Winter Harp warms up to 20

For two decades, the unique show has brought ethereal music, not to mention a menagerie of instruments, to the holiday season

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      Lori Pappajohn remembers taping flyers to every available post along Robson Street to announce the first Winter Harp concert in 1994. She and narrator Alan Woodland had already successfully performed the seasonal entertainment—which combines harp music, little-known carols, poems, and readings—in the New Westminster library where Woodland worked. But could they draw a crowd downtown to St. Andrew’s–Wesley United Church?

      “We crossed our fingers and hoped people would show up,” says Pappajohn, Winter Harp’s director, reached at her home in New Westminster. “We sold out and got a standing ovation and Winter Harp was born. Every year it kept getting bigger, and we kept adding venues.

      “We’re an independent arts organization and we’ve been around for 20 years—that says a lot,” Pappajohn continues. “We don’t get funding or grants, we just do our own thing, and we’ve survived and made 10 CDs. It’s exciting, it feels good.”

      A large part of Winter Harp’s unique character comes from the menagerie of instruments that Pappajohn and her colleagues have tamed and play, and she lists them. “Pedal harp, Celtic harp, wire-strung Celtic harp, psaltery, plucked psaltery, bass psaltery, two different nyckelharpas, bass flute, flute, piccolo, recorders, organistrum, medieval guitar, hurdy-gurdy, and percussion—hand drums, shakers, rattles. My girlfriend went to Mongolia and picked me up some beautiful bells there.”

      Woodland, who retired from Winter Harp several years ago, ventured far afield for the poems and prose to be read. “We started before the Internet so the only way you could find things was to physically look for them,” Pappajohn recalls. “Alan would fly every year to London, England, to research Christmas and winter in the British Library. Because he was a librarian they’d give him a card. There’s so much he was able to find that he could never have got here.”

      Pappajohn draws on both written and recorded sources for her songs. “I go through every Christmas-carol book I find, and spend hours and hours in the middle of summer listening to one Christmas CD after another. There are so many beautiful carols that have been all but lost—you never hear them. When I discover one, it’s like uncovering a buried treasure.”

      For this year’s 20th-anniversary program, Pappajohn and the Winter Harp ensemble—comprising fellow harpists Janelle Nadeau and Roger Helfrick, narrator Adam Henderson, percussionist Lauri Lyster, flautist Jeff Pelletier, and multi-instrumentalist Joaquin Ayala—will revisit established Winter Harp favourites, such as her original composition “Camel Caravan” for two harps and percussion. They’ll also perform what for them is new material—“Jesus of the Manger”, a carol from Finland translated into English; Ireland’s “The Wexford Carol”; and England’s “The Coventry Carol”.

      The Celtic theme is strong, and includes the Irish instrumental tunes “The Butterfly”, an old-fashioned slip jig in 9/8 time, and “The Morning Dew”, a three-part reel made famous by the Chieftains. Winter Harp’s special guest for 2013 is Kim Robertson, a celebrated figure among harpists who will play a medley of “Prayer for St. Bridget” and “Gabriel’s Message”.

      The attraction of Winter Harp isn’t just the beauty of words and music. “Visually, Winter Harp is a Christmas show like you’ll never see anywhere else,” says Pappajohn, “with beautiful costumes, and two backdrops for our theatre shows. One makes it seem like you’re inside a medieval cathedral—it looks so 3-D that afterwards people come on-stage to prove to themselves that it’s flat. The other one is like you’re looking through the arches of an old castle into the snow on a moonlit night.”

      Despite the work of putting Winter Harp together, and touring as far as Winnipeg with the ensemble, Pappajohn won’t be taking a break once it’s all over. On the contrary, she’ll be hard at work. “I’m always very inspired, so I start writing right away for next year, because I’m still in the mood, and still feeling the concert high. So I’ll spend all January and February if not writing and arranging then researching. By June we’re ready to rehearse again.”

      There have been many sublime and surprising moments for Pappajohn at Winter Harp concerts. “One time our flute player was singing ‘Ave Maria’ and he was so in the moment—his eyes were closed—that he suddenly forgot where he was and opened his eyes and was so startled to find that he was in a theatre and there were people in front of him. He was so in the music. Then he closed his eyes and was right back again.”

      Asked for the funniest moment she can recall Pappajohn cites a mid-tune wardrobe malfunction involving a drummer. “As he was bending low over this huge bass drum his vest hooked onto the drum so he couldn’t stand upright again, but he had to keep playing. Our cue to come in was for him to be standing upright so it caused some confusion. He was able to unhook himself but it was a hilarious moment.”

      Winter Harp is at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre on Tuesday (December 17), at the BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts in North Vancouver on Wednesday and Thursday (December 18 and 19), at St. Andrew’s–Wesley United Church on December 21, and at the ACT in Maple Ridge on December 22.