Harpist joins Diocesan Choir for concert Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Dick Jones, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Dec. 11, 2008 -- 1:00 AM
  Harpist Mary Ann Harr will be featured with the Madison Diocesan Choir. (Contributed photo)
MADISON — Mary Ann Harr, principal harpist for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, will join the Madison Diocesan Choir and its director, Dr. Patrick Gorman, as special guest for their Lessons and Carols Christmas concert, Sunday, Dec. 21, at the Bishop O’Connor Catholic Pastoral Center.

“She is certainly one of the most sought after musicians in town,” Gorman said. “It’s a real treat to perform with her because she’s so very, very professional. She’s such a great supporter of the choir. I always look forward to working with her, because she’s a great person, a great musician, a real pro.”

The wonder of Christmas

Bishop Robert C. Morlino will preside at the concert, which begins at 5:30 p.m. in the chapel of the Bishop O’Connor Center, located at 702 S. High Point Rd. The event with reception to follow is free. Each person attending is encouraged to bring a nonperishable food item to help stock the food pantry at the Catholic Multicultural Center.

Harr, also a longtime member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will perform a solo and accompany the choir on four selections Gorman chose specifically to feature the stringed instrument that is so much a part of Christmas. The setting, Scripture readings, and music will give the audience a sense of the magic and wonder shepherds experienced in Bethlehem long ago.

“When you look at artwork about angels, they’re often playing harps,” Gorman said. “Sometimes trumpets, but it’s often angelic harps that we associate with this heavenly music announcing the birth of Christ. . . . King David played the harp. We think of a harp as a very holy instrument. So it works particularly well for the concert we are doing.”
Coming to the harp

Music has been a part of Harr’s life since her childhood on a dairy farm near DeForest. She and two younger sisters all played piano. In high school, they switched to band instruments. Their uncle directed the high school band.

“I played saxophone — not because I wanted to, but because he needed a saxophone player,” she said. In high school, she went to the University of Wisconsin summer music clinic where she met Margaret Rupp Cooper, a music professor known as the “harp lady.” With Cooper’s encouragement, Harr quickly took to the harp.

“I could play the harp fairly well, just on the spot,” Harr said. When she got home, she told her parents, Harold and Isabel Norsman, she wanted to play the harp. “They nearly had a heart attack. But they managed to rent a harp from Lyon & Healy in Chicago.”

Harr put the harp aside during college. She became a schoolteacher, got married, and had children. When her two daughters entered middle school, she enrolled at UW-Madison as a special student intent on mastering the harp.

Today, besides performing, Harr has a busy schedule of weddings and other engagements, especially during the holiday season. She also teaches harp to a dozen students a week. And she has what seems like a house full of harps.

“All sizes, from lap harps to lever harps to Celtic harps, semi-grand to grand, acoustic to electric,” she said. For Lessons and Carols, she will play her newest harp, a semi-grand. “It’s easier for me to lift and haul around.”

Different aspects of the harp

For her solo, Gorman chose the French carol, “Sing we now of Christmas.” She will accompany just the women in singing “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day,” a John Rutter arrangement. In contrast is a Mack Wilberg arrangement of a French carol, “Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing?”

“I wanted to feature different aspects of the harp,” Gorman said. “The one piece, ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day,’ has just a real fun, kind of dancing harp part. Real fast, just delightful. The Wilberg piece is much more rich, an orchestrated harp part, very full, very lush.”

Harr looks forward to performing the selections, especially the Rutter arrangement. “The piece is lilting and happy, and the harp is very busy with many notes to play very quickly,” she said. “The audience will love it!”

Her favorite is one by Gorman. Last summer, he composed an arrangement of a traditional Welsh carol, “All poor men and humble.” With Harr accompanying, the choir will give a premiere performance of this arrangement.

She said. “It fits the harp because he knows what he’s doing. He has written a very simple pattern of open arpeggiated chords which lightly support the singers. It sounds a bit like a guitar. It will be mesmerizing.”

Complementing voice

Finally, Harr will accompany the choir in singing the “Sussex Carol.” To hear her, she has the best seat in the house. Harp and voice were made for each other.

“I really love the voice with the harp,” she said. “It’s so much more intimate with the voices, and I think the harp lets the voices be heard, yet supports them. Often a piano or a louder accompaniment hides the voices.”

In complementing the voice, the harp also poses a challenge, especially for the choir’s more than 70 members, representing parishes throughout the diocese.

“The greatest challenge for the choir,” Gorman said, “is the harp is so very quiet. When choirs sing with piano, with brass, when they sing with organ, it’s very easy to hear the accompaniment. Sometimes when you sing with harp, you have to sing a little softer. That creates issues of support. It’s also a challenge to match that beautiful sound.”

Yet the harp has a subtle way of commanding attention. “Whenever the harp plays,” Gorman said, “the room just gets quiet. It just seems to draw all the listeners’ ears right to it.”

Collaborative effort

Harr has accompanied the choir previously at Chrism Mass and concerts. She was the special guest at the choir’s 2006 Lessons and Carols, but this is the first concert Gorman arranged especially for Harr and different aspects of the instrument. Her performances under Gorman’s direction go back to his days as a doctoral student of choral music at UW-Madison.

“I actually played while he conducted one of his student choirs,“ Harr said. “I knew from the second he brought down the baton that this was going to be good, and it’s been good ever since.”

Said Harr, “I love choral music. I love the Diocesan Choir, and I love Pat Gorman. He is a dream to work with. He gets so much out of the choir. He makes making music what it’s supposed to be, which is joyful, thrilling. It improves with what he does.”

With Glenn Schuster accompanying on organ, Gorman will invite all attending the concert in singing, “O little town of Bethlehem” and other favorites.

Repeat performance

Harr will join Gorman, Schuster, and the choir for a repeat performance of Lessons and Carols at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 3, at Saint Henry Parish in Watertown. This concert is also free. There will be no collection of food items. However, the choir welcomes free will offerings to support its music ministry.

The choir’s new CD, “With Joyful Steps,” a live recording of its 2007 Lessons and Carols concert, will be on sale at $15 each.

Both locations are wheelchair accessible.

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