QSO principal harpist Jill Atkinson.
QSO principal harpist Jill Atkinson.

Veteran muso reflects on career high notes

WHEN Jill Atkinson's great-grandfather switched from "an instrument of the Devil" to "an instrument of God", little did he know of the lifelong effect this would have on his great-great-granddaughter.

"My great-grandfather was a Norwegian fiddler and played the violin for many years, until he started getting into religion and then decided that the violin was the instrument of the Devil,'' said Atkinson, Queensland Symphony Orchestra's principal harp player.

"He moved to New Zealand, as far away from Norway as possible, married and had four daughters. One was my grandmother. He bought not one but two harps because he thought they were the instruments of God. I thought he must have had a lot to atone for.''

Atkinson said her grandmother and a sister grew up playing the harp and kept the instruments tucked away until they died.

"My grandmother passed away when I was young and no one in the family wanted the harp. I didn't know what a harp was, but I said I would have it and Dad went over to New Zealand and brought it back for me."

The universe certainly had plans for Atkinson and that harp. She grew up in Bathurst in central NSW, and just as she received the harp from her grandmother, a Welsh harp teacher came to town.

"I learnt with her for a few years. Dad would bring her out to me or me to her one afternoon a week, which was a one-and-a-half-hour journey each way.

"Eventually, we moved to Adelaide and I learnt more from the orchestra there."

Atkinson played the piano during her school years and on completion was initially accepted into a music degree for her piano skills.

"I was in university for piano, then an outstanding harp teacher came out from England in my first year, so I swapped over to harp and never looked back.''

When Atkinson finished her degree, she started freelancing. She was asked to play for the Scottish Ballet in Perth, for the Nutcracker performance with world-famous English ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn as the soloist.

In 1974, at just 21, Atkinson accepted a job with the QSO and has been with the company ever since. At the time, she was the only harpist in Australia.

At 24, Atkinson was asked by famous American soprano Merlyn Horn to play a solo harp piece during her concert. It was a highlight of her career.