Q&A: Minnesota Orchestra Harpist Talks LA LA Land in Concert

Kathy Kienzle Photo: Courtesy Minnesota Orchestra
Kathy Kienzle

September 29, 2017 12:17 PM

The Minnesota Orchestra kicks off the first of the Live at Orchestra Hall series this weekend featuring the full film “La La Land,” which will be tracked live by the orchestra.

KSTP spoke with Kathy Kienzle who plays the harp. The Oregon-native joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 1993 is currently the principal harp.


Kienzle studied with Marcel Grandjany, Susann McDonald and Susanna Milldonia. She has a bachelor’s degree from the Juilliard School and master’s degree from University of Arizona.

KSTP: How old were you when you started playing an instrument?

Kathy: The harp was my first official instrument at 7-years-old, but the teacher I took lessons from wanted me to be able to read music before I started. I was 6-years-old when I first started with informal piano lessons from my mother, and this is when I learned to read music.

Q: What were some of challenges with learning to play at such a young age?

A: It felt easy until I got really advanced. I loved it and had lots of wonderful experiences with the instrument. To anyone facing challenges, I would say try to stick with it until you get to the point where you’re having success and then re-evaluate whether you want to continue it or not. Getting through the challenges is a really great learning experience.

In my case, I only had one situation when I was a kid, when my teacher called my parents up and said I wasn’t practicing. They told me they would have to sell my harp if I wasn’t practicing, and that’s all it took.

Q: What kind of advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a career like you did?

A: Students should consult with the very best teachers they can find who have careers in music or have sent students on to have careers in music because that's a whole other ballgame and requires hours and hours of work. You have to really love it.

Q: Did you know at a young age that you wanted to play the harp professionally, or did you have any other career in mind?

A:  It’s unusual that I knew very early on it’s what I wanted to do. In fact, my parents told me, “We can’t afford to buy this harp unless you’re serious about it.” I was very lucky to grow up in a place where there weren’t many professional harpists, so I was playing professionally by the ninth and 10th grade and played all over Minnesota and Idaho. There was never a time where I doubted it at all.

Q: How did you decide the harp was going to be your instrument of choice?

A: When I was 5-years-old, there was a woman who played the harp at our church at Christmas and Easter, and I decided that was the instrument I wanted to play. She became my teacher, and I was very lucky to find this wonderful teacher right in my small town. She had studied in Paris and New York so it all turned out to be very lucky.

Q: Where did life take you after college?

A: I finished my master’s degree in Arizona and was thinking of going back to New York, but there were no job openings anywhere in the U.S. That summer I came to Minnesota to participate in a national harp competition and at that conference/competition was the harpist from the Duluth Symphony who was someone who grew up in the same town as I did in Oregon. Turns out she was retiring and looking for a replacement. I guess I wasn’t very excited about going back to New York because I ended up in Duluth.

I started in Duluth with the orchestra in 1975, but that was a very part-time job. I was guaranteed about $900 for the year, but the woman who was retiring did a lot to get harps in the public schools so in four months I had 25 students.

The other really lucky thing was the conductor of the orchestra I played in at Juilliard, Dennis Russell Davies who at that time was the conductor of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra; so after just a couple of years in Duluth, I moved down to the Twin Cities in 1977 and began playing with their orchestra part-time. I also did a lot of freelancing and teaching during that time.

Q: What can the audience expect this weekend as you and fellow orchestra members perform?

A:  It’s a really wonderful thing that’s happening all over the U.S. and all over the world. In years past we would do excerpts of  movies, some were very old silent films like the Charlie Chaplin movie. One of the best things for the audience is that it really brings the music to the forefront. “LA LA Land” is a musical, so it’s clearly in the forefront. Often the music is such a part of the experience, you’re not even aware of it. But when you have a live orchestra playing, you become much more aware of it. We are also excited to draw in a much more diverse audience than what we normally get.

Q: How do you prepare for these types of performances?

A: These movie parts are sometimes 150-175 pages, so I need a lot of time to get through it, find out where the difficult parts are and allow enough time to work on those parts. We do minimal rehearsal, maximum two times through.

It takes an incredible conductor to do this. They have to line up their conducting, so that it times exactly with the movie. The score that the conductor is playing off of has the timing written across the top, and they also have their own monitor in front of them, plus they usually wear earbuds that have click track in it. It’s a beat that has already been set up in advance so they have to follow the click track. Sometimes we do as well, sometimes we don’t.

I wanted to mention something that most people would not think of. When composers write scores for movies they write them knowing when the studio musicians record the music for the movies they are not going to record the music from the beginning to the end of the movie straight through, they’re going to record tiny segments, not even a whole scene sometimes just a minute or two. They will do those segments over and over until they perfect them and then they’ll move on to the next one. We don’t have that luxury, we play them non-stop depending on the score. It’s extremely difficult and takes incredible concentration.

In “La La Land” there’s not a whole lot of harp, so there are lots of scenes where I don’t play at all.  Any John Williams score, any "Harry Potter" score, we played "ET" last year, and that was non-stop.

In the percussion section, they play many different instruments and when the composers write the scores for these pieces they write them so that the instruments have to be set up in a certain way for one scene and completely different for another scene. The percussionists do not have time to change anything so they have to deal with it as is and decide if they’ll leave those parts out. It’s a constant struggle, worse than for the rest of us.

Kienzle lives in the Twin Cities with her husband, composer Daniel Sturm. Their daughter Laura received her PhD in psychology in 2015 and practices in the Twin Cities. Among Kienzle’s recordings are three made with Michele Frisch: O Bell’ Alma: Music from the Opera, La Belle Vie: French Opera Fantasie and Bella Danza: Music of the Dance.

LA LA LAND in Concert is conducted by Sarah Hicks and is at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Limited tickets are still available. 


Sarina Long

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