Stringing along
Publication Date: Friday Dec 8, 1995

Stringing along

Palo Alto's grande dame of the harp prepares for her 26th annual holiday concert--and still works six days a week at the age of 78

by Monica Hayde

For 20 years, Phyllis Schlomovitz played her harp for patrons of Dinah's Shack in Palo Alto. She entertained there until the long-loved restaurant closed in 1989. Before she moved to Palo Alto in 1969, she spent 15 years with the Milwaukee Symphony. She toured Europe and Asia with chamber ensembles. There was a luxurious stint in a salon orchestra at an elegant spa in Hot Springs, Ark. She estimates she's taught about 1,000 students since her days as a music student at Rockford College in Illinois.

The dynamic 78-year-old grandmother has written books on playing the harp (and is revising one edition now). She's put out 12 recordings (although she only counts 11 because she was disappointed with the quality of one). She's ushered her daughter, Renee Quinn, into a career as a harpist. And she recently returned from giving a master class on improvisation in Hungary.

Oh, and she's also preparing to release a CD next year.

The list of her accomplishments could go on for several more paragraphs, but we'll pause here to ask Schlomovitz how she maintains the magic and the motivation after so many years of plucking those strings.

"Actually, I'm sort of sick of it now," responds the white-haired Palo Altan with a smile.

There are some bits of truth in her jovial response. She thinks, from time to time, about retiring, she says, perhaps following her daughter to Colorado, where she'll soon be moving with her family. "I'd like to make quilts," Schlomovitz says with a laugh. "But people just keep calling for lessons. I have all these students . . . I still teach six days a week."

This victim of her own talent is proud of her achievements, and she still gets teary when thinking about a particularly emotional piece of music composed especially for her harp ensemble by Japan's Kozo Masuda. But the spry Schlomovitz does seem to get a kick out of saying that a highlight of her life as a professional musician was "27 years of not having to cook."

"The food was divine," she says, remembering one of her first long-term professional gigs: playing with a chamber orchestra in an elegant Milwaukee restaurant. Of her 20 years at Dinah's Shack, she says: "They fed us really well. I really don't like to cook."

At this moment, however, Schlomovitz has more on her mind than eating. She and her daughter, who together teach about 40 harp students out of Schlomovitz's home/studio, are preparing for the 26th annual "20 Harps for Christmas" concert coming up at 3 p.m. this Sunday, Dec. 10, at St. Albert the Great Church in Palo Alto.

This local holiday tradition, which began with five harpists at the Palo Alto Women's Club, includes honor-student soloists and duos from the Schlomovitz-Quinn Harp Studios, chamber ensembles and Celtic harpists. They will perform "joyous Christmas music," including traditional carols and baroque and classical works, most of which were arranged for harp ensemble by Schlomovitz.

According to Quinn, who will perform along with her mom, this year's concert has a tremendous amount of variety.

"There's harp and flute together, harps together, harps alone, classical harp, folk harp . . . really something for everybody," says Quinn, who used to share harp-playing duties with mom at Dinah's. Quinn was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 14 years ago, and she credits the healing qualities of playing harp music with keeping her in good health. She was pursuing a career as a professional musician until her diagnosis.

"It's a physical challenge, playing the harp," she says. "I also just like the soft sound of it. It goes right to your heart. It actually lays against your chest in that way. And you can feel the vibrations of the music. It's very healing."

On the subject of the rarely heard sound of 20-some-odd harps performing in unison, her mother is as eloquent: "It's a big, big sound that almost boggles my mind. It sounds like a bevy of angels coming down with their wings fluttering. Or like a fairy waving her wand, and all the sparkles coming out of it."

Schlomovitz, born Phyllis Patton, was first enchanted by the harp during concert she attended at the age of 4. She grew up with her grandmother in Rockford, Ill., about 90 miles from Chicago. Schlomovitz's parents were both actors, and they led a hectic itinerant life. "My mother would come home to have her children, and then they'd be off again," Schlomovitz recalls as she shows off a framed turn-of-the-century poster in her living room advertising one of her parents' plays. Two of Schlomovitz's siblings died in infancy; her brother went on to become a film director.

Growing up, Schlomovitz saw Pavlova dance in nearby Chicago, and she went to the symphony with her church organist grandmother.

At the age of 6, she got a violin. (Harps were a little hard to come by, and rather cumbersome to transport.)

In college, Schlomovitz was reminded of her 4-year-old appreciation for the romantic strains of the harp when she heard the Chicago Symphony do an all-Debussy program.

"I knew I had to take lessons," she remembers. "My parents thought I was quite mad, but I went out and found a harpist I'd heard playing at a funeral, and she became my teacher. This was in the middle of the Depression, but I managed. She was very, very good."

Her professional career kicked into gear after she landed a position in a salon orchestra at the Hot Springs spa. Then came the seven years of good eating in the Milwaukee restaurant. She met her husband, Dr. Benjamin Schlomovitz, when she got sick and went to the doctor.

During this time, the Milwaukee Symphony came calling, her daughter came along, and she was building a strong base of students. Life was as harmonious as her music.

Then, in 1969, her husband went into the hospital with heart trouble. And Schlomovitz received an out-of-the-blue phone call from Palo Alto.

A certain John Rickey had heard one of her recordings, and the hotel and restaurant entrepreneur was calling to see if she might be interested in getting star billing at his new restaurant on El Camino Real, Dinah's Shack.

"Of course I told him that my husband was very ill, and that I had a contract with the symphony. I said that maybe I had a student who might want to come out, but he was only interested in me. We said we'd keep in touch . . . Well, my husband died that very night."

It was January. It was snowing in Milwaukee. And suddenly, California seemed like the perfect place for Schlomovitz to start over with her daughter.

Rickey welcomed her with a magnificent gold harp he'd purchased for her arrival. Today, the harp sits in Schlomovitz's studio. And Rickey's widow, Lorrayne, still comes to every holiday harp concert.

Wearing a brooch in the shape of a harp, and seated under a giant portrait of herself playing the instrument in her younger days, Schlomovitz can joke about being tired of all the teaching, writing, arranging and performing. But she's quick to note her good fortune.

"I consider myself the luckiest person in the world for being able to make a living from my music for so many years--with steady work, which is very hard to come by these days for musicians," says Schlomovitz, who is now married to Kenneth Sorenson, who "takes care of all the computer stuff" for her business. "It all just came together for me."

Quinn is also thankful for her mother's ability to make a career of music.

"When we moved out to California, she used the harp for the whole source of support for both me and my grandmother," Quinn says. "To be able to do something that you love and still support a family is really something."

"Twenty Harps for Christmas"

Who: Teachers and students of the Schlomovitz-Quinn Harp Studios

When: 3 p.m. Dec. 10

Where: St. Albert the Great Church, 1093 Channing Ave., Palo Alto

Cost: $10 general; $5 seniors and children

Information: 856-1818 

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