Katherine Siochi, new harpist with the Sarasota Orchestra, looks youthful enough to still be in high school, but she plays like the seasoned pro she is. With two degrees from Juilliard and experience playing on a fill-in basis with major US orchestras, she can definitely be called seasoned. In February, she brought her beautiful Lyon and Healy concert harp to the very appreciative full house in Eicher Auditorium.
Her program consisted of several works familiar to our ears as piano repertoire, neatly transcribed for harp. She studied both piano and harp from early on, and she was responsible for two of the transcriptions, a Debussy Ballade and a Chopin Nocturne. I am not familiar enough with the body of music originally written for harp to know how plentiful, or sparse, it is, but this program (all transcriptions and all 19th or 20th century) suggests that it is sparse, indeed.
The instrument itself is impressive - 47 glistening strings, beautiful maple and spruce, with pedals to allow total chromaticism, all weighing only about 85 (!) pounds. (It is hollow, after all.) Seeing the fine-grained spruce soundboard, I wondered whether these instruments, like fine violins, might improve with age? Siochi quickly spiked my theory, saying, “Basically, you buy it and it starts falling apart.” Well! That is disconcerting, but understandable when you realise that each pedal connects to a mechanism that simultaneously changes the sounding length of all the strings of that pitch class. In other words, each string that is nominally a C string can be made to play a Cb, or a C, or a C#. That means every C string, low and high, all at the same time. Ditto for every D string, E string, etc. Which means that by artful pedal work, the harpist can play in any major or minor key using Western diatonic tuning.
Lovely as it is to my ears, an hour-long program of only flute (my instrument) music can get a tad tiresome. (Blasphemy!) I feel the same way about almost every instrument, including this one, but Siochi employed pizzicato in mid-string, pizzicato near the end of the string, pizzicato harmonics, and brushed strumming glissandi, nearly exhausting the ways of creating sounds on the concert harp. I do agree with the pretty universally felt opinion that the sounds produced are....well, heavenly (giving rise to the idea that those of us fortunate enough to be given that booking assignment next will gladly, and skillfully, play harp for the rest of eternity. In my case, doubtful on many counts!).
Teasing aside, Siochi is an excellent musician. Don’t take my word for it – she won First Prize in the American Harp Society’s Young Professional competition. And, of course, she recently beat out several dozen other applicants in winning the harp position with the Sarasota Orchestra. (It is likely that she will be equally successful at her next audition...for some symphony that pays more than ours.)
And therein lies a problem.
Almost all orchestras have only one position of “harpist,” if that many. If the position is held by one person for a full career of 40 years or so, that means that, in any given year, amongst all the several hundred professional orchestras in the world (in the world!), there will only be a small handful of jobs opening up for the dozens of talented young harpists in music schools and conservatories throughout the world graduating that year, as well as the dozens from previous years that still have not found jobs. Siochi is skilled enough that were she in another line of work, say playing tight end in pro football, she would be in the running for a salary well over 100 times what Sarasota Orchestra pays her. (Wouldn’t take more than a year or two of that to squeak by in retirement, dontcha know?)
Okay, Siochi and others like her don’t do what they do for the promise of big bucks. But they do have to eat. And pay rent. So, for the next opening in Dallas, or LA, or Pittsburgh, that will pay over double what we can, Siochi will have to go audition. She simply must. She’s skilled enough to have a good shot at winning that audition. And then Sarasota will have auditions all over again, because, while we have a very good orchestra, we are a relatively low-paying orchestra, with miserable health care and retirement benefits, so we are only attractive to young musicians happy to get their first job. Our musicians then have to “scuffle,” taking as many side gigs as possible. It helps if they marry another orchestra member (have you noticed how many of our musicians are couples?), so they have similar schedules. (But then who watches the kids? Always another problem.)
All I’m saying is, our societal values seem a little skewed. One might say that Juilliard is the musical equivalent of the Wharton School of Business. If so, then would it be reasonable to say that equivalent degrees might warrant equivalent remuneration?
We are lucky that making music is so deeply soul-satisfying that bright, talented, hard-working, and idealistic people like Katherine Siochi are still drawn to it. And that our schools of music are doing such great work of turning out well-trained young musicians every year. Would that we had enough decent-paying jobs to properly reward th