Principal Harpist Susan Robinson discusses her chamber group: IBIS

What is IBIS, and when was it founded?

My husband Joe and I lived in Florida before moving to DC: Joe was the concertmaster of both the Florida Symphony in Orlando, and then Tampa’s Florida Orchestra. So IBIS’s first incarnation was in Florida—thus its name.  We wanted something that reflected its Florida roots, and the aspects of Florida that we really loved, like the fact that I had egrets on my front lawn eating lizards out of the shrubbery!  But IBIS never really got off the ground in Florida, since I ended up getting the Opera House job and moving to DC during our first season.

What made you decide to start a chamber series? 

Well, Joe and I of course did some playing together, as most married couples do, and we were always digging around for repertoire since there isn’t tons of stuff for harp. At a certain point we realized that with the addition of just a few other instruments we’d have lots of flexibility.  So originally we were a quintet for harp, flute and string trio. There’s actually quite a bit of rep for that ensemble, and all its subsets, and Joe has done a lot of great arrangements for us. Once we started, there was so much enthusiasm from our colleagues that it was clear that we’d have to have a series!

Who is in the group? 

We’ve added a second violinist, and a pianist now, and also frequently use both soprano and clarinet. We’ve got a flexible roster, with a core of regular players and then we use other instruments as the mood strikes us. Adria Foster, the KCOHO’s principal flutist, has been with us from the beginning, clarinetist Ashley Booher has been a guest, and we’ve used many other players from the KCO and NSO, like Adria’s husband Dan Foster, principal violist of the NSO. It’s a very convivial group!  We rehearse at our home, where we’re sure to provide coffee and snacks! Sometimes we program something for a certain instrument just so we can play with a friend, and we build a program around their participation; sometimes, as in Ashley’s case, we bring someone in for one concert and then enjoy working with them so much that we make an effort to have them back.  In February she will be playing a great arrangement of Debussy’s Rhapsodie for Clarinet with us. 

What is it like playing with your husband? 

Ha ha! Good question! I’m embarrassed to say that there have been a few (not many!) bouts of bickering! But on the plus side, the more you play with anyone, and then better you know them, the easier and more intuitive your music making becomes. That goes for friends as well as spouses. So it’s a great asset really.

How many concerts do you give per year? 

Way more than we should! It’s a very active season, especially considering that I’ve got a job and a family. It’s grown for several reasons: one is that Joe and the string players understandably wants to do a lot of “meat and potatoes” kind of playing: Beethoven String Quartets, Brahms works for strings and piano, etc. And then we do several concerts with harp that feature more esoteric repertoire. Also, we now have two different concert series! Because I wasn’t busy enough! We do free community concerts in venues around Arlington, and have also started a house concert series, in private homes, where for a modest admission, guests get a really intimate experience and a nice reception and party. Those are very popular, and of course, generate some much needed revenue. So even though I may only be playing on a handful of these concerts, I am still working behind the scenes on every other aspect: website, publicity and emails, concert logistics, fund raising, grant writing, stamp licking…the list goes on!

How is playing chamber music different than playing in orchestra?

You might say the draw for many musicians is not to be subject to the tyranny of the conductor, if you like, but there’s more to it than that. There’s just a joy in this intimate collaboration that you don’t find in orchestra playing.  That said, the two are really complementary and playing so much chamber music has certainly informed and enhanced my work in the orchestra—I find I am very aware of what is going on around me and always striving to understand how my part works with everyone else’s.  Of course, another aspect for me and Joe is the autonomy to decide who we work with, and what music we program.  We do a lot of thematic programming—for instance we’ve had seasons devoted to women composers, to the links between music and literature, to music depicting the Four Elements—that is a really fun challenge for us to put together interesting programs.  And our performance style is quite informal, including a lot of talking about the repertoire we are playing, which our audience loves. I know many of our audience members personally by now, and that kind of connection enhances and personalizes the experience in a great way for everyone.

What are some unique aspects of playing chamber music with harp (versus string quartet or brass quintet?)

With harp, finding repertoire is always a challenge! So we do a lot of transcriptions, and as I’ve mentioned, Joe has done great arrangements of Gershwin, Ravel, John Williams, Delius and Barber, all of which have been useful additions to our repertoire.

Give us one fun fact about harp! 

Well—there are way more than one! The thing that seems to surprise most people is that the harp, though it stands about 6 feet tall, in fact weighs a lot less than I do—well under 100 pounds.  You could say it’s the super model of the musical instrument world! Also, many people don’t realize that I’ve got 7 foot pedals, and that they are NOT like piano pedals, but actually change the pitches of the strings and enable me to play accidentals (sharps and flats).  Also, my 47 stringed instrument has nearly the same range as the 88 key piano.  

Any unforeseen challenges in starting a series?

It’s a lot of work! There are so many aspects to it, from artistic to administrative, that even a very small ensemble like ours takes up a lot of my time during the season.  Also, even for a free concert series, which has drawn high praise from the press, audience development is always a big challenge, in fact, even more so now than it was back in the 90’s, when we didn’t have all the free outreach and advertising that email and the internet provide.  I think people are just very busy and they have so many options, including many that they can avail themselves of without ever leaving home!  One great draw for some of our local audiences is that they can walk to several of our concert venues.

Do you have advice for anyone who is interested in putting together their own concert or series?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

How do we get in touch with IBIS?

Anyone who is interested in learning more about our series is invited to email me at, or message me on Facebook, or go to our website ( and sign up for our mail list.  If you’d like a season brochure, send me a street address.