Local musician takes harp out of the box
February 14, 2008
SUMMIT COUNTY ” Forget the image of angel wings and endless coma-inducing glissandos up and down the strings. For local harpist Janet Harriman, the harp is a full-bodied instrument, made for just about every type of music imaginable.
Originally from Bexley, Ohio, Harriman grew up in a home full of music. Her mother was a well-known professional harpist and one of the founders of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, and her father was a professional trombonist who played in both symphony orchestras and big bands. Harriman started on the piano at the age of 3, but over the years turned more and more toward the harp.
“My mother believed that a parent could never teach their own child, so she never pushed the harp on me,” Harriman said. “But because of her, I got to know the whole harp repertoire before I even learned to play it.”
During her school years, Harriman began to pinch hit as a harpist whenever the local orchestras needed one, although for many years, her first love was the piano ” and volleyball, where she helped lead her high school team into state championships.
The turning point came when Harriman was 17. Her mother knew the famed teacher Alice Chalifoux, the main protege of Carlos Salzedo, who was recognized worldwide as one of the greatest harp performers, composers and teachers of the 20th century.
“My mother asked me if I wanted to come up to Camden, Maine to study with Alice Chalifoux,” Harriman said. “My brother loaded up my harp, and my mother put in my music and bench, and I drove up there ” and stayed for two weeks. And that was the beginning.”
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Harriman spent the next 13 summers studying with Chalifoux at the Salzedo Harp Colony in Camden, Maine. During the first few years, she also received a Bachelors degree in piano performance from the College of Wooster, as well as a Master of Music degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she continued her lessons every week with Chalifoux.
In spite of strong competition from volleyball, to the consternation of some of her music professors, her love for the harp came out on top.
“I remember after my first semester recital, all the harpists came up to me and said that they wanted to take up volleyball too, because it had given me such strong fingers,” she recalled with a laugh.
During her first years as a professional harpist, Harriman took gigs in nightclubs and restaurants, while her father, who had played in a band for Tony Bennett during World War Two, would write out arrangements of popular songs for her.
“My mom and dad taught me that you don’t put all your musical eggs in one basket,” Harriman said. “They were the ones that showed me how to use the versatility of music in my career.
And back in the 1980s, the harp started becoming more popular in restaurants and hotels ” and Miss Chalifoux thought that was the greatest thing, because before then, the only way to make a living as a harpist was in an orchestra or as a soloist.”
Soon, the orchestra circuit came calling ” first, the National Repertory Orchestra in Keystone, where she joined conductor Carl Topilow and a group of the country’s finest young musicians. In 1988, Janet was invited to join The New World Symphony in Miami, as part of its inaugural season.
She stayed with the orchestra for the next four years, under the direction of famed conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. During the early 1990s, she played with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the baton of conductor Yoel Levi.
In 1993, Harriman came back to Colorado and took over the position of acting principal harpist of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. But part of the inducement to return to the Rockies was that, during her years of working with the NRO, she had met and fallen in love with a local whitewater rafting guide, Karl Bierbaum, whom she eventually married.
By the mid-1990s, Harriman was beginning to feel the constraints that, sooner or later, catch up with every orchestra musician. She made the decision to pursue her career in her own way, playing the music she wanted to play.
Today, Harriman restricts her orchestral work to guest soloist performances, as well as her regular gig every summer as the harpist for the Central City Opera Company. Her main love is in freelancing with chamber and small ensemble groups, playing everything from Mozart to jazz.
Her latest project, an album with percussionist Dexter Wiggins, takes the standard harp duo repertoire and sets it, artistically speaking, on its ear. The two collaborators have taken harp pieces by composers such as Salzedo and Satie, and added percussive elements in the most unexpected ways.
“We didn’t want just another harp CD,” Harriman said. “We even play a mixing bowl during a fugue by Handel.”
At one point, during some repairs to her house, Harriman even went out and persuaded her contractor to hit his hammer on a steel beam, while she set him to a metronome beat and recorded him. The end result will be part of the album as well, which is due to be released this fall.
Currently, Harriman is co-president of the Summit County Orchestra, where she occasionally pulls out the violin ” another from her arsenal of instruments ” and joins in. She also teaches harp at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and has a private studio of harp students as well.
But as one of the country’s most prestigious harpists, she admits that living here with her husband and two daughters, Ally and Andi, has taught her to say “no” to many of the offers that come her way.
“When you live back East, it’s so easy to practice because the weather’s so awful,” she said. “But out here it’s too gorgeous to be sitting inside practicing all day.”
And for those who question why Harriman no longer plays full-time with an orchestra, she contends that she’s not only been there done that, but that by doing things her way, she’s gotten to do a lot more than most orchestra musicians.
“Michael Tilson Thomas once asked me, ‘What do you want to do with your harp?’ And I answered, ‘I want to do everything’,” she recalled. “And I have. I was originally trained to be a symphony harpist, but I wasn’t happy just doing that. And I wasn’t happy just doing gigging either. But now, I’ve come full circle doing what I wanted to do.”
Janet Harriman will be performing Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp in C Major, K.299 with the Chamber Orchestra of the Springs in Colorado Springs on Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call (719) 633-3649 or go online at http://www.chamberorchestraofthesprings.org