In this fascinating interview, Olivia Jageurs, soloist in our upcoming Summer Concert tells Michael Archer how her career began with the WSO, talks about The 15 Second Harp, her love of Debussy and discusses some of the technicalities of this much loved instrument.
The harp is not the usual instrument for a child to be attracted to – what fired your enthusiasm for it?
I was brought up near the only on-site harp makers in the U.K., Pilgrim Harps, in Godstone, Surrey so there were a few children in the area learning. If it wasn't for seeing my best friend at primary school play it I'm not sure I would have nagged my parents to try it too.
How do you overcome the physical issues of a large instrument when you are still quite small?
Like most harpists I started on a small lever harp. I then moved on to a small pedal harps when I was a teenager and eventually had a full size concert harp of my own (once my parents were convinced I was planning on playing forever!).
Your parents must have played a very important role in the early days?
My parents are not musicians so I am just lucky they supported all my musical interests. They were definitely not "pushy" parents; I'm grateful I never had any pressure to rebel against and I only ever played for enjoyment.
Did they find you an inspirational teacher?
When I was 13 I started taking lessons at the Junior Department of Trinity College of Music (Trinity Laban), Greenwich. Gabriella Dall'Olio was my harp teacher and I remember wanting to have a life filled with stories and musical excitement like hers. Marion Friend, the director of Junior Trinity, also played a hugely supportive role in my musical development.
Was there music in the family when you began the harp?
There was a lot of Paul Simon played by my Dad, and I loved Tina Turner, but I don't remember there being much classical music except via the radio.
Were you an ‘all-rounder’ at School or did the harp ‘take over’ your life?
I went to very academic schools and I was joint first study with piano so the harp never took over. I just remember it being a constant juggling act.
What do you remember about your first public performance?
My first public performance was probably playing a 13 page piano version of the theme from "Titanic" and I remember loving the attention. My first professional experience was with Wimbledon Symphony Orchestra playing the Mozart flute and harp concerto! (03.03.2007 concert in support of Macmillan Cancer Care)
Were there particular musicians or pieces of music that inspired you in the early days?
I used to listen to Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto for hours. I guess the popular pieces are popular for a reason!
Was there a ‘breakthrough’ performance that really launched your career?
I don't know about breakthrough performance, but there was definitely a breakthrough phone-call. I had just finished my Masters at the Royal Academy and was sitting in Starbucks with my Dad moaning about not having a regular office job, when I got the call asking if I was free to play in the Royal Box at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships!
You definitely go through peaks and troughs being a musician: namely how you feel about your own music-making. If I'm ever having a down day I think of that Starbucks moment and that you never know what's around the corner. I have never wanted an office job since that day.
And now you are the Official harpist for the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. What exactly does that involve?
My job is to entertain guests of the Royal Box before and after the matches on the men's and women's final days. If there is any break in play due to rain I will play then too. If you normally watch the matches on TV I am positioned in the main Club House where the players walk through just before they enter the court. Luckily, I do normally get to see the action! I remember my first year playing there, in 2013 when Andy Murray won for the first time, sharing a step squeezed next to David Cameron who couldn't get back to his seat after a toilet break. The whole weekend is pretty unbelievable and it's very nice to feel like a V.I.P. once a year.
You seem to balance an amazing variety of repertoire and venues. Is that what makes music such a wonderful career for you?
Yes, I love playing all kinds of music: from classical music, to working in a West End show last year (Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds at the Dominion), to some occasional jazz (with bassist Herbie Flowers at Brighton Festival). I think my instrument really is so versatile that it can be involved in all genres, so I have the harp itself to thank for that. It has also taken me on some surprise adventures, such as the unveiling of the world's most expensive teapot.
Your social media project The 15 Second Harp produced an amazing response and an RPS Award (shortlisted nomination – NB: we will know on May 8). Where did that idea come from? And what are you going to do with all those 250+ submissions?
The idea for 15 second harp came from a desire to create more interesting content about classical music on social media. The photography app Instagram was becoming more and more popular and on this app the videos could only be 15 seconds long. In February 2016 I invited composers of any age and ability to send me 15 seconds of notated music; I then video recorded it and posted it online with feedback by 5pm the next day. I had just started playing in a show in the West End and I thought it would be a good challenge for myself to play some new music every day. The response was overwhelming and after announcing my intentions online I woke up to 10 submissions. Within three months I had recorded 100 of these compositions from all around the world. There is a definite need for composers to learn about how to write for the harp as it is an instrument like no other, so the project has continued and I am still being sent in snippets of musical experiments and perfectly formed 15 second miniatures.
I have created quite a few mini-suites consisting of several 15 seconds strung together. I recently performed a few of these on BBC Radio 3. I would also love for them to be published, but that is still very much a pipe dream.
Tell me about the instruments you not only play but transport from venue to venue AND, obviously, keep fully insured! It must be a commitment- and investment - similar to the concert violinist with his Strad?
I own three harps: a blonde Lyon & Healy style 85 made from maple, which I've had since I was 16 years old, a black Lyon & Healy style 30 made from ebony, which I bought last summer making it my greatest life achievement, and a very small Morley blade harp, which is roughly 100 years old.
Debussy Danses Sacrée et Profane was commissioned by the instrument makers Pleyel to promote their new harp. Is it a special work in the repertoire of your instrument?
It is a very important work in our repertoire. It was commissioned by Pleyel to showcase their new double-strung chromatic harp: a harp formed of a row of white notes that overlapped with a pentatonic row of black notes. The rival harp makers Erard responded by commissioning Ravel to write his Introduction and Allegro to show-off their double action pedal harp. It is the latter instrument we play on today but it is thanks to Pleyel that these two seminal pieces were written. As the Danses were written for a different instrument it does mean that there are a lot of tricky pedal moves that Debussy would probably have avoided had he been writing for a pedal harp instead.
What is the special appeal of the work to you?
It is a truly beautiful piece of music by one of my favourite composers of all time.
You have worked before with tonight’s conductor, Leo Geyer. What have been the highlights so far – and what have you planned for the future?
A highlight was performing Leo's piece Bronze Garden II, inspired by Barbara Hepworth, at the New Art Centre, Salisbury – a stunning sculpture park worth making a special trip to visit!
Either side of tonight’s concert, you are playing in Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Aldeburgh Festival – now there’s a really demanding musical ‘sandwich’! Looking forward to it?
Britten and Debussy – two of the best composers who wrote for the harp. June is definitely a good month!
To order tickets to hear Olivia perform with WSO on June 10th in Raynes Park SW20 follow the link below.