Elizabeth Hainen is the principal harpist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and is on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music and the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University. Lauded by the Washington Post for her “unusual presence with silky transparency” and by the New York Times for her “earthy solidarity,” Hainen has been a featured soloist all over the world, from the Anchorage Symphony to the Bulgaria National Radio Orchestra and from the Chicago Civic Orchestra to the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and has collaborated with eminent conductors like Charles Dutoit and Michael Tilson Thomas.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was thrilled to visit with Elizabeth Hainen at her home in Philadelphia for this Conversation about her life, her instrument and her views on music education.

STAY THIRSTY: What did your parents say when you chose the harp as your instrument? Did you ever consider the logistics of traveling with such a large instrument and taking it all over the world?

ELIZABETH HAINEN: Actually, my father was so happy that he had an excuse to get a fancy new station wagon. We joke that he will still be helping me move my harp even when he is 80, which incidentally he turns this coming December. Thankfully, when traveling with The Philadelphia Orchestra we have a great team of guys that do the heavy lifting of the instrument trunks. When I am on my own with solo gigs, Lyon & Healy Harp manufacturers assists me with getting instruments all over the world.

Elizabeth Hainen and her harp

STAY THIRSTY: As the principal harpist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, how do you see the role of the harp in the orchestra?

ELIZABETH HAINEN: From a musical viewpoint, the instrument plays several roles. As a colorist, it provides timbre and tone and a supportive texture to the string section. As an accompanist, it often supports the flute, clarinet, oboe and solo violin.

STAY THIRSTY: You will be performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra this summer at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. What attracts you about the Saratoga venue and audience?

ELIZABETH HAINEN: This will be my 25th summer at SPAC! I have always enjoyed the acoustics, which is so rare for an outdoor venue. In fact, I have boasted that our space is much more desirable than Tanglewood’s and one should make sure to hear our orchestra in its summer home. I have also made close friends in Saratoga Springs, NY, and they regularly attend our concerts. We have a great time dining and socializing at the many wonderful establishments.

Home - Elizabeth Hainen - Harp

STAY THIRSTY: Your resume includes performances as the featured soloist with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, the Orchestra Camerata Ducale in Italy and the State Symphony Orchestra of Mexico. Off all the concert halls you have performed in, which are your favorites and why?

ELIZABETH HAINEN: When on tour with the orchestra one of my favorites is the Musikverein in Vienna Austria. Not only is the sound incredible, but there is a presence of great music-making that inspires the performer and listener like no other place.

STAY THIRSTY: You are the Founding Director and Chairman of the Lyra Society, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote new works for the harp and to educate young harpists. How did this venture come about and who are the principal beneficiaries of your efforts?

ELIZABETH HAINEN: Playing music comes naturally for me considering I come from a family of musical educators and performers. We would often schlep my harp to my parents’ elementary and middle schools where I would deliver a brief concert introducing the harp to young people. It always bothered me that none of these schools had a harp. When I came to Philadelphia to begin my career with the Philadelphia Orchestra, I heard about the rich legacy of instrument programs which once thrived in the public schools. My personal journey took me to each school that still owned a concert grand harp and upon this exploration I discovered that three alumnae of Philadelphia High School for Girls all went on to become principal harpists in major orchestras. This group includes Ann Hobson Pilot, the first African-American member of the Boston Symphony. It became clear to me that I must reestablish a harp program within the public schools. The Lyra Society will celebrate its 15th anniversary in 2020. I am proud to say we are currently teaching over twenty-five school students the harp. Our recent graduates attest their future was shaped due to the gift of the harp. All are college graduates or college-bound with honors and scholarships. Truly a testimony to what the Lyra Society is accomplishing.

Elizabeth Hainen

STAY THIRSTY: In addition to your role as a performing harpist, you are also on the faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music and the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University. How do the students of today compare with the students when you were in college? How difficult is it to recruit students to become harpists and what is the likelihood of them having a career playing this instrument?

ELIZABETH HAINEN: My experience in music school was similar to modern day Curtis students: we expected to excel at our instruments to become soloists and ensemble players at the top tier. What has changed, in addition to performing to the best of your ability, is the scope of the career path. Both Curtis and Boyer offer incredible training in community outreach, self-promotion and business. I recently created a teaching team at Boyer that represents how diverse classical training has become. Historically, a harpist’s training and position has been limited to classical music, but we are seeing a shift in this due to the creation of many school harp programs like the Lyra Society’s GLISSANDO! harp program. Our younger generations of harpists are motivated to take the harp in groundbreaking directions, from duos to quartets and from jazz to singer-songwriting.

STAY THIRSTY: You are a graduate of the Indiana University School of Music as is the renowned violinist Joshua Bell, who also happens to be Honorary Advisory Board of your Lyra Society. How did that happen?

ELIZABETH HAINEN: Joshua Bell and I became close friends as we entered freshman class together. Along with our other friends, we were always very supportive of each other’s school performances, competitions and career endeavors. I used to attend Josef Gingold’s masterclasses where Josh would give a test run for upcoming major performances. You can now find some these old videos on YouTube! We perform together often, and he continues to be a wonderful friend.

STAY THIRSTY: Your third CD, entitled HOME, was released during the 2017-2018 season. How was the lineup for this CD chosen and which pieces are you especially proud of? Is there another CD in the offing?

ELIZABETH HAINEN: One winter I endured multiple snowstorms in the sanctuary of our Victorian row home. Philadelphia was shut down each time, but fortunately I had electricity, groceries, wine and my harp. For a performing musician there is always a concert deadline so it’s rare to have the opportunity to practice for one’s self. I took advantage of my mini-sabbatical by playing some of my favorite diminutive works with my Parsons Russell Terrier, Cosmo, at my side. While enjoying this rare indulgence, it occurred to me that many memorable musical encounters have taken place in our home, often as salon concerts with my husband, David DePeters. So this inspired me to record all the pieces I like to play for myself at home. I guess you could say, “home is where your harp is.”


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.