When Janelle Nadeau talks about Winter Harp, there's a mix of excitement and awe in her voice -- like a little girl on Christmas Eve. The 27-year-old Vancouver-via-Winnipeg harpist has been involved with the acclaimed touring show for eight years and is still struck by its magic.
And Winter Harp, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this season, is definitely magical. Under the direction of acclaimed composer/arranger/harpist Lori Pappajohn, Winter Harp's estimable players -- who specialize in Celtic, medieval and classical music -- make one feel as though they've stepped into a pre-Raphaelite painting. Candlelight flickers off golden harps played by angelic musicians clad in velvet gowns, their ethereal music shining like a silvery moon in the darkest nights of December. Flute, percussion, medieval instruments, vocals and readings complete the experience.
"The music is so beautiful," Nadeau says with a happy little sigh, over the phone from Vancouver. "We really have created a beautiful concert to give to people as a gift. It's a time of year when our hearts are open. It's about family and friends and gathering together. It's a time when our emotions come out more. Lori really tries to create a show that allows people to get into that space. There's no other show that evokes the spirit of Christmas that Winter Harp does."
Pappajohn echoes that sentiment. "It's different than any Christmas concert you'll go to. We have these beautiful medieval-style gowns we perform in that are breathtaking and we have these spectacular backdrops as well, so there's this visual layer. Even before the first note is played, it's magical," she says.
It's also a visceral, emotional experience for many people. Christmas stirs up memories.
"People go to deep places at Winter Harp," Pappajohn says. She recalls being on a Vancouver street on a hot summer day waiting for the light to change when a woman approached her. "She said, 'You don't know me, but I was at Winter Harp and it changed my life.'"
Nadeau says the show is just as goosebump-inducing for the players on stage. "The crowd hovers a bit before giving into the applause. It's very special to be a part of something so powerful."
For Nadeau, performing in Winter Harp in her hometown brings back happy memories of driving down Portage Avenue to see the lights and getting to wear a new fancy dress to a party.
"Winnipeg gets more into the Christmas spirit than anywhere else. People come in from the cold with their big coats, and they run into people they haven't seen in a while. There's already a wonderful vibe," she says.
The show's emotional potency goes a long way in explaining its mass appeal. Nadeau recalls a letter she received from a young man who was "dragged" (his word) to Winter Harp by his girlfriend. "He said it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen."
Nadeau, a graduate from the harp performance program at UBC, began playing with Winter Harp at just 19. She credits it with launching her career.
"For Lori to take the risk she took to hire someone so young, I'm indebted to her. I'm very fortunate to be working as a full-time musician. If it weren't for Lori, I wouldn't be where I am today," she says.
Pappajohn was struck by the young harpist's versatility. "The music we play -- only one to two per cent of harpists are trained to play it," she says. "When I was auditioning, I had heard of her, and her age was irrelevant. I just wanted someone who could play the music. She was classically-trained and she hadn't even heard of this music -- but she had incredible passion. I could tell that she would take to this, and she's eaten it up."
Nadeau will be playing alongside harp legend Kim Robertson, a mentor of Pappajohn's.
"That's who I learned from. It's full-circle having Kim play," Pappajohn says.
Nadeau is poised to become another legend in the harp world. Her CV is already impressive. She's performed with the Vancouver Opera, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Canada National Youth Orchestra. She's played in Kanye West's backing band and with Frank Sinatra Jr.
She's also made a name for herself as a soloist, thanks to her youthful approach; in her hands, the harp is not only beautiful, it's cool.
"It's a very diverse career. There's always something around the corner," she says with a laugh.
While the big shows come with a certain cachet, it's the more intimate gigs -- like Winter Harp -- Nadeau is drawn to. She cherishes her work with the Health Arts Society, a Canadian organization that presents professional concerts in residential care homes across the country.
"Those are the people that don't get to have these kinds of experiences any other time. A lot of them can't go out any more. Those people need it most, and that's so profound for me," she says.