QSO Principal Harp Jill Atkinson Retires

The musician shares some of her fondest memories from her 47-year-long orchestral career

4 min read

Whether you’re a disciple of numerology or not, there’s no denying the numbers swirling around Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s (QSO) Principal Harp Jill Atkinson are remarkable.

QSO started in 1947, and Jill joined in 1974; meaning she has been Principal Harp for 47 years. A harp has 47 strings, seven pedals and takes four limbs to play. She will officially retire on the fourth of the seventh month, 2021. 

In the week leading up to her final concert, Jill took the time to talk to us about her impressive career, including those 47 years with our state Orchestra.

Jill Atkinson and cellist Julie Van Der Klei after a QSO education concert.

“I didn’t always want to play a harp the harp in fact found me, as did a teacher in the town in which I was living at the time. My first love has always been the instrument I started my musical adventures on – the piano, with its terrific repertoire.” 

One of the most ancient stringed instruments, the harp is shrouded in myth and majesty. Jill speaks affectionately about growing to appreciate the harp once she discovered how to use the instrument to communicate; as a mode of expression.

As Jill continues to talk about her instrument, it’s as if she’s talking about her best friend from her twentysomethings the type of friend you went through way too much with, and will be bonded to for life by so many unforgettable experiences.

“Although I find the harp very physical to play, it does reward you very well. It gives back in a very intimate way, almost at a soul level.”

Life in an orchestra lends itself to a vast career from massive symphonies in a concert hall, to intimate chamber recitals, to regional tours across Queensland on a train. 

“The harp in the orchestra has always been a source of great entertainment for me as well as a continual challenge. It adds to the ambient sound, enriching without necessarily always being heard,” Jill explains.

“It also has an important accompanying role with singers in opera particularly, as well as with any of the orchestral instruments during any concert. It features as a solo instrument at times; the various harp cadenzas are testament to this. I have been fortunate to also have been featured as a soloist with the Orchestra on many occasions, playing many harp concerti, [including] some world premieres.”

QSO Principal Harp Jill Atkinson

Jill recalls some of her favourite performance moments, most of which are in the pit, where the harp can really shine:

  • Playing a soloistic part for Richard Bonynge conducting Lucia di Lammermoor with Dame Joan Sutherland in the audience is high on the list
  • The Bolshoi Ballet with Pavel Sorikin conducting was a real high as he treated me like royalty [which] was hilarious but also humbling
  • Queensland Ballet under Francois Klaus with a new harp cadenza for Sleeping Beauty was a challenge as I had to write the part out from a recording, and it was a very interesting part to play
  • Opera Queensland’s Carmen with French conductor Emmanuel Joel-Hornak was memorable for his typically French attention to detail and fine regard for the harp
  • On stage in the Concert Hall, by far the most ecstatic audience reaction came in 2011 when QSO played Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique with another French Conductor, Guillaume Tourniaire. What an extraordinary musician he is, which was recognised by everyone in the audience they applauded for almost five minutes, which has to be a record, and yelled their bravos too!

QSO Principal Harp Jill Atkinson

Reminiscing about her most cherished memories at QPAC, Jill makes the point that many classical musicians have a wide-ranging appreciation of all musical genres.

“Increasingly over the years I have really enjoyed being in the audience for shows, particularly operas, and concerts that don’t have harp in them. I loved Opera Queensland’s Rigoletto, for the directing as much as the strong cast and excellent music. More recently I loved School of Rock! It was a wonderful production, and the standard of the many soloists under the age of 15 was astounding.”

So what does retirement feel and look like?

“I am ready to leave the Orchestra [as] I feel I have given it the best of my playing life, and have enjoyed the opportunity to be creative amongst a truckload of amazing artists over the years,” Jill says.

“Now I am being required more in a teaching capacity, and am fortunate to have students at a high level of their playing that I can help further their development. I am enjoying being useful on a personal level that is unlike anything I can experience in a large group environment. So thanks QSO for all the years of learning and QPAC for wonderful performance venues and a lot of wonderful memories.”

Bravo, Jill! Thank you for the music. 

QPAC NOW

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