Orthodox harpist bringing God-given talent back to Bay Area

Julie Bunzel is not your typical Orthodox wife and mother, nor is she your typical Israeli. She’s a harpist in a country where that’s a rare commodity — in fact, when her instrument was damaged three years ago she had to send it to Chicago, where it took eight months to get it repaired and returned.

It happened during Israel’s International Harp Contest. With only six contestants left, Bunzel’s harp fell apart and she was forced to continue on an unfamiliar instrument. But luck was on her side, and she managed to win second place.

Now, reunited with her precious harp, Julie is pulling the strings of her career once again — and her next musical odyssey is to perform and teach at the American Harp Society’s National Conference from July 2-5 in San Francisco.

Bunzel is originally from Tiburon and attended the Bel Aire School. Her first instrument was the piano, which she started playing at the age of 3. “When I was 10 they brought a harpist to my school, and I fell in love with it at first strum,” she said.

She was competing nationally after playing for only one year. Bunzel studied the harp at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and later at the University of Michigan.

In her teenage years, she was principal harp with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, and also performed on Princess Cruises to Alaska with her mother, Elaine Lang Ockner, a concert pianist.

Now living in Israel, Bunzel is a frequent performer with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Her solo performances have included concertos by Israeli composer Ami Maayani as well as Debussy and Ravel.

She considers playing the harp a “God-given talent” and feels it is a special bond. She was encouraged by her rabbis not to give it up when she became religious — and today performs dressed in long sleeves, a high neckline and a well-coiffed wig.

At 37, the deft-fingered harpist is too “old” to compete, but there’s still much for her to contribute to the musical world. Her latest project is to transcribe and produce a disc of the piano music of 20th-century French composer Francis Poulenc. Her workshop at the conference will be on these transcriptions.

“The conference is not over Shabbat — I’m very lucky this time,” says Bunzel, who will be bringing her baby to San Francisco. She is leaving four children at home, and says her husband, a psychiatrist, is going to hold down the fort while she’s gone.

Bunzel gives private lessons, though the harp is not as popular in Israel as it was in King David’s time. “There aren’t enough harps in the country,” laments Bunzel.

At the conference, Bunzel will be performing her adaptation of Poulenc’s “Trio for Piano, Bassoon and Oboe.”

“I first heard the Trio about 16 years ago at the University of Michigan and fell in love with the piece,” Bunzel says. “I said, ‘Someday I’m going to play this,’ and now the day has come.”

Julie Bunzel will perform 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 3 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F. For more information, visit www.sfharp.org.