Vancouver Symphony Orchestra principal harpist Elizabeth Volpé Bligh eases her breakneck pace as an orchestral harpist for four decades

If you are a longtime Harp Column reader, you probably recognize Elizabeth Volpé Bligh’s name from the many bylines she has had in the magazine over the years. Bligh’s analytical approach to the harp and wealth of orchestral experience has resulted in some of our favorite articles. There’s Cracking the Nutcracker, (September/October 2015), in which she shares some brilliant edits for the iconic harp part. Who could forget Top 10 Most Wanted Harp Parts, (November/December 2017), a must-read for orchestral harpists of every age. And then there’s my personal favorite, Mission Possible from our May/June 2014 issue, where Bligh shows how she breaks down seemingly impossible parts that land on harpists’ music stands in orchestra. It was in that 2014 article that Bligh shared her edits for the fourth movement of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra—a genius pedal hack, no let’s call it a “pedal reorganization,” that makes the perilous passage practically a walk in the park.

When Bligh announced her retirement from the Vancouver (B.C.) Symphony Orchestra (VSO) after more than 35 years last winter, we thought it was high time to give our readers a glimpse into the life and career of a harpist whose expertise she has graciously shared with us all. Bligh worked a Skype conversation with us into her busy schedule last spring as she was finishing out the end of the VSO’s season, after announcing her retirement in January.

Bligh, who didn’t start playing the harp until she was 17 years old, says she did things backwards. When she was first learning how to play, she dove into major repertoire before she had cemented her technique. “You really should have the technique in place before you start doing all that stuff,” she says. “I think that’s why I’m so analytical, why I teach my students every little step, because I remember it all…I remember all the steps I had to do to make it work.”

Harp Column: After 35 yeares as principal harpist of the Vancouver Symphony, you are now retiring. What a big development in your life!

Elizabeth volpé bligh: Yes, my reason for retiring was I just wanted to slow down a bit. Not that I hate playing with the orchestra—I love it still. The pace in the Vancouver Symphony is pretty insane. Maybe it’s like that for everyone now, I don’t know. Certainly ours is. It’s like a freight train: all this music coming at you all the time, and after a while it’s just enough already. So what I’ve done since retiring in January is  take some things and let one of my colleagues take over if I want to take a week off here. We’re doing a Bernstein festival, and I thought, gosh, Bernstein is so difficult, I really need to be there for that. I’ve played it before, and someone new would be coming in learning this massive amount of music in a short amount of time. There’s a tour coming up, and I’m doing that. So I’m actually only quasi-retired until the orchestra holds an audition for the harp position.

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Editor of Harp Column, freelance harpist, private teacher, hot yoga lover, and grammar geek.

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