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Virginia Schweninger, Harpist: Press

Soaring on angels’ strings

Courtesy Howard Bryan

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Next Sunday, First Presbyterian Church on Park Street will fill with the stirring sounds of harp music.

The concert, “Harps of Gold: Three Centuries of Golden Harps, Three Centuries of Music,” is a fundraiser to benefit the Wednesday Music Club’s scholarship fund. For half a century, the fund has been helping talented young musicians in the area achieve their musical goals.

Thomas Warburton, who went on to become professor of music at the University of North Carolina, received the first check in 1959 for the amount of $100. The club will award more than $16,000 this year, nearly half of which will go to students who need help paying for music lessons.

The event will feature seven antique harps being played by seven young harpists. Laura Stokes, a student at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, will be playing a Wurlitzer model BB double-action harp circa 1918.

Like countless other fledgling musicians, financial assistance from the club has had a major impact on Laura’s musical direction.

“When I was two, I announced to my mom that I wanted to play the harp,” the 17-year-old music major said. “My dad is from England, where harps are popular, and I also would go to the library for the children’s program when Eve Watters would play the harp and tell stories.

“When I was a junior in high school, I competed for the Wednesday Music Club’s camp scholarship and won $600. That made it possible for me to go to Shenandoah Conservatory Performing Arts Camp for two weeks.

“It was while I was there playing harp that I decided I wanted to do it as a profession. That was one of the defining moments in my life, and it was purely thanks to the money I got from the club, because without it I wouldn’t have been able to go to the camp.”

Professional harpist and teacher Virginia Schweninger was one of Laura’s instructors. She helped the young harpist develop her extraordinary musical gifts, which have earned her a full scholarship at the world-famous conservatory.

Schweninger, with help from friends, came up with the concept for the Harps of Gold concert. About a year ago, when she was visiting the Lynchburg shop of harp maker and restorer Howard Bryan, she noticed how many superb antique harps were there at the time.

“I said it would be wonderful to get all my students together and play those beautiful harps for each other,” said Schweninger, founder and director of Harp Song of the Blue Ridge, a harp ensemble composed of her students.

“A friend said we could do it at her church. Another person said if we’d have it at the church, we should turn it into a fundraiser.

“The Gateway in Lynchburg, a drug rehab center, had just lost its federal funding, so we decided to help it. Two weeks later, we had our first Harps of Gold concert.”

The event was held at Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Lynchburg, which seats 150 people. More than 250 people crammed into the church, and at least 100 more had to be turned away. The event raised $3,400.

Schweninger, a Nelson County resident and member of the Wednesday Music Club, felt the concert could be just as successful in Charlottesville.

“We need more scholarship money, because so many kids are auditioning for them and we have limited funds,” Schweninger said. “When I was young, I received a $200 scholarship from a women’s club, and it meant so much to me.

“The Wednesday Music Club is a group of people who are music lovers, music teachers and performing musicians. The reason I felt I came home when I found the group is because we’re all to some degree trying to share what we’ve learned.

“My kids are so special, because their parents are special. They provide them with music lessons, whether they can afford it or not. We’re trying to help them send their kids to music camp, buy music, pay for lessons and help with college expenses. That’s what this concert is about.”

All the harp soloists during the first half of the concert are young, exceptionally gifted artists. Each will be dressed in clothing reflective of the period when her harp was built, and her music also will come from the same era.

These visual touches certainly will enhance the performances, and the antique harps will create musical magic of their own. The oldest harp will be a Dodd and Sons made in England around the turn of the 19th century.

“The Dodd and Sons harp is the most beautiful midnight blue with gold gilding on the column and crown,” said Schweninger, who has performed with famous entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr., Tina Turner, Melissa Manchester, Kenny Rogers and Sandi Patty.

“It will be played by 12-year-old Quinn Egner, who will perform a piece by Purcell. The next harp is a mid-19th-century Sebastien Erard harp that was built in Paris.

“It will be played by Chelsea Barnwell, who will be performing Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria.’ Fifteen-year-old soprano Claire Wittman will be accompanying her. Both young ladies will be in Civil War-era costumes.

“Canaan Taylor will be playing a Lyon-Healy harp that was built about 1886. I will play an 1897 Lyon-Healy style 22 harp

that’s called a Wagner, because it has a bust of the famous composer on its crown.”

Each of the antique instruments is on loan from a private owner and will be described by Bryan. Kate Tamarkin, director of the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra, will serve as master of ceremonies.

“I think this is the first, large-scale public event the club has attempted to stage,” said Wednesday Music Club president Content “Corky” Sablinsky, who taught piano in the McIntire Department of Music at the University of Virginia for many years.

“After the intermission, an ensemble of eight harpists, Harp Song of Virginia, will perform together. We’re all very excited about the concert and the opportunity to raise our visibility and let people learn about the club and what it does.”

In 1923, the late Irene Valentine and seven of her women friends started the Wednesday Music Club. Initially the sole goal of the group was to share their musical talents and love of music with one another.

As the club grew, so did its goals and horizons. By 1938, when Meda Tilman joined, the roll had grown to nearly 50 members, and they were performing at events throughout the city.

Today, the club has about 150 members. Margaret Wood, who joined in 1952, feels that one of its most important roles is continuing to nurture and help young musicians.

“We do everything we can to encourage young musicians,” said Wood, who for many years sang with the club’s Madrigal Singers.

“We have marvelous musicians in the club, and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to work with and help these young people.

“Music means so much later in life. And this has always been a club where it’s strictly ‘come and enjoy playing for each other and enjoy the music.’ ”

The harp has long been associated with angels, and during the concert it’s likely a few listeners will direct their gazes and thoughts heavenward. It’s probable some will think of Mrs. Valentine and Mrs. Tilman, and how much they would have enjoyed this event.

In mid-December 1968, Mrs. Valentine braved freezing weather to attend a Christmas concert presented by the Lane High School Band. Afterward the lady who became lovingly known as the “Matriarch of Park Street” wrote the following words that were published on the editorial page of The Daily Progress.

“The music was well rendered and inspiring,” Mrs. Valentine wrote of the concert.

“One of the most rewarding features of the event was that 70 young people had gone through the rigorous training of learning to play his instrument, which has given him an exercise in character building and I dare say that you will not find a delinquent among them.”

When Mrs. Tilman passed away, her family established the Meda McNeir Tilman Scholarship Fund in her honor. An afternoon of beautiful harp music performed by young musicians will be a wonderful tribute to them, as well as all the members of the club, past and present.

“There’s something about the harp, there really is,” Schweninger said. “Once you wrap your arms around that instrument, it’s just so special.

“There’s something about the way it vibrates in your arms. It fills you with music, and you can express any emotion through it. It’s absolutely magical.”

“Harps of Gold: Three Centuries of Golden Harps, Three Centuries of Music,” will be held at 3 p.m. Nov. 1 at First Presbyterian Church at 500 Park St. in Charlottesville.

Admission is $25, $10 children 10 and younger. Tickets are available at Music & Arts Center at 1512 Seminole Trail, Greenberry’s Coffee in Barracks Road Shopping Center and at the Mudhouse in Crozet.

Call Charlotte Burns at 975-1132 or e-mail WednesdayMusicClub@hotmail.com for more information.

David Maurer - The Daily Progress (Oct 27, 2009)