Esteemed NSO Harpist Sylvia Meyer

Sylvia Meyer became the National Symphony Orchestra's first female member in 1933. She learned to play on a rusty $2.50 instrument.
Sylvia Meyer became the National Symphony Orchestra's first female member in 1933. She learned to play on a rusty $2.50 instrument. (Washington Post Staff Photo - Twp)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Sylvia Meyer, 97, a revered Washington harpist who in 1933 became the first female member of the National Symphony Orchestra and decades later was forced to retire, died March 26 at Suburban Hospital. She had pneumonia.

Ms. Meyer owed her career to her mother, a compulsive antiques buyer who once dragged home a rusting $2.50 harp missing its base and pedals.

When it came time for Ms. Meyer, then 7, to learn an instrument, she later recalled, "the family consensus was, if the harp was ever to be used, I represented the last opportunity for rescuing it from its silence."

Growing up in Washington, she began studying formally at a local conservatory and was a graduate of the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. After a series of early concerts, she proved herself one of the promising young classical musicians about town.

She studied with the pioneering harpist and composer Carlos Salzedo at his summer school in Camden, Maine -- "the summer harp capital of America," as it was known -- and credited him with introducing her to a style of aggressive playing rife with dissonance and percussive effects.

Previously, the modern view of the harp was one of ridicule among comics, too refined for its own good or useful only for saccharine accompaniment to love scenes. She had a visceral dislike of such caricatures and said she was made miserable when a vaudeville act she once saw got laughs from the audience for the improbable stretching and snapping of elastic harp strings.

On Salzedo's recommendation to NSO conductor Hans Kindler, she joined the fledgling orchestra in 1933. She described her adjustment to the orchestra as smooth, with some minor ribbing by male colleagues who called her instrument "the uke" or praised her for her excellent work in passages that did not call for the harp.

The world of classical music, ordinarily emphasizing precision, required her to improvise on occasion. One night on tour, in a rush to dress and facing the prospect of changing in front of 79 men, she stepped into her harp case and, moments later, reappeared ready.

Treated partly as a celebrity, partly as an anomaly, she was typically described in print as lovely, statuesque, limber -- any number of adjectives to convey her physical charms.

Her musical talent was abundant, and she shined on harp-heavy ballet pieces that dispelled the "pretty face" tone of the feature stories written about her. She considered one of her performing highlights tackling Alberto Ginastera's complex, flashy Harp Concerto in January 1968.

"She played with total command of the harp's widest dynamic range," wrote Washington Post music critic Paul Hume.

Less than two years earlier, she had lost a fingertip to pruning shears in a gardening accident and, through plastic surgery, was able to regain use of the injured finger.

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