Laurel Dukehart's plucking of the giant brown harp resting on her 12-year-old shoulder created the musical equivalent of a cascading waterfall.
Moments later, two dozen fellow harpists performing at the Oak Crest Village retirement community in Parkville yesterday joined Laurel in pulling, grabbing and tweaking the towering instruments to create the musical equivalent of Niagara Falls.
"It's very relaxing, a great stress reliever," said Julie Jorczak, Oak Crest community resource coordinator. "And they are gorgeous instruments, I've never had a chance to see one up close."
An estimated 300 harpists traveled from as far as Massachusetts and North Carolina to participate in the three-day convention as part of the seventh annual Harpfest organized by the Charm City Chapter of the American Harp Society.
The event started in 1991 when about 20 area harp players got together to share their love for the instrument. The players this weekend ranged from 9-year-old beginners to a performance by a harp legend in her 90s, Alice Chalifoux.
Unlike other musical jams where musicians carry their instruments under their arm and plop down in a chair, putting together a harp ensemble is a major undertaking. Because the pieces stand as tall as 6 feet and weigh up to 85 pounds, each musician brings a hand truck to haul his prized possession.
"I just wanted to play something different," said Sophie Smith, a 16-year-old harpist who brought her instrument from Newburyport, Mass. "I love to play it because you can make so many different sounds from it."
Through the diversity of their musical pieces, the musicians showcased the harp's power. Many of the scores were soft and serene, causing the 400 audience members to have trouble determining when a piece ended and intermittent solitude began.
But others pounded and strummed on their leaning towers, making them sound like everything from a steel drum to the screeching background music of a horror flick.
In the corner of a section where vendors sold sheet music and instruments whose prices ranged from $1,000 to $28,000, Julie Sproules of Arlington, Va., played a version of "Danny Boy."
The harp musical family is divided into two groups, folk or "Celtic" (pronounced kell-tick) harpists and pedal players. The instrument is more complicated than it seems. To play pesky sharp and flat notes, folk harpists deftly flick levers at the tops of the strings. Pedal players must pump on eight steps, which have three gears making more than 1,000 moving parts inside the instrument flex.
"Many people say it's the hardest instrument they've learned to play," said Elaine Bryant, who was in charge of coordinating the vendors. "Each hand and foot is doing something different."
Bringing the convention to Oak Crest was the idea of Eileen Mason, harpist with the Baltimore Symphony. Oak Crest holds about three or four concerts each month and yesterday's room full of harps caught residents' eyes.
"I never knew there were so many shapes and sizes," Jack Kennedy, 87, said.
Wallace Ford, who helped direct the event, conducted the final ensemble, which included a flowing medley from the musical "South Pacific."
Ford, who plays with the Gettysburg and John Hopkins University symphonies, said Harpfest popularity spread by word of mouth among players along the East Coast who look forward to the challenge of joining fellow harpists.
As the convention broke up and the musicians covered their harps and pulled up their station wagons and vans to load, Ford issued one last warning.
"Take your time, folks," he said. "And don't knock down any residents."
Pub Date: 3/30/98