September 25, 2014

RPO Principal Harpist Grace Wong's musical journey

In August, Brighton Connections magazine highlighted Brighton resident and RPO Principal Harpist Grace Wong in a feature article. For the blog this week, we transcribed the article into a digital format. Special thanks to writer Terry Medina for such a wonderful profile of an outstanding musician (and neighbor) in our community. For more on Grace Wong, visit the web!

Brighton's Grace Wong is on a musical journey

By Terry Medina

It's a neat thing to discover the talents and professions of the neighbors that live and work around
Screenshot of article
you. There are doctors, lawyers, baristas and booksellers. There are homemakers, educators, artists and a host of other skilled residents in this community. One such woman is longtime Brighton resident Grace Wong, a professional harpist who has played with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra since 1979.

Music has always been a major part of Wong's life since her childhood in New York City. While her father knew many musicians, her uncle opened the door to the world of classical music through a connection with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

"Our families often had dinner and social gatherings together so I got to know Yo-Yo Ma," said Wong, whose uncle helped the cellist's family settle in the United States.

When Wong was a student at the High School of Music and Art in New York City, she entered as a pianist, but was assigned the cello.

"You had to pick an orchestral program, and I was assigned the cello," recalled Wong. "Having heard Yo-Yo, I thought, there was no way I could start this instrument! I asked the director if there was any room in the harp class. If I wanted to do music professionally, I knew it would have to be the harp."

Her loyalty to the harp has turned out to be a wise decision for Wong, who has been able to travel, teach and earn recognition over the years -- all opportunities she may not have gotten should she have chosen to master a different instrument.

Wong earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at Oberlin Conservatory and Manhattan School of Music, respectively. She has appeared as a soloist, including a debut recital at Carnegie Recital Hall, and has performed throughout the United States, toured Canada and the Far East and has given a series of recitals in South America. She currently serves on the faculty of Hochstein School of Music and Dance and maintains a private studio.

Practice, something that one never outgrows, according to Wong, began at an early age, with lessons costing 50 cents a pop. Later, her father was able to save enough money to buy her a harp of her own.

"I was taking lessons, getting better and really enjoyed playing," she said. "Having family members who appreciated music, many of whom also played instruments, really lent itself to my continued learning."

ln 1979, Wong took a position with the RPO and has been with the orchestra ever since. She married the late writer Richard Henshaw, and the two lived together in the City of Rochester. Wanting a bigger place to grow their family, the two moved to Brighton in 1991 as Henshaw had family in
the area.

The location gave Henshaw, author of The World Encyclopedia of Soccer, the room he needed to write. It also allowed Wong to stay close to the city and not have to travel too far for work with the RPO.

Wong said when she first moved to western New York - specifically the Brighton area - she was a bit shell-shocked. Used to living in much larger New York City, she was surprised to see all the farms, especially cows. She recalled that many of the plazas in Brighton weren't there when she first moved to Rochester. "It was all farmland; so much has changed" she said.

Wong compares playing an instrument to the professional athletes on the soccer/football fields that her late husband wrote about. She said she practices at home and during rehearsals, but the payoff comes during performances.

"Like a pro sport, the work is more than what you see on the field, " she said. "On the stage you are expected to get it right every time. It can be very intense, but very rewarding."

It is the reward of finding joy in the performances - at least two a week, sometimes more - that have kept Wong behind the harp for nearly 50 years.

"It's a privilege to be working with these amazing musicians. The camaraderie and the family atmosphere, it's just very congenial. It's a great orchestra to be working with. You just can't find a more qualified orchestra. They are amazing artists."

Wong feels that playing the harp is an art form and it's one she is honored to have learned.

"I've worked with some incredible people over the years, " said Wong, who even had the opportunity to play with an old friend from her youth,Yo-Yo Ma.

"One aspect about living and working in the Rochester area is how easy it is to commute to work, and how accessible Brighton is," she said. Wong credits Brighton with being a terrific place to raise a family. Her son Sebastian graduated from Brighton High School in 2004 and now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a career in music. He is a Foley artist, a sound engineer who focuses on post-production sound for movies. She often visits him and remaining family members in New York City.

When she is not busy teaching and performing, Wong enjoys knitting scarves and sweaters. "It can get compulsive and it's hard to put down," she laughed.

It's possible that the same thing can be said about playing the harp. Wong said she is having the time of her life performing with the RPO and has no plans of retiring any time soon.

"From a certain standpoint, there are benefits and job security, but you have to keep your skills up and you're being reviewed and judged every time you play, if not by conductors, then by yourself and your colleagues, even your audience," said Wong. "You never want to let anyone down. It's intense and gratifying, being a part of a wall of sound being produced on stage. There are times when I am simply blown away by our performances. That's what keeps me doing this. There are peaks and valleys, but I wouldn't change it for the world."

Brighton Connections Magazine
Colleen Farley, Publisher
Terri Reid Medina, Editor / Content Coordinator

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