As resident harpist at The Empress hotel,
Elizabeth Ely blends the romance of her stringed instrument with
some definitely un-classical music
CREDIT: Deddeda Stemler, Times
Elizabeth Ely and her Camac grand
pedal harp have been fixtures at the Empress Room in The
Empress hotel for more than a decade.
The rippling romance of the harp and the edgy drive of rock and
roll don't seem to have much in common. Except in the hands of
Elizabeth Ely, a Victoria harpist whose repertoire includes tunes by
Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly and The Doors.
Familiar melodies such as In A Gadda Da Vida and Light My Fire
are often startling for the diners in the Empress Room at The
Fairmont Empress hotel, where she has performed five nights a week
for more than a decade. "I've had classical music fans come and ask
me what that is," she said. "And they look quite disillusioned when
I tell them it's Stairway to Heaven or Smoke on the Water. And yet
they've enjoyed it so it's really neat to bridge that gap."
Clad in flowing evening gowns rather than rocker chick black
leather, Ely is stretching the harp's traditionally small
repertoire, arranging rock tunes as well as classical favourites for
a new audience. Most harpists specialize in weddings and other
private affairs, but Ely's been playing fulltime at the Empress for
11 years, relishing the old-fashioned idea of performing background
music in a dining room where people are talking and eating.
Seated in the midst of the diners, she often looks up to see the
faces of familiar entertainers from Roger Moore to Tom Jones. She
even got a fan letter from actor Dirk Benedict telling her he plays
her CD every weekend while making breakfast.
Her $40,000 instrument, a French-made pedal harp, is so familiar
that it feels like an extension of her body. "It just flows directly
through to my hands," she said. "I'm really experiencing it as I'm
Although the harp may look angelic and effortless, with its seven
pedals, playing the monstrous instrument is like embracing a piano
or be-bopping on a stairclimber. Technically, it can be hellish
rather than heavenly. The harp has fewer strings per octave than a
piano, relying on the pedals to create the extra tones. Every so
often, one of the high tension wires breaks with a sound like a
gunshot in the middle of a performance, says Ely. The trick is to
maintain her poise and continue the melody regardless.
This year the 36-year-old musician celebrates her 30th
anniversary playing at The Empress hotel. She gave her first public
performance -- Silent Night -- at a Christmas tea at the hotel at
the age of five.
Born in Memphis, Tenn., Ely came to Victoria in 1970 when her
parents arrived to play for the Victoria Symphony. The daughter of
Victoria harpist Kathryn Ely, Elizabeth treated the harp like
another dollhouse or puzzle. She got her first blister from too much
string plucking at the age of three. "I just sat down imitating
her," she said of her mother.
By the age of 12, she began playing in orchestras, but she
prefers to be a solo act than an adjunct performer, blending in with
a group. "You're not counting measures and rests," said Ely, who
graduated from Oak Bay high school.
After earning a music performance degree from the University of
Toronto, she pulled some strings as an entertainer on cruise ships
in Alaska and the Caribbean for several years. "A lot of times we'd
be outrunning hurricanes," she said of the end-of-season runs on the
ships. To protect her harp from the rolling motion of the ship, it
was tethered to the ceiling.
Unlike many musicians, Ely has catholic tastes that extend beyond
one area. That's why on her three self-produced CDs, she plays
everything from Bach and Pachelbel's Canon in D to movie themes from
Star Trek and Titanic. "They are not so far apart really," she said
of her repertoire choices. "If it's a good piece of music, it's a
good piece of music." No strings attached.
Profile of Elizabeth Ely