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Festival comes straight from the harp

Plucky organizers pull some strings to land international music event

Hundreds of the top harp players from across the globe will descend on Vancouver this month as part of the eleventh World Harp Festival, although most of them will leave their instruments at home.

You dont fly with your harp, explained local Celtic harpist Lori Pappajohn, one of the festival organizers. Its six feet tall, weighs 80 pounds and theyre not going to like that very much at the baggage counter.

Instead, she said theyve rustled up a few dozen of the mostly standardized instruments for performers to share during the week-long music festival, the largest gathering of its kind. Its quite an elaborate schedule because you have all these performers and need to have the harp moved to the venue where theyre performing, plus of course they also need harps to practise on beforehand, she said. There is something like 14 hours of concerts and lectures every single day for a week. Its really like a Rubiks cubethis harp needs to go here, that one needs to go there after that one goes there.

Pappajohn, also a member of the popular medieval-instrument troupe Winter Harp, hopes the plucky event will change peoples perceptions about the ancient instrument.

So many people when they think of the harp, they think of the lady with the long hair and the long dress playing the beautiful, lovely songs, but the harp can also be very cutting edge, said Pappajohn, who closely resembles the person she just described. Think of Jimi Hendrix, hes got six strings. Well, imagine having 47 strings with distortion. The harp is probably one of the most versatile instruments because you can get all of these different sounds and colours out on it.

This is an instrument, after all, that even Metallica has experimented with. One of the performers Pappajohn is most looking forward to seeing is Park Stickney, a New York-based jazz harpist who is fiddling with peoples expectations of what it means to play the harp the way Ashley MacIsaac once did with the fiddle. Other styles being performed during the event, which runs July 24 to 30 at a variety of downtown venues, range from Baroque and classical to blues and even techno.

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra will accompany harpists in three performances during the festival. Evan Mitchell will conduct special performances with visiting guests at the Orpheum Theatre, while Saturday will see conductor Ken Hsieh behind the baton at St. Andrews Wesley Church in a grand finale hosted by the CBCs Bill Richardson.

Pappajohn, whose ensemble plays July 26 at the Vogue Theatre, said organizers didnt need to pull too many strings in order to land the prestigious event, held every three years and usually only in Europe. They made the pitch and Vancouver was just in the throes of doing the Olympics, so we were on the world map and it just kind of made sense. Even still, the more I look at it, Im just amazed. Its just one headliner after another.

To purchase tickets or for more information, visit or call 604-876-3434.

Twitter: @flematic