Born: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Education: Masters degree at Basel Music Academy
Profession: Harpist in the Colón Theatre orchestra
Just read: A Multitude of Sins
Just seen: The Apartment
Gadget: My Jambox
While living in Santiago de Chile, harpist Sarah Stern visited Argentina briefly, not knowing that a job at the Colón Theatre would bring her back for a permanent move a few months later.
Sarah says: “I was doing my second master’s degree studying baroque music in Switzerland and had lived there for five years. Then I heard about an opportunity in Chile and that has been my whole dream in life – to land a job with an orchestra.
“At any one time, there might be three or four jobs in the world so very few people can make their dream come true. So many cohorts from college play on cruise ships or now have children and have given up. In the US, for example, you don’t have to retire so people stay until they are practically dead in the same orchestra and their skills get sour. But here, musicians have to retire at a certain age so there are possibilities.”
“The first time I visited Buenos Aires was abstract as I wasn’t trying to visualize myself living here. But the wine, the tango and the beef were all very seductive. I lived in Chile for a year, which reminds me of a US suburb. It felt very orderly and comfortable – it didn’t have the same excitement – so although Argentina is wild and hectic, I feel more exhilarated here.”
The big audition
As her contract in Santiago reached its conclusion, Sarah set about looking for work. “I wrote to all the conductors in the world – there are about 80 – then heard about the job at the Colón from a friend; word of mouth is usually how it works although there’s a website called Musical Chairs that tells you about available positions. However, a lot of South American orchestras are banned from it for being a bit corrupt or striking… Then Freddy said the Colón would be looking for a harpist in about a month – and that was in 2012.
“My audition was insane. In the US and Europe there are curtains so judges can’t tell ethnicity or gender – they can’t even hear shoes to tell if it’s a man or a woman wearing heels. But here, I had to play in front of 15 jury members who basically said ‘announce your name, we’re video-taping you, now go’. It was so public!”
The application system for the opera house is weighed against foreigners applying for positions, says Sarah, who had to undertake various tasks in order to simply apply.
She says: “You need to have an address in Argentina and as my dad is a professor, he fortunately had some colleagues from UBA – they lent me theirs and hand-delivered my application otherwise I would not have had a chance. They don’t make it easy. So much paperwork!
“I met some of the tour guides, and told them I was getting ready for the audition. They were so sweet and one said ‘wow, what a lifetime opportunity! Just think of it as a big sparkly garage, and have fun because you can’t play there every day.’ It was intense, especially as I was made to listen to my competitor before I went on, which is unheard of. I mean, drop me in a pot of boiling water and watch me boil! But I stayed calm and used it to my advantage.”
“There were lots of rounds. Day one was in the basement of the Colón, which is like an airport that extends under the 9 de Julio Avenue. It’s gigantic. The first day was in this labyrinth in a scuffed-up ballet studio which isn’t so impressive, then the second day I played with the whole orchestra in the theatre.
“I came in knowing no one and nothing, which was perhaps easier as I had nothing at stake. The jury was four hours late, but I decided in the beginning that if I embraced chaos, that would be my motto. Otherwise I’d go crazy!
“It took me so long not to get lost inside but now I feel like a small piece of the puzzle. And I’m so thankful they picked me! The Colón is just marvellous; the acoustics, the horseshoe shape – it’s very comforting and I felt that I was touching the sky. It’s visually so inspiring.”
A needy instrument
Given that she plays an unusual instrument, Sarah has difficulties in providing for her harp’s needs. “My harp is six feet tall so I hire a van every time I play somewhere different. I have a reliable guy but sometimes he brings his open-air truck with just a rope, and I’m ready to have a heart attack. Then I ask myself ‘why don’t I play something smaller like the piccolo?’ This instrument is such a monstrosity. I go to these gigs but of course it isn’t a museum – it’s meant to be played, but it’s not easy.
“I have to buy extra strings and springs in the US because I can’t get them here. When I auditioned for the Colón, I had to rent a harp to practise on. Harps are colour-co-ordinated in red and black but the red was really faded, even though it’s paramount to gauging the spacing. It was daunting to know I’d have to adjust! That said, I treat auditioning like a sport – you have to be an athlete and be very strategic, and you’re not there to make friends, unfortunately. If you’re tired or cold or mad, it doesn’t matter – after months of preparation, you have to be ‘on’ for those five minutes.”
Sarah has made it her business to get to know everyone who works at the Colón. “I’m friends with the security men, and the people in archives and photocopy room. They are all a team. And it takes two to tango so with the orchestra I’ve tried to reach out – although we are grouped into wind or brass sections, each has their own personality traits – for example, the horn players are rowdy and drink a lot of beer. They invited me out to eat locro in my first month. The strings players are more relaxed and a lot of them play tango – they are super versatile.”
Music for the soul
Besides playing at the Colón as well as the Coliseo and Avenida theatres, Sarah brings music to other people besides opera or ballet lovers.
She says: “I’ve played in hospitals, jazz clubs and prisons. There’s a group called Música para el alma and once a month, we go out into the community. Once, we went to the women’s prison near Ezeiza. The women were wandering around, smoking and eating, doing everything opposite to a traditional concert, but by the end they were clapping along and singing. It was so moving. I do remember that the bathroom was terrifying, though…”
After living in San Telmo in the early days in order to embrace the arts scene there, a robbery at gunpoint in her apartment led her to move to a safer area. “I’d never met a gun before and I was so shocked so I decided to get out of that neighbourhood – even though I liked San Telmo, it didn’t like me! So I went to Recoleta and although there’s not much onda, it’s close to work and historical. I feel very calm there.”
Her work has has also taken her to others parts of Argentina. “I’ve been to Santiago del Estero, which was unimpressive visually but the people were very receptive. And at an outdoor event in Ushuaia, it was snowing and the stage was sopping wet. The oboes refused to play. I also begged to be excused but they were pretty insistent. My harp lived in a tent overnight, which was a bit scary, but it all worked out and I went to the end of the world – and my harp did too!”