Sharlene Wallace Brings The Harp to Harp and Holly Christmas Concerts

Sharlene Wallace, one of Canada’s most prolific and influential harpists, winner of several international awards, is making room in her busy schedule this Christmas season to play a number of “Harp and Holly” concerts in our area.


“I love the Harp and Holly show,” she says, “I have been sincerely looking forward to this all year.”

Harp and Holly is a special musical journey created by Terry Young and Sandra Swannell several years ago.  In what has become a Christmas tradition, it will include a number of concerts starting this Sunday in Sauble Beach and including stops in Guelph, Colpoy’s Bay, Wasaga Beach and finally Owen Sound just a few days before Christmas.    With Harp & Holly this world-class trio blends Celtic, New Age and Baroque sounds to immerse audiences in the magic of the Christmas season.

 “It’s all beautiful music, a really beautiful uplifting show,” says Sharlene, “The arrangements are very interesting and a nice combination of tunes.  I absolutely love this show a lot.”

Sandra and Terry recently participated in “The Last Waltz – Meaford Style” at Meaford Hall but for most of the year they tour with their roots and ragtime show as My Sweet Patootie.  Both are Canadian Folk Music Award winners and former members of the group, Tanglefoot, but with their constant touring as My Sweet Patootie, building audiences in Britain and the U.S., they have perfected the skill of engaging audiences with humour and storytelling to augment their instrumental skills.  With Harp and Holly, audiences are drawn into an enchanted world of Christmas reverie by the group’s stirring arrangements of ancient carols, jubilant seasonal favourites and poignant storytelling.

“I love playing with Terry and Sandra,” Sharlene says, “I miss them all year, they’re so fun to hang out with and I love the arrangements.  I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise.”

That pretty much goes without saying, given her busy schedule.

In addition to her role as principal harpist in three symphony orchestras, teaching  on the music faculties of York University, University of Guelph and Wilfred Laurier University, international tours where she gives concerts, workshops, masterclasses and adjudications, she has performed in numerous festivals and concert series across North America and in Europe.

Sharlene is a creative artist to the core, driven by her love of beauty and expression.

“Before I was immersed in the art world and the music world I was training as a dancer and any music that was around me I was manically choreographing ballets and modern dance.”

Her interest in dance informs her approach to the harp.  “Music to me is movement and that’s how I play, how I hear. I hear music as movement more than I do pitch.”

Similarly, her art training translates to her writing for the harp. “When I’m playing or I’m writing or creating these pieces I always feel like I’m sculpting or working with colour.  It’s all the same thing, you know, it’s all coming from the same place.”

“Because the harp is an attack instrument, it’s a percussive instrument.  You ignite the sound with the attack of the string.  What we normally hear is that attack and that’s where our attention is but for me it’s what happens after that until the next attacked string.  It’s that inside.  That’s where I like to have my ears and kind of live, to maneuver that resonance.  That’s where the life force is. That concept was partly from my drawing experience of drawing negative space, seeing not the object but everything else.”

Sharlene plays both lever harp and Celtic harp, which provide her with distinct musical voices.  “For me the pedal harp is much more two-dimensional and the Celtic harp is three-dimensional.”  It’s that three-dimensional aspect that allows her to find the spaces between the notes.

For Harp and Holly, she will be playing the Celtic harp, in this case a special one with an electric pickup on every string.

“We are amplified for these shows because of balance and it works well, it’s not interfering with the music at all.  Terry’s really good at doing the sound for the Harp and Holly concerts.  When I do festivals, that’s also where I’ll plug in using my electro-acoustic harps.”

While classically trained, a breakthrough came for her when she travelled to the west coast in response to an ad she saw for training in the Celtic harp.

“A number of years of gigging in the Toronto/Ontario kind of got burnt out and I was looking for something else.  I was doing a lot of painting at that point but I saw an advertisement for taking Celtic harp in the foothills of the Rockies.  Kim Robertson was teaching these classes; I had no idea who she was.  I just went.  I could play harp but I had to have music in front of me and that experience there kind of turned my world upside and around and I came home and started working with improvisation.  And out of improvisation I was creating pieces for harp music.  That just kind of developed and that actually was the same spirit, and still is, as when I paint.”

The ability to improvise and to work from chord charts greatly expanded her range of expression.  It frees her to play within a framework but be open to moments of inspiration. “I’m a really in-the-moment kind of person so I’m kind of going for it in the moment with an idea or a concept of what I’m doing.  That’s kind of how I like to live.”

It also opened up her creativity as a composer.

“I’ve essentially only been writing for myself.  I mean I’ve written a lot, for myself.  Some of them are published.  One piece I wrote for harp and flute for Sue Piltch and I on our album and I’ve done a number of harp ensemble pieces, a couple of them in honour of my classical teacher Judy Loman and written for my harp buddies for me to play with her for different concerts, and I had a millennium commission for a two-harp piece.  I really enjoy that layering thing so playing with my Toronto harp buddies  Lori Gemmell and Julia Seager-Scott, I can experiment with that in terms of my composition.

“Four or five of my compositions have been orchestrated by a couple of orchestrators for lever harp, for Celtic harp and orchestra.  There’s not a big repertoire for Celtic harp and orchestra so opportunities that I had I kind of created the repertoire for that.”

Travelling the world, Sharlene has developed a network of international friends and colleagues.

“Other harpists and musicians that I’ve met in my travels, there’s a few of them that have really inspired me in terms of different approaches or different visioning of music on the harp.  Particularly the harpists, it feels like this beautiful web around that world that we’re all connected by this incredibly beautiful instrument.”

In the past she collaborated with the late Oliver Schroer and she regularly performs with legendary Toronto bassist George Koller, sometimes expanding to a trio that includes with Joe Macerollo on accordion.  She has several CD releases to her credit and has even performed with Kanye West.

“It was pretty extraordinary actually.  It was the opening of MTV Canada.  He had been touring with a harpist.  The album he was doing had a harpist from New York.  I believe she was playing at Carnegie Hall at the time he was going to be playing in Toronto, so I was called to fill in for this particular concert.  It had many harp riffs throughout and some of the songs started with harp.  It was really interesting orchestration, like four cellos and a harp and a couple of violins.  Inside the sound of his music was extraordinary.  I learned a lot.  Every detail was specific and orchestrated.”

Harp and Holly was already an exceptional show with their original harpist Mabel Williamson but with the addition of Sharlene after Mabel’s retirement from performing it has acquired an inspired level of creativity that makes it that much more special.

Most of the concerts take place in churches.  Although the music is meant for a secular audience, the acoustics of a church add an ambience that enhance the experience and make these concerts the quintessential expression of the Christmas spirit.

See the above poster for dates and times.

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Click on album cover to sample Sharlene’s latest album

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