in improvisation.
“A jazz harpist is a rare commodity and improvisation is an essential part of most jazz,” Fisher said. “My class is usually very popular, because improvisation is not something harpists learn in school. You have to acquire the knowledge on your own but it’s a very useful skill to have, especially living here in New Orleans.”
Trained in classical style at Tulane University where she earned her degree in music, Fisher said she hopes to organize a jam session where harpists can play together and improvise.
Other renowned harpists and ensembles who will be participating in the conference are Courtney Hershey Bress from the Colorado Symphony, Diana Rowan, the Chicago Harp Quartet, the LyreBird flute and harp duo, the Crane Harp Ensemble, the 12-member Naples (Florida) Harp Ensemble and many more.
The program will also include singers, some of whom will come from the local universities’ classics programs.
Opera singers will be coming in with their own accompanists from other parts of the world, Anderson said.
To close the conference Thursday at 11 a.m., 50 or more harpists will take part in a free premiere performance of the composition “Atchafalaya,” by Louisianian Kimberly Hauser, featuring a full orchestra.
“We’re calling this concert the ‘Harp Extravaganza,’ because that’s exactly what it’s going to be,” Anderson said.