IAM catches up with 29-year-old Anneleen Lenaerts, the Belgian harpist that has just signed an exclusive long-term recording contract with Warner Classics
There’s no doubt that Anneleen Lenaerts is a musical force to be reckoned with: as a soloist she has won an astonishing 17 prizes in just 12 years, including Munich’s ARD International Music Competition and the Grand Prix International Lily Laskine – one of the most prestigious harp competitions in the world.
As principal harpist of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO), Lenaerts made history in 2010 when, aged just 23, she became one of just a handful of women to join its elite ranks. As a concerto soloist and recitalist she’s appeared at Wigmore Hall in London, Carnegie Hall in New York, the Salle Gaveau in Paris, the Grosses Festspielhaus in Salzburg and BOZAR in Brussels.
She has already recorded two albums for Warner, with the latest Anneleen Lenaerts / Dionysis Grammenos, Schumann & Schubert: Transcriptions for Clarinet & Harp (Warner, October 2016) generating serious excitement. Now she and hotly-tipped clarinettist Grammenos are heading out on tour, with dates in the US, France, Germany, Austria, Ireland and the UK.
IAM: What first drew you to the harp? What is it that is so special about this grand instrument?
Anneleen Lenaerts: I discovered the harp rather by accident. I wanted to play a second instrument, having started with the piano, and it was my solfège teacher who gave me the idea – he wanted a harp in his orchestra.
Even though I had never seen or heard this instrument up close before, he thought I would be a good match with the harp. My first meeting with it was kind of like a blind date! Now I feel very grateful that my teacher convinced me to give it a go, because it was due to him that I discovered this beautiful instrument. The harp is very sensitive but very powerful; it possesses an enormous range of colours through which there are countless possibilities to
express emotions. One of my career goals is to convince more composers to discover this instrument and to expand the volume of repertoire that is currently available to harpists.
Tell us about your training: how did you reach the level you play at today?
I was fortunate to be guided by a devoted teacher who recognised that I might have the talent for a career in music. I come from a non-musical background, so it was she who took the initiative to speak with my parents. She convinced them to agree to more intensive lessons so that I could reach my goals, after which I began entering and winning competitions.
It is so important to meet the right people in life to guide you in the right direction, and it is also important to have supportive parents. If you have neither, it’s surely impossible to fulfil your dreams.
Who are your musical inspirations?
My musical inspirations are the composers who left a legacy of wonderful repertoire that we are able to pass on to our audiences. I studied counterpoint and fugue in order to better understand and analyse musical language – that way I can come closer to what they [the composers] wanted to express, and from there build upon my own interpretations. For me, it is really important to start from the basic point of respecting the score.
What was it like joining Vienna Philharmonic aged just 23?
I could have never have imagined I would one day join an orchestra like the Vienna Philharmonic. Before that point I had been on the road a lot as a soloist and playing chamber music.
I hadn’t really set myself the goal of entering an orchestra, but after a year of projects at the Bayerische Rundfunk with conductor Mariss Jansons, I realised how much orchestra playing adds to your musical development. And so, I decided to to audition for VPO! I didn’t get my hopes too high – you never know if your playing style will fit in with an orchestra or not – so when I found out they had accepted me I was absolutely overwhelmed. I feel so privileged that I am able to play with an orchestra that has such a rich history.
You joined VPO at a time when it had only just permitted women players. What was this experience like? Have things changed as more female musicians joined?
I have to say that personally I have never experienced anything negative in relation to being a woman in this orchestra. I was the eighth woman to join, so a few had entered before me. However, even if there had been an issue, I have only ever wanted to be respected by my colleagues for playing the harp at the best level I can – and that is what they accepted me for at the audition. That was the only thing I have ever had in mind: I want to perform to the best of my ability. All that should count is the quality of my playing, nothing else.
Why did you choose to work with clarinettist Dionysis Grammenos on the new album? How do you combine as players?
Dionysis and I met at Rheingau Music Festival a few years ago, when we were both there as soloists. We soon realised we had very similar ways of playing and decided to try a new chamber music formation.
The most common and well-known formation is flute and harp, probably thanks to Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto. In contrast, repertoire for clarinet and harp is almost nonexistent. However, we discovered that the sound and the colours of the harp and clarinet matched well and that we could create an entirely new world together, even when playing repertoire that wasn’t specifically written for those two instruments.
Other than that, playing chamber music is something very intimate and it’s important to be able to share music and emotions without too many words needed. This is something that works extremely well between myself and Dionysis, and we have performed on stage together for some years now.
Now that you have signed a major recording deal, what is next for you? What are your plans for the next 12 months, and where do you see yourself in five years?
Honestly, I have never planned ahead. Even if it might sound clichéd, I have never set goals in advance. I never even imagined I’d live in Vienna and be part of this wonderful orchestra. The progression I’ve had has come simply from enjoying music and sharing this experience with audiences: that is how I have got to where I am today, without thinking about it. If I am lucky enough to continue this way, and make sure all the projects I still want to do go well, I’ll be an incredibly happy person.