Asked why she chose to specialize in one of the orchestra’s most often overlooked instruments, Elizabeth Volpé Bligh doesn’t hesitate: because it’s often overlooked.
Growing up in a musical household, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s principal harpist knew early on that she was destined for a musical career, but just how that career has unfolded remains a regular source of surprise and delight.
“I used to play the piano as a little kid, and then picked up the flute quite seriously when I was in junior high school in Ontario,” Volpé Bligh explains in a telephone interview from her North Vancouver home.
“I was doing pretty well with it, but I looked around and saw it was a really, really popular instrument, as was the piano. But I noticed that they were always having trouble finding harpists for things. There was always a big scramble, like ‘Where can we find a harpist?’ So I went ‘Hmm. Well, gee, I play the piano: how hard could it be to switch?’ And what’s really funny was that I was at my flute lesson at the conservatory in Toronto, and my mother was waiting to pick me up, and there was a bulletin board beside the flute studio, and on the bulletin board was a harp for sale. We said, ‘Let’s have a look at this harp,’ and so we stopped and just wrote a cheque and brought it home. And off I went!
“There was such a terrible shortage of harpists that I found myself in the deep end right off the bat—playing stuff I had no business playing really early,” she adds. “It was a steep learning curve, but I loved every minute of it.”
Volpé Bligh’s passion for her elegant and unusual instrument remains strong more than 40 years later. In addition to her work with the VSO, she cofounded the Canadian International Summer Harp Institute in 2012, teaches at UBC and elsewhere, and has had several of her own compositions for harp included in the Royal Conservatory of Music’s syllabus.
In the VSO’s upcoming Touching a String concert she’ll also get to step into the spotlight as soloist in former VSO composer in residence Scott Good’s Sonata for Harp and Strings—a role that’s prompted her to take drastic measures when it comes to her practice regimen.
“I’ve been weightlifting, actually,” she says with a laugh, adding that the Sonata for Harp and Strings certainly lives up to Good’s reputation for writing muscular and accessible scores. “The second movement is quite athletic; I’m really jumping around a lot. But, yeah, I love his music. It just seems to speak to me—and wait until you hear it! The first movement is absolutely gorgeous.”
Also on the bill will be the world premiere of Camera Obscura: Dark Chamber, by another former VSO composer in residence, Edward Top, along with works by Giacinto Scelsi, George Benjamin, and Nikolai Korndorf. This promises to be an intellectually stimulating program—and one that, as Volpé Bligh notes, will also be “a lot of fun”.
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presents Touching a String at the Orpheum Annex on Sunday (April 26).