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Harpist lives her passion

Renowned musician returns for summer orchestral learning and playing program

By Tara Trigg | Peak Intern
Published in the Powell River Peak: Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Every few years, a true artist is born. Many are destined to take a day job and enjoy their “hobbies” in private; few rise to the top to astonish all with their artistic prowess.

Rita Costanzi is one of those few. Daughter of trained musicians, having played harp since she was nine and piano since she could reach the keys, Costanzi possesses skills that have transported her all
over the globe in the name of music.

Costanzi has returned to Powell River this summer for the Symphony Orchestra Academy of the Pacific (SOAP).

“I feel a lot of joy, and of course very privileged to be here,” said Costanzi. “I’m so impressed with the support team here, the administration and volunteers.”

Costanzi was born in Rochester, New York, into a musical family. Her father was a noted violist and professor of music at the Eastman School of Music.

“I had quite the cultured upbringing,” said Costanzi. “My harp teacher taught me to play harp, but my father taught me musicality.”

The story goes that, at the age of three, Costanzi sat herself in front of the family piano and started playing. Even at this tender age, her playing was more than the random banging of a child. Her musician parents recognized this, and for the next four or five years, she would play by ear, improvising and singing. At the age of eight, formal piano lessons began in earnest. Harp came soon after, by chance.

“I had been studying piano, and this call of destiny came one night,” said Costanzi. “The harp teacher at Eastman got a bunch of instruments to experiment with.”

The small harps had been sent by a harp manufacturer. The harp teacher asked around to see if there were any children with musical experience who would like to take three harp classes. Costanzi’s father asked her if she would be interested. She was. When the three classes were over, the six children who had participated liked it so much that the teacher agreed to give one class per week for the rest of the year, for free. At the end of it Costanzi was in love with the harp, and asked her parents if she could continue.

“Out of six kids with piano experience, two are now professional harpists,” said Costanzi.

Costanzi went on to study harp at the college program at Eastman, eventually winning a grant to spend a year in Paris finishing her studies.

“I had written a lot of papers and studied a lot,” said Costanzi. “I was ready to just focus on playing and the cultural richness that Paris has to offer instead of my academic degree.”

Upon graduating, Costanzi married her college sweetheart. “It had been quite the love story,” she said. “We were constantly together, breaking up, together, breaking up. This went on for six years, until we were married.”

When her husband got a job in London, Ontario, the pair moved to Canada. Later on, Costanzi got a job in Vancouver with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The pair moved west.

“I took that job more to please my parents and teachers,” she said. “I wanted to do solo and chamber music.”

Costanzi spent three years with the orchestra in Vancouver, going on to play part-time in the CBC Radio Orchestra, performing solo concerts, chamber music, and teaching, juggling this with raising her two children.

“I spent 28 years in Vancouver,” she said. “It was a great place to raise my children.”

Three years ago, her husband was called to be a violinist and concert master on Broadway in New York City. After spending two years trying to make a marriage work long-distance, Costanzi surrendered all her titles and responsibilities in Vancouver, and moved to New York.

“Today, most people move for a job, not for a marriage,” said Costanzi. “It was a bit of a leap of faith; I didn’t have any work waiting for me.”

The move worked out. After many months of patience, Costanzi has been appointed to the New York City University’s faculty of music.

Beyond being on the faculty at the university, Costanzi travels the globe, teaching classes in Brazil, putting on concerts, and attending festivals.

“She was here from the word go,” said Arthur Arnold, music director and conductor for SOAP. “She’s been on the faculty since the first year. She’s a great addition. She has a great personality.”

SOAP trains its students for the audition process for advanced professional orchestral positions and otherwise.

“All our students hope to become famous soloists,” said Arnold. “We all start with that dream.”

Throughout the year, Arnold works with professional musicians. He looks forward to his summers working with students. “There is so much sparkle, so much energy,” he said. “Every year it’s amazing, the energy coming off the podium. It’s quite something.”

After coming to Powell  River in 2000 for International Choral Kathaumixw, Arnold met up with Don James, the mastermind behind SOAP and Kathaumixw. “Since then, I’ve been back every year,” said Arnold. “Don James kept finding reasons for me to come back.”

Arnold began talking with James about starting an orchestral academy. In 2004, the first summer session was held, with faculty from all over North America and Europe.

“He’s a real visionary,” said Costanzi, of James. “There are a lot of visionaries in the world, but they don’t all have the ability to manifest their visions.”

Costanzi had been teaching at a summer music festival for children in Comox for many years when she got the call from James.

“I had been wishing to teach older college-level students,” said Costanzi. “Out of the blue, Don James called me, and asked if I would come and teach for his festival. It was amazing, the synchronicity of the phone call.”

Costanzi’s harp program is a little different from what the string, brass and woodwind players will experience. Because not all the orchestral music played in the festival has harp in it, her students aren’t used to quite as much in the program. Because of this, they put on a special harp concert in the second week, usually on a Wednesday. The percussion group does a similar kind of thing.

“I love teaching at summer festivals,” said Costanzi. “Students aren’t as burdened by other academic classes like during the school year.”

Arnold is looking forward to this summer as well. “I don’t expect many things to be different,” he said. “But at the same time, it will be totally different. We have new students, new faculty, and a new repertoire.”

“To work and strive for art, for me, is such a noble initiative,” said Costanzi, of what James has accomplished with SOAP and Kathaumixw.

This year, Arnold has programmed some orchestral works with very large harp parts for the summer’s repertoire.

“We will be working very hard this summer, it will be wonderful,” said Costanzi. “It will be Mother Theresa’s definition of work, which is love in action.”

Costanzi has also spearheaded a Harp for Healing program. Information on this is available on her website at www.ritacostanzi.com.

For information on tickets and prices for all SOAP concerts, readers can visit the Academy of Music box office at 7280 Kemano Street, call 604.485.9633, or browse www.soap-powellriver.ca.

Rita Costanzi poses with her harp
Arthur Arnold directs the Symphony Orchestra of the Pacific