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WRTI is proud to partner with Astral to present members of its outstanding roster of rising classical talent in this new video series. Hosted by WRTI producer Susan Lewis and recorded live in WRTI's performance studio, these programs are "performance portraits" that capture the range and ingenuity of these exceptional artists.

WRTI Presents ASTRAL: Harpist Rachel Lee O’Brien with guest flutist Angela Massey

Harpist Rachel Lee O'Brien in the WRTI Performance Studio
Harpist Rachel Lee O'Brien plays works inspired by Appalachia in the WRTI Performance Studio, April 2022

Astral artist Rachel Lee O’Brien stopped by WRTI’s Performance Studio recently and shared a program of music for harp celebrating her Appalachian roots. She was accompanied by Angela Massey on flute. Both are featured here in our video series, WRTI Presents ASTRAL.

Rachel plays her large and gracious golden harp in concert halls and sunflower fields and traces her love of the instrument to growing up in Roanoke, Virginia at the foot of the Appalachian mountains. At a very young age she discovered the harp’s magical sound at an Appalachian craft fair.

“At five years old, I fell in love; we bought a CD and I wore it out. The next Christmas my parents got me my first folk harp. They didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, because eventually it grew,” she says, laughing.

In this program, Rachel shares three works with us that express some of the many moods of Appalachia.

First up is the third movement of a new piece for solo harp called "Walking with Spring" by Steven Snowden, which expresses the intimacy of wandering woodland trails and the majesty of the Appalachian mountains.

For the next work, Rachel is joined by her frequent collaborator, flutist Angela Massey, the artistic director and founder of the Astralis Chamber Ensemble. In this program, they perform selections from Robert Beaser’s "Mountain Songs," originally written for flute and guitar.

Illustrating the versatility of the harp, and some of its lesser-known extended techniques, Rachel arranged the piece for flute and harp. Watch and listen for Rachel using pedal slides, her fingernails, and playing near the soundboard—you might swear you’re listening to Appalachian folk instruments, from the guitar to mandolin and banjo!

The last piece is a work that Rachel composed. Fantasy on "Wayfaring Stranger" is based on an Appalachian folk melody about a traveler trying to get home. “When I wrote this piece, I imagined myself as a weary traveler, and the hope and anticipation I would feel if I had that thought of home keeping me going.”

Rachel’s affection for the place she grew up—and still calls home—is clear. “I come from a long line of ancestry from Appalachia. They were a wonderful, humble people but also very loyal, and dedicated to their families, very hardworking. And I feel that should be celebrated.”

Learn more about Rachel Lee O’Brien.

Astral is a Philadelphia-based, nonprofit intensive mentoring program that specializes in developing the early careers of extraordinary classical musicians.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.