Spoleto Festival harpist scores sweet spot in major orchestra
“Don’t you wish you played the flute?” is an all-too-frequent quip she hears from random strangers when they see the petite young woman roll her harp across the street, or carry it up and down a flight of stairs.
Despite the endless jokes and the occasional exasperation that comes from having to constantly mobilize her huge Lyon & Healy Salzedo harp (affectionately named “Carlos”), Allegra Lilly has no inclination to play the flute or any other instrument.
“I was very sure of my choice at the age of seven,” Lilly said. “And I still am today.”
Returning for a second year at Spoleto Festival USA, Lilly has been involved with the ensemble of the “Matsukaze” opera, one of the festival orchestra concerts (conducted by Stefan Asbury) and “Spotlight on the Orchestra,” part of the Intermezzo series, where on June 1 she gave a solo performance of Benjamin Britten’s “Suite for Harp.”
“Lilly was one of the few musicians to be selected in a grueling auditioning process that involved 600 candidates from 10 cities,” said John Kennedy, resident conductor and director of orchestral activities for the festival. The process was highly selective and resulted in a mix of alumni and freshman players.
Born into a musically predisposed family in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Lilly regularly attended Detroit Symphony Orchestra concerts, an integral part of her education and childhood experience. With mother Elizabeth teaching piano lessons and older sister Blythe singing and playing the violin, it came as no surprise when Lilly, too, showed signs of having a gift and an ear for classical music. Her choice of instrument was odd, though.
“I just thought the harp was the coolest thing,” Lilly said. “There is only one most of the time in an orchestra, and it’s so spectacular visually.”
After begging her parents for lessons, Lilly began studying the harp with a local teacher, Ruth Myers.
Myers tutelage remains an undeniable influence in Lilly’s life, without which she might not have had the confidence and courage to achieve so much, such as making her solo debut with the Detroit Symphony at 12, and getting into Juilliard at 18.
Performing that first harp recital (Debussy’s “Danses Sacree et Profane”) in front of a live audience was Lilly’s moment of artistic epiphany. From here on, there was no looking back.
“That feeling, especially with a piece I have such a strong connection to, getting to play that and giving that performance to people from the stage is a unique experience,” Lilly said, “And I don’t think I would be able to live without it once I had it.”
During her high school years, Lilly played with the Detroit Symphony Civic Orchestra, followed by the Metropolitan Youth Symphony with which she was a part of various orchestral shows and ensembles.
She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Juilliard in 2007 and 2009, while simultaneously winning several awards, such as the Anne Adams Award at the American Harp Society National Conference in 2008.
But the harp provides no guarantees. Despite her talent and accolades, Lilly spent most of her working years performing freelance jobs in national and international festivals, often as a substitute in various orchestras across the country, and at times even playing at weddings. To keep afloat financially, Lilly tried her hand at several things, from restaurant work to a job at a public relations firm.
“The nature of a harp is such that you’re not always being used in an orchestra,” Lilly said, “You also just need the one. Unlike other instruments, there is no section for harp and only a handful of orchestras use a full-time second harpist.”
All those years of hard work finally paid off this April when Lilly was hired by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra as principal harpist. Her appointment is an unusual stroke of success in the harp community where most performers seldom find stable job opportunities. Lilly’s predecessor, Frances Tietov, has held the position since 1970, but is stepping down.
“Opportunities like these open once in three to five years,” Kennedy said. “It speaks significantly of her talent because she’s literally in the top one percent.”
Although it is not unusual for orchestras to hire young professionals, economic challenges among arts organizations are limiting their options, according to Judith Kurnick, vice president for strategic communications at the League of American Orchestras. With some orchestras closing down, filing for bankruptcy or issuing lockouts, tough choices are made. Orchestras in trouble find it cheaper to hire harpists on a per service basis.
When money is tight, it’s often the philanthropists who step up.
“The donors invested in orchestras are concerned about their future,” Kurnick said. “They want to see young faces there continuing the tradition.”
Harpists such as Lilly, who believe in making classical music accessible to people of all ages and tastes, fit well within this vision.
“The St. Louis Symphony director David Robertson has a new, exciting program, which doesn’t use the same old war horses all the time,” Lilly said, “I feel lucky to be a part of it and hope I can make the best of it.”
Eesha Patkar is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.