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Girls with harps descend on Hexham

A novelty of this year's Hexham Abbey Festival is a harp quartet.  David Whetstone talks to founder member Harriet Adie

4 Girls 4 Harps will play at Hexham Abbey Festival
4 Girls 4 Harps will play at Hexham Abbey Festival

Musical groups often come in fours and quite often with strings attached.

But what those strings are usually attached to are guitars or maybe the instruments of the string quartet – violin, viola, cello.

Harps seldom turn up en masse. In the orchestra it’s usually a lone exotic beast amid herds of violins and cellos, its contribution an understated ripple of refinement rather than an attention-grabbing roar.

A harp quartet, then, is a novelty. And judging by the success of 4 Girls 4 Harps since the group was formed in 2000 by young women studying at the Royal College of Music, there is a public appetite for its sound.

“We’re pretty unique, certainly in this country,” agrees Harriet Adie – whose gandma, since you’ll be wondering, once established that there is no family link to Wearside-born Kate, the BBC broadcaster.

“When we first started we were the only professional harp quartet in the country.

“Another one started a couple of years ago but I think they’re more interested in a mixed repertoire whereas we’re straight classical.”

Harriet, who lives in London, came to the harp as a child through the medium of the ballet.

“I loved ballet when I was young and there’s a lot of harp in ballet music, Swan Lake and other works by Tchaikovsky,” she recalls.

“It was the sound I was most drawn to and wanted to make.”

Harriet comes from a musical family. Mother Penny used to be a singer and now runs a music festival in the West Country where the harp – surprise, surprise – regularly features.

“But it took me two years to persuade my parents to let me play the harp,” recalls Harriet.

“They were afraid I’d start to learn it and then give up six months later. In any case, we were living in the Middle East at the time and finding a teacher wasn’t straightforward.”

All obstacles were overcome and Harriet ended up at one of London’s principal music colleges with other young women of like mind.

“We were just friends who wanted to do the same thing,” she says, explaining how the group came to be.

In the early days the repertoire was fairly limited, with group members having to adapt duets for the four instruments.

“But over the past few years we have commissioned other composers to write pieces for the group and two of us, myself and Eleanor (Turner), are both composers.

“We take well-known pieces and adapt them for the harp quartet.”

The line-up has undergone one or two changes over the years but now comprises Harriet, Eleanor, Keziah Thomas and recent recruit Elizabeth Scorah.

All have thriving careers as soloists and teachers but come together as 4 Girls 4 Harps, having adopted that catchy name three or four years ago “to make it clear what we were”.

It could hardly be clearer, although Harriet says with a laugh: “We’ve discussed among ourselves if we can carry on calling ourselves girls if we’re still playing together in 10 years’ time.”

In common with many musicians, professional and personal lives can sometimes pull in different directions.

Harriet has a 17-month-old boy and another baby on the way while Eleanor also has two children, a 17-month-old and a 10-year-old.

Parenthood, says Harriet, “does make it more complicated but we’re used to having to fit things in. We have rehearsals at my house because it’s the easiest to get to.”

In Hexham you will hear the girls perform pieces by Shostakovich, Faure and Handel as well as Harriet’s new work for harp quartet, Elemental.

The concert is in Hexham Abbey on September 27 at 7pm. Hexham Abbey Festival runs from September 20-28.

Box office: 01434 652477.

Details: www.hexhamabbey.org.uk/festival

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David Whetstone
Culture Editor
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