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Dr. Beverly Wesner-Hoehn: An Interview

Double Harp Concerto “Island Dances” to Feature Sacramento Icon

Virtually anyone in the Sacramento region who has call for a harp part in an arrangement knows Dr. Beverly Wesner-Hoehn.  Dr. Wesner-Hoehn will be a featured performer — along with harpist Kirsten Allvin — with the Auburn Symphony at the January 21-22 Masterworks Concert at Placer High School’s Auditorium where the duo will be performing the West Coast Premier of James Hartway’s double-harp concerto “Island Dances.”  We reached out to Dr. Wesner-Hoehn to find out a little more about her.

Tell us a little about your background?  How did you get interested in music, and specifically the harp?

I was born in Sacramento and have always participated in my local school band, orchestra, and choir.  My parents had four daughters and enrolled us in both piano and various wind/string instruments throughout our K-12 education.  It was just part of a good education; my mother drove a school bus for San Juan School District and my father was a custom home builder.  Neither were professional musicians, but both had taken music lessons growing up and they knew the value of music in our lives, so insisted upon weekly lessons!

My mother saw a harp at the California State Fair once and thought it would be a nice instrument for one of her girls…she just picked me!  I NEVER had to be told to practice, once the harp entered my life, nor did my parents have to set the “timer” to get me to put in the necessary hours to excel.  At one point in high school, I was taking four different music lessons weekly: piano, harp, clarinet, and saxophone!  And I was playing harp in the Sacramento Youth Symphony…and was Captain of the Girls Basketball team at Sacramento Adventist Academy!

Tell us about “Island Dances” the double harp concerto you’ll be performing with Auburn Symphony. What can we expect?

Island Dances is a rare work (written by Dr. James Hartway) for two harps and large orchestra, featuring strong and striking rhythms, and unusual percussion instruments like the steel drum, djembe, guiro, vibra slap, snare drum, wuhan cymbal, claves, cowbell, and congo drum.  What is so creative is the use of the half-step tonality juxtaposed between the two harps in the Calypso.  The Dream Tango a second, quieter movement, is a hauntingly beautiful dream, slowing fading away.  And the final Mambo?  Well, the audience can expect a roaring good time – like a loud, playful street party with two gorgeous concert grand harps in the middle of center stage!

The piece was written by James Hartway and his wife, Kirsten Allvin, is performing the duo with you.  How did this happen? When did you meet the couple?

Kerstin Allvin was a former student at Indiana University, where I was a graduate assistant, and later where I became Assistant Professor of Harp.  She was one of our star college students and I enjoyed watching her progress and perform in the harp ensembles, of which I was in charge.  It was just two years ago that I ran into her out here in California – she was visiting her mother who resides in Auburn; Kerstin, who hails from Detroit, Michigan, needed a harp to use while on vacation and she called me!  I was thrilled to hear from her, as she was always one of the finest students we had pass through IU, so that’s how we reconnected after 25 years.  She is a superb harpist and performs all over the country.  She then introduced me to her husband, James, a composer from Michigan, who shared this piece with me, which I shared with Peter Jaffe.  And the rest, as you say, is history!  Or will be shortly, once we perform the West Coast premier of his Island Dances.

You have a wide and varied career in music.  What have been some of your favorite projects over the years and what are you working on now?

My career has been blessed to be full of variety but there are a few “pillars of playing” worth sharing!  I remember after winning a Rotary Foundation Scholarship, I performed a recital for the King of Belgium.  I have played for the incredible singer, Johnny Mathis, many times over the last 25 years – in fact, I will be on stage with him in Santa Rosa in February again.  Johnny and I both love blueberries and he attributes his healthy singing voice at age 81 to eating them daily!  I have performed the Nutcracker more than 275 times with many ballet groups, most recently the Sacramento Ballet.  Another favorite project in my harp career was a recording I made with Pulitzer Prize winner George Crumb on his Volume Nine CD by Bridge Recording Studios, which was nominated for a Grammy.

I am currently preparing to play two recitals with my violinist, Anita Felix, and our Angelica Duo.  I also have 30 shows of the Fantasticks for the Sonora Theatre Company coming up in May.  I recently completed a run of 50 shows for the Sacramento Theatre Company as well as the 10 shows for the Bernstein Tribute this last November.  I enjoy doing Broadway musicals and can be found at the CMT Music Circus in the summers covering any harp parts they may have.  One memorable month was spent playing the harp for Olympian Cathy Rigby in Peter Pan and watching her little dog during intermission while she got ready for Act 2!  However, my favorite group to perform with is the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra; there are so many fine musicians involved doing quality music, under the direction of Dr. Donald Kendrick.

Do you have time for other hobbies?

My current hobbies are traveling with my husband Ted to see our two sons, Rudi, the bass trombonist for Hawaii Symphony, and Casey, an ER resident in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  I love walking my two little shelter-adopted dogs, Minuet and Jazzie, and reading at least one book a week, with both dogs happily sitting on my lap.