Having seen Ellen Formanek Tepper play the harp — she was a regular before the pandemic at the William Penn Inn on Route 202 in Gwynedd — I know what an ethereal quality her performances add to the dining experience or just to quiet contemplation.
Having seen Ellen Formanek Tepper play the harp — she was a regular before the pandemic at the William Penn Inn on Route 202 in Gwynedd — I know what an ethereal quality her performances add to the dining experience or just to quiet contemplation. Tepper, 67, a Glenside resident for 32 years, was asked by her parents when she was just 5 what instrument she wanted to play, and even at that age, she insisted it had to be the harp.
“I was good with my fingers,” she recalled, “and I wanted that sound to be my voice. We listened to lots of classical music at home, and we had a record of Mother Goose rhymes with a small ensemble that featured the harp. I memorized the whole album. I had also seen five little harpists on television, and I knew this dream was possible. However, we lived way out on Long Island, and trips to New York City took all day.
“It took moving to Vienna, Austria, to start. I began on a concert grand at my lessons, and at home, I practiced on a harp loaned to me by Professor Jelinek, my first teacher, 45 minutes of scales after dinner every day. I was very shy.”
Ellen's mother was a psychologist, and her father was the principal of a school in Smithtown, Long Island. (Her grandmother, Oma, lived to be 103.) He then got a job as director of the American International School in Vienna, Austria. Ellen was just 7 in 1960 when the family moved to Austria, where they stayed for four years before moving to New York City. In Vienna, Ellen took a year of piano lessons, the prerequisite for beginning harp studies at the Vienna Music Academy, where she was the youngest student at age 8.
However, after many decades of performing angelic harp music, Tepper, like so many other musicians, has been punched in the heart by the pandemic. “I lost three to four jobs per week on average,” she said. “Some were concerts I was really looking forward to. My favorite job at Early Music Week at Pinewoods (a music camp in lower Bucks County), where I'd have been teaching harp and playing with the rest of the wonderful faculty, went a little virtual, but I was so depressed this summer I didn't participate.
“All my teaching disappeared. The students did not want to Zoom. Since September I have been teaching in my driveway, masked and distanced. We have just started holding them in my studio. I am isolated and safe at home. I did have a wedding at the shore, a tiny outdoor family event. One event was rescheduled from May, and I have done some outdoor gigs. I started playing 'porch concerts' for friends and 'family' for their benefit, as well as mine. I need to play.”
Tepper played a concert over Zoom for her “adoptive big sister" who has entered hospice care. Her friends came and brought their lawn chairs and masks. Tepper has also played for some nursing care facilities over Skype, “but it is not the same.” She also recently performed twice at Valley Green Inn. “At one, everyone had been tested (for Covid-19), and the other was distanced and masked. Luckily, the harp is a great barrier!”
It just so happens that Tepper is also a talented artist, which even the coronavirus cannot stop because it is a solitary profession. And Tepper has been extremely productive in that regard, having painted three “Knotwork” windows, crocheted dragons and a series of six renditions of the Venus from Willendorf, one of which is four feet tall and is called “Venus de Pillow.”
She sewed about 100 face masks for friends who bartered with food and bucks. She sewed a quilt made of a friend's collection of 30 years' worth of tee shirts from the Philadelphia Folk Festival. She engaged in some serious suburban reclamation and turned a bedroom into a performance space for doing remote concerts. “Also a lot of gardening, although my skill set is woefully inadequate, and I only got a Pyrrhic Victory garden.”
Tepper would like to mention the person who was most important in her development as a musician. “That was my father, who played the piano and tuned my harp for me until I could do it myself. He insisted I practice every night after dinner while the rest of the family did their best not to listen!”
For more information, visit ellentepper.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org