Lori Pappajohn says Christmas is all about memories. And her memories stretch back all the way to the middle ages.
Pappajohn is the director of Winter Harp, and ensemble of musicians who for 24 years have been performing Christmas carols using medieval instruments and arrangements. Pappajohn herself plays the harp.
“The harp is one of the oldest instruments and when you pluck a harp string, that sound that you hear is exactly what you would have heard 4,000 years ago,” she said.
“When you hear a harp, you’re hearing a very ancient sound and then we combine that with flute, which is another old sound, and percussion, which is the oldest instrument. That really takes us back and we have memories, we have inherited memories that are in there, of those sounds.”
The other members of Winter Harp — Jeff Pelletier, Bruce Henczel, Lauri Lyster, Krista Gibbard, Lani Krantz, Adam Henderson and Amy Stephen — play familiar instruments like the violin, cello and piccolo, as well as ancient, unpronounceable devices like the psaltery, organistrum and nyckelharpa.
“So you’re hearing some very old sounds that you’re not going to hear, A: on the radio, B: anywhere else. And it’s all beautiful,” Pappajohn said.
Winter Harp is performing a pair of shows at the Port Theatre on Dec. 9. Aside from playing well-known traditionals, Pappajohn said she looks for more obscure, “lost carols,” to incorporate into the set. Along with the period music, the performers are all dressed in medieval apparel and are surrounded by candles while standing before backdrops of castles and cathedrals.
It wasn’t always that elaborate. Pappajohn and Winter Harp artistic consultant Alan Woodland conceived of the show around 30 years ago as a reading of the Dylan Thomas poem A Child’s Christmas in Wales with flute and hap accompaniment.
“It was such a success that we kept doing it and adding more concerts and suddenly we said, ‘Hey, we need a name,’ and so Winter Harp was its name,” she said.
“And each year we’d do a concert, it would sell out so we’d add another one, it would sell out and it just kept going.”
Pappajohn said she and Woodland had no idea where their Winter Harp project would lead them. They were just following their shared passion.
“We were just doing it because we love it. He’s a writer, he would write the poems and the stories, I’m the composer-arranger, and we just did it out of our absolute passion for Christmas and winter,” she said.
“We could talk for hours about the darkness of the year and how that was for ancient cultures and how important the return of the sun was so him and I, we would just philosophize about it for hours, literally, because we just love it.”
WHAT’S ON … Winter Harp performs twice at the Port Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 9 at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $42 for adults, $38 for members and $12.50 for youth and students. $5 eyeGO tickets are available for high school students.