Simply a Genius

Q&A with Heidi Lehwalder, the creative force behind Ojai’s intimate new concert series

By Leslee Goodman

Deeply committed to the fine art of chamber music, Heidi Lehwalder teaches around the world and recently launched a concert series in the bucolic folds of Upper Ojai..


orld-renowned harpist Heidi Lehwalder has had a long and illustrious career, performing with some 65 orchestras throughout the United States and Canada and touring extensively around the world. Chamber music is her passion, however, which is why in 1988 she founded the Fredericksburg Festival of the Arts, in Virginia, and three years ago launched Ojai’s newest performing arts series, Chamber On The Mountain. She spoke with us about her career, why the harp, and why Ojai.

Leslee Goodman: How old were you when you first started to play the harp—and why did you choose it?
Heidi Lehwalder: Playing the harp was actually my mother’s idea. She was a cellist in the Seattle Symphony for 40 years and also played in a trio with a violinist and a harpist who (my mother thought) wasn’t very good. She said that if she had a daughter who was halfway talented, her daughter would play the harp. When I started picking out my brother’s songs on the piano by ear before I was three, I was nominated. Then, when the great harpist Lynn Wainwright Palmer moved from Philadelphia to Seattle, my destiny was more or less decided. Palmer accepted me as a student when I was seven years old.

I debuted with the Seattle Symphony when I was nine. I remember that I had matured enough that my parents were able to remove the little blocks they had attached to the harp’s pedals so that I could reach them.

The irony of it is that I begged my mother to play the flute. But my mother was adamant. All my life people helping me carry my harp would joke, “Why didn’t you play the piccolo?” And I’d always say, “Well, I wanted to.” But it has worked out wonderfully because I’ve been able to play with some of the world’s greatest flutists.

LG: You’ve had such an impressive career. What do you consider some of the highlights?
HL: First was working as a child with the great harpist Carlos Salzedo—still believed by many to have been one of the greatest harpists of all time. It’s his harp I play on today. I got to study with him for two summers at his music colony in Camden, Maine. In 1960, at the end of the first summer, he said, “I want you to go to the international harp competition in Israel in 1962” and gave me a repertoire to learn. I came back the following year with most of it memorized. He and I worked again that summer, with long lessons every couple of days. But he died the day just before my last lesson.

I was extremely attached to him. It didn’t matter that I was 11 and he was 76. Somehow I knew I didn’t have a lot of time with him so I tried to absorb everything I could. The last time I saw him he took my chin, lifted my head and said something I took to be prophetic: “Little girl, you have to carry on.” The next day he died of a heart attack. You can imagine what an honor it is to have his harp now. I went off to Israel the following year and won a major prize. But it was bittersweet because he would have taken me, had he lived.

The next high point would have to be auditioning for the CBS Young People’s Concerts before the great conductor Leonard Bernstein. I was 13. I got to audition for him in Carnegie Hall, and after I finished playing he came onto the stage and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I didn’t wash that cheek for a week!

He selected me for the first Young People’s Concert performed in the brand new Lincoln Center. A few months later I got to play with the Cleveland Orchestra, which was the greatest in the world at the time. Being one of the first recipients of the Avery Fisher Prize (now the Avery Fisher Career Grant) was another very big deal.

And founding the Fredericksburg Festival of the Arts, in Virginia, was a high point. The festival began as a showcase for chamber music, which is my great love and which, unfortunately, I can’t play much of on the harp.

LG: Why not?
HL: The great classical composers—Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart—wrote very little music for the harp. I’ve done some arranging for myself, and several contemporary composers have written concerti for me. But the repertoire is limited.

I fell in love with chamber music when I was 17 and started attending the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, where you had all the greatest musicians congregating in the summer to play chamber music.

So in 1988, many years later, I founded the Fredericksburg festival and directed it for 20 years. It was a huge success, was broadcast nationally to 425,000 listeners on Classical WETA in Washington, DC, and is still going strong. In fact, it has grown from a small, world-class chamber music festival into a premier, year-round presenter of the performing arts, including symphonic, operatic, ballet, Shakespeare, and a Young Artists’ Competition.

LG: How did you happen to relocate to California?
HL: I had returned from the East Coast to teach at the University of Washington in Seattle, but there was something calling me to California. My daughters were here, but there was also something else. It was Ojai. I met Jimmy and Radha Sloss, trustees of the Happy Valley Foundation and the Besant Hill School, who were excited about the possibility of creating a chamber music series here. That was synchronous because my Uncle Austin Bee had been chairman of the Happy Valley Foundation for many years and I have three cousins who graduated from the Besant Hill School.

It’s thrilling to bring these fantastic musicians to our cozy venue in a fabulous setting. Everyone loves it. The musicians wake up in the morning and have their coffee staring at the mountains. It’s magical for them. The audiences are delighted; and I’m in my element.

LG: What is your vision for Chamber on the Mountain?
HL: To continue bringing exceptional talent to this exceptional place—and for the community to understand what is being presented here: musicianship at the highest level. These are artists you could see at the Lincoln or Kennedy Center—but for $25 you’d be seeing them from the farthest row. Here, you get to see them in a very intimate setting and you have the opportunity to interact with them afterwards. For $25! It’s phenomenal.

It’s also important to me to give students exposure to the level of talent we are presenting. Last fall when Julia Bullock performed, she met with the Besant Hill School students the next day and had such great rapport with them. It was wonderful to see. Knowing what an impact being surrounded by the world’s greatest musicians at the Marlboro Festival had on me, I’d like to share that kind of opportunity with other young people.

I would love for Chamber On The Mountain to include master classes someday. I would also love to get some kind of a summer program going. But for now we’re just planting seeds and they’re starting to sprout.

CHAMBER ON THE MOUNTAIN Performance schedule, reservations, and directions:
HEIDI LEHWALDER, HARPIST Upcoming events, teaching, and contact info:

Heidi’s first publicity photo, at age 8, for her debut with the Seattle Symphony.

Recently drawn west by the Arcadian lure of Ojai, Heidi has conducted masterclasses around the world, teaching at institutions like Juilliard, The Manhattan School of Music, and the 12th World Harp Congress in Sydney, Australia. Here, she presides over a masterclass at the University of Washington.


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