—by Megan Sesma
From audition to tenure in just two years, the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra’s Marguerite Lynn Williams is spreading her love of music around the city she now calls home.
As a harpist it’s priceless to have a colleague to share repertoire, goals, and ideas. Marguerite Lynn Williams (or Lynn as her friends call her) is one of those colleagues for me. Our history together dates back to our undergraduate days at the Eastman School of Music in 1997 where we were both harp performance majors. We toured Russia, Armenia, and the United States together with the American Russian Youth Orchestra in 2002, and in 2011, we performed as part of the Eastman Alumni Harp Quartet at the World Harp Congress in Vancouver.
Lynn is an innovator with endless drive, a competitive spirit, and the kind of motivation that comes from deep within. Her positive energy and outlook are infectious to those around her. Lynn is an accomplished musician, recently receiving tenure in less than two full seasons with the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra. We had a chance to sit down and talk about how she is settling into life in the pit of one of the nation’s premier opera companies.
Harp Column: You won the position of Principal Harpist with the Lyric Opera in March of 2011 and started your position in the fall of 2011. Then you received tenure in January of 2013. Can you describe a couple inspiring performance moments in the past two years?
Marguerite Lynn Williams: Performing with the opera has been exciting since day one. It has proven to be an enlightening challenge for me, beyond playing in the symphony, to deal with this extra element of the singers on the stage. A lot of times I get these great moments between me and the singer just on a regular day.
Not long ago I did have a wonderful experience that is rare in anyone’s career, and to happen so early on was quite a treat. We just finished a run of Die Meistersinger in which the harpist is required to play two different instruments, one being a very small harp imitating a lute in an extensive solo with the Beckmesser character. So I had to attend many extra rehearsals and coordinate with the actor-singer on stage. It was quite a challenging solo to put the right finishing touches on. But by the end of the run I was actually rewarded with a bow at center stage with the full company of the opera and the music director Sir Andrew Davis. That was quite thrilling because it’s not often that the musicians of the opera orchestra escape the pit to receive their own accolades on stage. It was not only thrilling to be on stage to hear 3,800 people applauding but also to look down at my colleagues and see them all supporting me as well, after such a challenging solo and surviving the six-and-a-half-hour opera. It’s hard to pick out other thrilling moments—it’s all very exciting to me. I love the job. I find it to be very challenging, and it’s chamber music in the biggest possible capacity. I get to perform with world class musicians and singers all the time. For instance tomorrow morning I’m going to rehearsal with Renée Fleming and tomorrow night I’ll be performing with Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja, so it doesn’t get much better than that.
HC: What about your position has taken time to adjust to?
MLW: Being in an orchestra pit is different than being on stage. I’ve found I’ve developed my listening skills a lot further. I need to be able to hear the singer breathe in to know when they’re going to start a note, and I have to be able to do that practically blind because I can’t see the other person I am playing chamber music with. So that’s been a big challenge. Being in the orchestra pit is also interesting as far as being able to hear your colleagues and play with other musicians who are physically very far away from you.
HC: You’re currently playing La Boheme and you just finished Die Meistersinger. Your past season included Werther, Elektra, and other operas. Which operas have you thoroughly enjoyed performing and why?
MLW: Die Miestersinger for the reasons I mentioned before. Werther was an incredible part to perform, really amazing writing for the harp and really integral to the overall musical score. La Boheme is the iconic opera, if you had to pick one, and it has a gorgeous harp part, most of which was on the audition. So it was very satisfying to perform those excerpts with my colleagues and the superstar cast.
HC: You took many auditions before the Lyric Opera. How did they influence your audition performance and preparation?
MLW: It’s been a long road with auditions. I did take numerous professional orchestral auditions and was runner-up in several of them. I figured I was doing something right in my preparation, and I tried to grow from each audition experience. Over time I tweaked how I had to treat my life before those upcoming auditions. I realized that practicing excerpts was not enough. I needed to completely absorb the music through score study, listening, and research beyond the notes. I also spent a lot of effort on mental preparation—how to focus, center, and remain in my bubble throughout the whole process.
