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14-year-old McCandless harpist featured in NPR radio broadcast

| Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, 8:57 p.m.
McCandless harpist Sophia Sunha Lee, 14, will play her instrument during an episode of National Public Radio's classical-music program 'From the Top,' which will be heard at 5 p.m. Jan. 5 on WQED, 89.3 FM.
McCandless harpist Sophia Sunha Lee, 14, will play her instrument during an episode of National Public Radio's classical-music program 'From the Top,' which will be heard at 5 p.m. Jan. 5 on WQED, 89.3 FM. Submitted

The piece was musically and technically challenging for Sophia Sunha Lee, a 14-year-old harpist.

But she perfected the work, “Féerie: Prélude et Danse” by Marcel Tournier, enough to play it for the “From the Top” program to be broadcast the week of Dec. 31 on a number of National Public Radio stations and in Pittsburgh on WQED, 89.3 FM, at 5 p.m. Jan. 5. Lee and other young classical musicians were recorded at The Palace Theatre in Greensburg in late October.

“I definitely was nervous,” Sophia said, “but Mr. O'Riley (show host and pianist Christopher O'Riley) and his people were professional and friendly, and they calmed my nerves.”

For three days, the musicians practiced their pieces and got to know each other. Their live performance was on Oct. 21, a Sunday. The next Monday was a day for leadership training, when the young artists learned music could make a difference, even in the collective life of their communities.

“It was a very great experience, an unexpected honor,” Sophia said.

“I was surprised to get it.”

Just a few years ago, when her friend started playing the harp, Sophia knew she had to learn that instrument, too.

“I fell in love with the harp. It's so majestic looking, and the sound is beautiful.

“And when I tried it out, I was even more in love with it.”

At age 9 or 10 and after learning to play piano, she knew she had found something special.

Sophia, a freshman at North Allegheny Intermediate High School in McCandless, plays the concert grand harp, all 6 feet and 80 pounds of it. Often, she and her sister, a pianist, and brother, a cellist, perform mini-concerts in their McCandless home.

With weekly lessons from Gretchen Van Hoesen, principal harpist for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; one or two hours of practice each day; and more time on the weekends, Sophia's skills continue to improve.

Now, with calloused finger tips from the blisters of years ago, she finds the long-ago pain of the process “a good motivation to keep practicing,” said Sophia, daughter of Grace and Joon Lee.

David Balsom, one of four “From the Top” producers, remembered the girl from a live audition that was held before an earlier show taping in Pittsburgh in February. When she reapplied six months later for the next taping in the region, Balsom said, the decision to include her was easy.

“We liked her,” he said. “It was a no-brainer for our team.”

“From the Top” does 20 live concerts a year for its broadcasts, and there is no shortage of young talent to fill the one-hour broadcasts, he said.

“I could get five shy 15-year-old violinists every week,” he said, “but we're looking for a unique repertoire or unique instruments.”

He lists the harp, French horn and classical guitar among them.

In his 12 years with the program, Balsom, of Boston, has seen and heard some of the very best.

“Chris O'Riley believes kids on our show are at the professional level of orchestra musicians of a decade ago,” Balsom said. “That's an extraordinary thing to say.”

He credits that level of talent to a network of private music teachers all over the country who build on the children's first exposure to music in the public schools.

“At 14, they're way more accomplished than I am, and I'm pushing 60,” said Balsom, who is pleased to have “From the Top” alumni now inside the professional musical world.

“The show is responsible for a whole generation of musicians.”

Sophia plans to listen to the upcoming broadcast.

“I was really nervous, and it was hard to concentrate on the other musicians. It was nice to see all the hard work come to something good.”

Of course, she'll set her ear to her own performance.

“It's nice to admire my work, but I'll listen for things to improve.”

Having selected the piece with Van Hoesen, Sophia and her teacher worked on the Tournier music for a year.

While the teen is uncertain whether classics and the harp will take her into a career, she knows without a doubt: “Harp will be a part of my life for the rest of my life.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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