BY KENDYL HOLLINGSWORTH
For Opelika native Margaret Anne Gunter, music is much more than a hobby. It’s a way of life.
“I just enjoy living and breathing music,” she said.
The young harpist recently returned from her first Sewanee Summer Music Festival experience, a four-week endeavor that entailed opportunities to hone her skills with other musicians. Despite being a first-timer at the festival, she also made it through a pre-screening and two judged performances to be declared a winner of the Jacqueline Avent Concerto Competition. Of more than 50 musicians to make it through the pre-screening, only six were declared winners after the final round.
As a winner, Gunter performed “Concertstück” by Gabriel Piernè with an orchestra behind her during the last week of the festival.
“I was really honored,” she said. “After I performed in the final round, I got to watch most of the other participants … and I was just honored to be sharing the stage with them. I never expected to move on to become a winner, but it was really, really humbling and really fulfilling.”
According to Gunter, the backing orchestra comprised festival faculty and some students from the University of Sewanee.
“It’s just — there’s nothing like sitting up there and hearing the orchestra behind you playing your piece,” she said. “And especially, the orchestra we got to play our concerti with … it’s the most incredible group of musicians that I’ve ever gotten to play with, and it was a really, really special performance.”
Gunter’s interest in the harp began just over a decade ago when she began taking piano lessons from Donna Kemp. She was 8 years old at the time and said she remembers being intrigued by Kemp’s harp in another room.
“I would be sitting at the piano taking piano lessons, and I would see the harp in the other room, and I just thought it looked really cool,” Gunter recalled. “I had never heard anyone play the harp that I could remember, but I just saw the instrument in the other room and thought it was really cool.”
It took a couple years to convince her parents to buy her one of her own, but by the time she was 11, Gunter was hooked on the harp.
Now 19 years old, Gunter just completed her freshman year at the University of North Texas. UNT is known for its well-respected College of Music — the nation’s largest public university music program. As a student in harp performance, Gunter is part of a harp studio with access to accomplished professors, mentors and a network of other talented young musicians.
“What’s really neat is that of the six of us (winners), three of us were from North Texas,” she said. “It was really neat, and I hadn’t met any of the other people from UNT before because it’s such a big music school, but it was cool to connect at the festival.”
Gunter said the festival was “very intense, but really fulfilling.” She and the other attending musicians were able to work and perform with orchestra musicians, composers and conductors. Gunter recalled being constantly challenged and “pushed really hard to do things that you didn’t think were possible.” The result, however, was a wealth of knowledge and experiences under her belt she can build on as she continues her musical journey.
“It is a great joy as a parent to see Margaret Anne’s success and watch her hard work pay off,” said her mother, Julia Gunter. “The concerto performance was amazing, and we are so proud of her.”
Winners of the concerto competition earn a scholarship to return to the festival the following year, which Gunter said she plans to do. But she will remain open to other opportunities, too.
One of her biggest aspirations is to be a harpist in one of the U.S. Armed Forces bands, something she was alerted to through a mentor who played French horn in “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band for more than 30 years. While she plans to continue in her studies, Gunter said she will also take advantage of any rare opportunities to audition for orchestras or military bands.
For now, Gunter said she is grateful for her experience at the Sewanee Summer Music Festival.
“It was a dream come true, and I’m really thankful that I got that experience, and it’s something that I’ll definitely carry with me and continue to learn from,” she said. “Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity again to perform with orchestra someday, so I’m just thankful that I had that opportunity.”