Harpist Claire Jones to bring her royal strains to North Side church

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By the time Claire Jones auditioned to become the harpist for Prince Charles, the Welsh woman had studied music for 13 years. Initially, the violin and piano attracted her, but the harp bewitched her.

Ms. Jones was 21 in 2007 when Prince Charles selected her to be his official harpist, a job she held until 2011.

"I had to audition privately for him," the 27-year-old musician recalled in a telephone interview from her home in northwest London. The opportunity changed her life and launched her career.

"I used to love the royals anyway. I always loved to go in and see the palaces. There are so many fascinating stories and history there," she said.

Harp Concert by Claire Jones

Where: Calvary United Methodist Church, 971 Beech Ave., Allegheny West, North Side.

When: 4 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: General admission $15; seniors $10 and students $7; available at the door.

Information: 412-323-1070. Concert proceeds benefit Allegheny Historic Preservation Society.

On Sunday, Ms. Jones plays a concert on her gold Salvi harp at Calvary United Methodist Church, North Side, in a benefit for Allegheny Historic Preservation Society.

The society was founded in 1988 with a mission to restore historic architecture. Its first major project was the restoration of Calvary, which is famed for its Tiffany windows.

As for the concert, "I've tried to include pieces that will appeal to all sorts of people and all different ages. My main mission with the harp is to make it accessible as possible and appeal to a wider audience," Ms. Jones said.

After Prince William wed Catherine Middleton in 2011, Ms. Jones received her own romantic news. While visiting Rio de Janeiro to perform, she walked up the mountain to the Christ the Redeemer statue, a well-known landmark that affords a panoramic view of the city.

"It was really early in the morning. The walk up to the top woke me up," she recalled.

That's where Chris Stewart, who is also a musician, asked her to marry him. Then he gave her the gift of a song he had composed called "Heart Strings." It's one of the cuts on her latest recording, "The Girl With the Golden Harp." Her Pittsburgh concert will feature pieces from the recording and such classics as "O mio babbino caro."

As an undergraduate, Ms. Jones studied music at the Royal College of Music in London. She earned a master's degree from the Royal Academy of Music, also in London.

Her husband specializes in percussion, she said, so "our house is full of instruments." At the moment, she owns just one gold Salvi harp, a more basic version of the instrument she played during her five-year stint with the Prince of Wales.

"The royal harp had red dragons on the base. It had 'His royal highness the Prince of Wales' inscribed, and three feathers were engraved into the harp."

When news broke of Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding plans, Ms. Jones was excited.

"It sort of crossed my mind: Would they ask? They rang. They invited me to perform in the private part of the day in Buckingham Palace."

Inside the palace, a small stage was set up with seats around it.

"They placed me in between the main wedding cake and the chocolate wedding cake, so I was in prime position," Ms. Jones said.

The happy couple stopped by, too.

"They were so down to earth and relaxed. They said, 'Thank you so much for sparing the time to play for our wedding,' " Ms. Jones said. "Well, goodness me, it was such an honor."

Music runs through her family. "My mum teaches piano. My mother's side of the family is quite musical."

She practices a minimum of 21/2 hours each day.

"If I've really got a big program like now, I am practicing four to five hours a day. I've got to keep my fingers nimble and trim."

She considers herself lucky because she had a few lessons with Marisa Robles, a 75-year-old Spanish harpist, and gets to perform with flutist James Galway.

"Jimmy and I met last year. He basically tried me out in a concert. We now officially do a lot of duets together. "

Ms. Jones encourages young musicians to follow their dreams, no matter how big.

"Keep it in your mind and go for it. I probably dream a bit too big sometimes. You have to be able to do that. That's the way you progress and that's the way you go on. You have to believe that you can do it."

The role of royal harpist was last held by John Thomas, who served during the reign of Queen Victoria.

"John Thomas made a big name for himself. Straight after his time, the job went out of fashion. It was revived in 2000," Ms. Jones said.

She would love to go back in time and meet Mr. Thomas.

"I'd want to talk to him and see what life was like back in Queen Victoria's time and compare stories."

Performing at Buckingham Palace and other royal residences proved to be an exciting and challenging experience.

"You had everybody come through the door. It's a completely different world. I was a little girl from the country. It's quite a lot of responsibility to deal with when you are young. The pressure was on quite a lot of time."

Especially during command performances for Queen Elizabeth II.

"I'd have to wait for her to come. It would just be her and me. She'd listen to me. She was lovely about it," Ms. Jones said.

Still, she added, "The pressure's on and you have to deliver."

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Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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