I was also very lucky to work with quite a few professional harpists in this country. Through the New World Symphony they sent me around the country to coach with various people including Lisa (Wellbaum) Geber, Gretchen Van Hoesen, Elizabeth Hainen, and Sarah Bullen with whom I did my graduate studies. But before the Lyric Opera audition I started coaching with Elizabeth Cifani, the now-retired [Lyric Opera] harpist. I’m grateful to have both Sarah [Bullen] and Liz [Cifani] here in Chicago as my mentors to help me with my career.
HC: You are very active in the harp community in Chicago. Can you tell me more about it?
MLW: Well this stems from being in a small community as a child where the only harpists I knew were my sisters. I loved playing with others. When I went to college we had a large studio at Eastman of 12.
HC: And your sister plays the harp?
MLW: Yes, my older sister [Betsy]. Both of my sisters played the harp at one point. My older sister continues to play the harp professionally to this day. She was at school with me at Eastman, she is two years older than me, and we were in the same harp studio. My harp community began when I was 14 years old, and now that I have the ability to affect others, I want to help create more community for the harp in Chicago. There are many harpists in Chicago and we have such great opportunities available to us with Lyon & Healy, major universities, and performing organizations. I wanted to do something to help organize and of course the American Harp Society (AHS) is a big factor in that. The American Harp Society was important to my first harp teacher, and I joined when I started the harp. That really helped steer my career as the first year I started preparing for the [AHS] national competitions. Through college I participated in several Anne Adams Awards, and beyond that, more [AHS] national competitions. Through [AHS] programs I saw a way to create events for the community, which started with the auditions and evaluations three years ago. We’ve also started, in the Chicago chapter, a scholarship competition and a one-day harp festival, which I founded two years ago, called Harp Day at Lyon & Healy. So out of that grew the Chicago Harp Ensemble. I wanted to establish a training ensemble for young harpists since I only had my two sisters to play with and we shared a harp. So now I try to bring these kids together and it’s really rewarding for me and for the kids to see them grow and learn from each other.
HC: What is the age of the students?
MLW: Eight-years-old through high school senior.
HC: What is the focus?
MLW: The focus is learning chamber music skills. I try to choose repertoire that has between two and four parts. I try to make sure the harpists are independent in their parts so that it’s not simply having four harpists on one part, but it’s having four different parts and it’s really teaching them that they’re ensemble players. Listening, looking, counting—all these things that seem really obvious but are difficult to do, especially with harps. I believe there is a need for it among young harpists of the U.S. because we don’t get the same ensemble experience that our counterparts do as violinists playing in youth orchestras or high school orchestras. That’s where this grew out of.
HC: What type of repertoire does the group play?
MLW: I started with existing repertoire that I remembered from growing up—classics like “Triptic Dance” that everybody loves. Then I started incorporating my arrangements and started composing music for it. I can tailor it to the level of the students.
HC: You are also involved with the Chicago Harp Quartet, what role has the quartet filled for you?
MLW: I’m very excited about the Chicago Harp Quartet. This is really my baby and it fills a need for chamber music for me. While I’m a member of other chamber ensembles, this is harp chamber music. I started arranging music about seven years ago for harp and harp ensemble, and now I have this vehicle to perform my arrangements. It’s really fun for me because I get to work with three great friends of mine, I get to arrange new music for us, I get to work with composers on commissions, and I get to share this music with other people. It has really taken off this year—we just finished our first season together. I’m bursting at the seams with excitement about what we’re doing next year, which includes a composition contest, a CD recording, lots of performances around the Chicago area, including the premiere of a quadruple harp concerto and performances at Lyon & Healy and the AHS national conference in New Orleans. So this is really a labor of love for me and I’m lucky to have such great colleagues to work with in the ensemble.
HC: Can you tell us a little more about your family? Your mother teaches piano and we talked previously about your sister Betsy, what was their influence on your career?
