—by Kristi Shade
She won the highly sought after Principal Harp position with the storied St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. But getting there was no walk in the park.
It doesn’t come around often, but when it does, harpists travel from all over to audition for it. It’s the coveted Principal Harp position in a symphony orchestra. A New York City colleague of mine, and fabulous harpist, Allegra Lilly, recently won the harp chair in the St. Louis Symphony. It is the second oldest symphony orchestra in the United States, preceded only by the New York Philharmonic, which is appropriate as Allegra has spent the past 10 years living, studying, and performing in New York and has even appeared with the New York Phil on several occasions. I caught up with Allegra as she was en route from New York City to St. Louis to begin a new chapter in her career. She gave me a candid and thoughtful look inside her experience and shared what she is most looking forward to in her new position.
Harp Column: First, congratulations on winning the St. Louis audition! That’s very exciting—you must be just thrilled.
Allegra Lilly: Yes, it’s honestly still very surreal. I dropped my harp off at the hall (they are going to be using my instrument), picked up my parts, my musician handbook and it still hasn’t really sunk in at all! You know, when you’ve dreamed about something your whole life and then it happens, it’s really hard to accept.
HC: That’s great. So, I want to back up a bit—can you tell me about your background in music? How did you get started on the harp? Are you from a musical family?
AL: Well, yes and no. My mom studied piano through the college level and was forced to give it up because of arthritis in her back. I grew up going to Detroit Symphony Orchestra concerts pretty regularly, especially their youth-oriented concerts. My sister and I both started music lessons at an early age (she’s three years older and now an accomplished soprano). She started violin when she was three and also studied piano. Of course, being the younger sister, I wanted to do everything my sister was doing, so I started piano lessons when I was five. I think as a result of all that time at the Detroit Symphony, I really got attached to the idea of playing harp. I just thought it was so magical and there is only one in the orchestra and you get these really beautiful, featured passages. I fell in love with it and I begged my parents for two or more solid years. Finally, they happened to meet a local harp teacher, Ruth Myers, and they got in touch with her about the possibility of starting harp lessons. So, I started with her when I was 7.
HC: After high school you moved to New York City to study with Nancy Allen at Juilliard.
AL: Yes, I moved to the city in 2003 and did my undergrad and master’s at Juilliard, and then I just kind of stuck it out doing gigs and plugging away at auditions.
HC: Did you always know you wanted to be an orchestral harpist? You talked about going to see the Detroit Symphony and being inspired by the harp, but did you always know that’s what you wanted to do?