Pittsburgh harpist Sarah Solomon Stern thrives in Buenos Aires
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Usually before a performance, harpist Sarah Solomon Stern tries hard to relax. She focuses on her breathing, stays away from coffee and pretends she's in her living room, playing before friends.
But a few months ago, when a man arrived to transport her 100-pound, $30,000 harp in a pickup truck across town for a gig, she found herself frantic.
"The driver had an open-air truck and a rope," says Ms. Stern, 29. "Plus another guy in the back to hold on for dear life."
Last April, the Shadyside native was named the associate principal harpist in Buenos Aires' Orchestra Teatro Colon, a renowned theater that draws top conductors and musicians from around the world. She is the only American in the orchestra.
With its seven pedals and 47 strings, the harp is the largest and among the most difficult instruments in the orchestra. Add to that playing in a foreign country, far from home, family and the comfort of convenience, and it can be especially challenging.
Within weeks of moving to this Argentine capital, Ms. Stern was hit by a string of challenges. She was robbed at gunpoint, and she had to negotiate a $12,000 entrance fee to bring her harp from the United States (she eventually paid $3,000). She once lugged her harp on a 24-hour bus ride to a gig. And she couldn't find the right strings or tuner in Buenos Aires.
But it's all worth it.
"It's a dream job," she says. "An absolute dream."
When music's involved, Ms. Stern has always been quick to learn and adapt. Her parents, Richard and Lauren, are artists themselves -- a harpsichordist and art therapist, respectively -- and she started playing the harp at age 10 after five years of piano study. (Richard is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.)
"From the time she was very little, Sarah progressed quite quickly," says Gretchen Van Hoesen, principal harpist of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Ms. Stern's mentor. "It was obvious she really liked music."
Ms. Stern engrossed herself -- playing in community and youth orchestras in Pittsburgh -- while continuing to study piano. Having Ms. Van Hoesen as a teacher allowed her a glimpse inside Pittsburgh's vibrant harp community and a chance to play gigs alongside PSO members.
"She attended master classes of mine where she heard a lot of older college students," says Ms. Van Hoesen. "Her exposure to the harp was more than most at an early age because she was so good."
After majoring in harp at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., Ms. Stern went to Basel, Switzerland, for a master's, and then to study historical harp at the Schola Cantorum music academy in Mountain View, Calif. She attended Aspen Music Festival five times and Brazil's Campos do Jordao for two consecutive summers.
In 2011, she took the principal harpist post at the Philharmonic Orchestra in Santiago, Chile. Ms. Stern was happy there, but when a colleague mentioned an opening at Teatro Colon, she leaped at the opportunity. Her audition was seamless.
"The theater felt so comforting to me," she says. "The round shape, the beauty of it -- it takes me out of the world. It's a timeless space that is conducive to music making."
Teatro Colon's acoustics are world-renowned. Built in 1908 and recently renovated, its horseshoe-shaped auditorium holds 2,500 seats and standing room for 1,000.
"The hard work really pays off when you perform in a place that is so musically alive," she says. "It takes me out of time."
A recent production was one of her most unforgettable experiences there. It was a marathon performance of Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung" that ran 10 hours, from 2 p.m. to midnight, two days in a row. Tickets cost up to $1,000. Ms. Stern was battling the flu, but she refused to call off sick, even though she had to play the extraordinarily difficult "Magic Fire Music."
Next season includes productions of "Carmen," "Otello" and "The Marriage of Figaro." She's perhaps most excited about the War Requiem by the English composer and conductor Benjamin Britten, who is among her favorites.
"The amount of repertoire she is learning is incredible," Ms. Van Hoesen says. "Should she want to move to another job someday, all that experience will be incredible. Most other players would never have that kind of opportunity."
Outside of work, Ms. Stern is enjoying the local music scene, and her fellow musicians are helping her settle into life in a new country. She is learning to play Argentine folk music and tango.
Last month, a local tango orchestra called her just hours before a weeknight performance and asked her to join. She frequents jazz clubs, is perfecting her Spanish and is taking a short-story class. And she is working through Toni Morrison's "Beloved" with a local philosopher who is trying to learn English literature.
"I think it's so important to experience life and to have stories to tell and to enrich what I'm doing," she says.
On a recent afternoon, as rain poured down over Buenos Aires and rush-hour traffic blared outside, Ms. Stern again sat in her living room in front of her harp. With two days before a ballet, she took a breath and leaned into the instrument, moving her fingers and feet to unleash the soft sound. Perfectly at ease, she played and played, as she always has.
First Published January 20, 2013 12:00 am