MLW: Growing up, music was very important to my family—we were always listening to classical music. When I was 5, I began studying piano, but not under my mother, under another private teacher. Though it was like having a private teacher every single day at home—she was listening and correcting from the kitchen stove. I have two sisters and I’m the middle child, so was always trying to keep up with my older sister. I think that provided me with the fight, the competitive nature that I have. That is never a bad thing if you want to be a musician—to have someone to look up to and try to catch up to. I still do that to this day. We started on piano then we got the opportunity to try the harp and that was my route, so, yes, my older sister Betsy challenged me and influenced me. My mother was and still is my biggest supporter—she made it her business to give me every and any opportunity to help me grow as a musician.
HC: Can you tell us a little bit about your career path?
MLW: I started studying harp with Ursula Kwasnicka with the Syracuse Symphony when I was in high school and attended the Eastman School of Music with Kathleen Bride for undergraduate and Chicago College of Performing Arts with Sarah Bullen for graduate studies. It was at that point that I really fell in love with playing in ensemble—in orchestra specifically—and therefore I sought out any opportunity I could for further training. I joined the [Chicago] Civic Orchestra and played as Principal Harp there for two years. I joined the New World Symphony in Miami, Florida, and played Principal Harp there for two years and left there for the opportunity to play a one-year substitute Principal Harp position with the Chicago Symphony when Sarah [Bullen] was on a sabbatical. That sealed the deal for me, after getting that opportunity I decided there was nothing else I could do with my life. Even though I had been very dedicated to the auditions I had previously taken, I doubled [my efforts]to achieve what I had to have in my life.
HC: What fundamental concepts do you instill in your students?
MLW: I try to instill my love for the harp and performing in my students in any capacity. Whether it’s an adult student who wants to play for themselves and their family or a youngster who’s really talented and wants to pursue harp to whatever end, my love of music is number one. I focus a lot on enjoyment of playing, including healthy playing of the harp, and I try to give them a very good foundation of technique and well-rounded musical knowledge, including theory and music history and other subjects surrounding the music they are playing.
HC: What other fundamental skills do you think musicians need?
MLW: I think it’s very important to be a well-rounded person, to not only put 100 percent behind our performance but to connect with audiences and to share our music with the community in whatever capacity we are able to. While attending the Eastman School of Music I received an Arts Leadership Program certificate, which trained us in courses like audience development. I think those skills are very important to the 21st century musician. We can’t expect to sit on a stage and collect a paycheck and for that to exist much longer.
HC: You are active in social media circles—how do you benefit from its use and how does it benefit 21st century musicians?
MLW: [Social media] is a great way to get the word out about things happening right now. I’m only really a Facebook user, I don’t really have time for Twitter and other social media, but it is a great way to connect, and it has served me well professionally many times.
HC: Are you doing any publishing, can you talk more about arranging and your interests in that area?
MLW: I started arranging harp music in 2005, and I’ve grown from solos to duos, trios, and quartets for the Chicago Harp Quartet. I have started composing original works as well. I’m very excited for plans with Sarah Bullen to establish a new publishing house in the summer of 2013.Through it we will be getting our music published and available to the public. I have almost 100 works as of now ready to be sent off.
HC: What do you like to do beyond your harp playing? I remember as a student at Eastman you enjoyed swing dancing.
MLW: Dancing has been a big part of my life forever. I wanted to be a professional dancer when I was 10 years old like 50 percent of the girls in this country who take dance. That has never left—I did do swing dancing in college, I went into salsa and Latin dances in graduate school and now I prefer yoga and the treadmill. I still love dancing and I think that it’s good for any harpist to be able to move their feet quickly and feel rhythm in their music, but I find going to the gym or yoga class an escape these days where I can forget everything else and literally turn off the phone and computer and harp and not be reachable for an hour, so that is very rewarding to me. I also love to cook and I love to travel. I’m always trying to incorporate those things into my life, and whenever I can travel and perform together that’s even better. •