A ‘Spectacular’ New York Harpist Called Upon by the Music Industry’s Biggest Names

Principal harpist at the “Christmas Spectacular” Kirsten Agresta-Copely in an exclusive with Straus News talks about her first Grammy nomination, playing with both Beyoncé at the White House, and Lady Gaga at Lollapalooza and her “little Radio City family.

| 11 Dec 2023 | 12:28

Before she settles into her seat on stage at Radio City, Kirsten Agresta-Copely makes sure to visit one of the live animals that are part of the nativity scene at the “Christmas Spectacular.”

“My routine includes visiting the donkey every day,” she said. “His name is Henry and we go and have a little moment together. I feed him sugar cubes and carrots.”

This is the third year that Agresta-Copely is serving as the iconic holiday show’s principal harpist, and can play anywhere from nine to 14 shows per week.

A go-to harpist in the industry, she’s been called upon to play with Beyoncé for President Obama at the White House, for Tony Bennett at his 90th birthday celebration and alongside Lady Gaga at Lollapalooza. She’s also been featured on movie soundtracks and video games and has recorded on albums for artists like Kacey Musgraves and Kristin Chenoweth.

In November, she earned her first Grammy nomination for her album Aquamarine, a work that was inspired by her late mother and their trips to the ocean together.

The Michigan native moved to New York in 1996, and now lives in Bushwick with her musician husband, Marc Copely, who is currently playing in the Broadway musical “Shucked,” three harps and two pianos.

Tell us what the “Christmas Spectacular” is like. How many performances do you play a week?

That varies. It’s a split-chair position, so I share it with another harpist and we try to split down the middle. But as other opportunities rise during the holiday season, sometimes we need to sub it out. So I would say I can play anywhere from nine to 14 shows in a week. There’s 192, actually they just added a week, so that makes it closer to 200 shows. [The Christmas Spectacular, which was originally slated to close Jan. 1, has been extended to Jan. 4, MSG said.] So it is a grueling schedule, but it’s also one of the quintessential things to do in New York during the holiday season. It’s a lot of fun and I think one of the greatest things about it is the camaraderie that we have amongst the musicians because a lot of us are return musicians to the ‘Spectacular” and we have a lot of time together so we’ve bonded as a little Radio City family.

When did you start taking harp lessons?

I started playing the harp when I was 5 years old. My mom was a musician; she was not a harpist, but she was very interested in unusual instruments, and the harp was one of them. And she bought a small Troubadour harp, which is a smaller, more folk-type instrument, and at 5 years old, I just apparently was very interested in it and sat down and started playing it. And she found me a teacher locally in the Detroit area, who happened to be the principal harpist of the Detroit Symphony at the time, and that’s how I started.

At 14, you had already done a solo tour.

Yes, that was part of a tour that went through the British Isles and that was something that was really fun for me to do, especially at that age. But I did quite a bit as a solo artist with classical concerts. I performed three solo recitals at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall and a concerto debut in Isaac Stern Auditorium. I premiered a concerto at Lincoln Center about six years ago. So there have been a lot of amazing opportunities.

What does it feel like to be nominated for a Grammy? Tell us about the album and how it was inspired by your mom.

I’m absolutely over the moon. I’m so humbled and grateful that I have earned this wonderful honor. The album is really an homage to my late mother who passed away in January and our shared love of the ocean. One of the things that I really felt strongly about was shedding light on ocean conservation and the many moments that my mom and I shared walking on the beach together. My parents lived in Florida for many years when I moved to New York, so my trips down there were largely spent with my mother, walking on the shores of the west coast of Florida and blue spaces really around the world when we traveled. The music came out of two years of discovery as I was learning that she was slowly disappearing off this mortal coil. I feel like there’s a lot of hope, courage, fear, so many emotions that were wrapped up into the music.

Your husband is also a musician. How did you meet? He’s working on “Shucked” now, right?

He is, he’s guitar 2, banjo and mandolin. We were actually introduced through a mutual friend. We actually met right around this time, mid-December. He’s a multi-instrumentalist and was signed to RCA Records as a solo artist back in 2001. He’s since gone on to be an engineer, producer and musical director, wearing a lot of different hats.

Tell us about some of the notable names you’ve performed with and your fondest memories from those shows.

My fondest memory would definitely be playing with Beyoncé for President Obama at the White House. It was for the second state dinner back in 2010. It was honoring the Mexican president at the time, Felipe Calderón. My goodness, the memories of that are so vivid even now. Because it was honoring the Mexican president, the decorations hanging from the ceiling were silk monarch butterflies, long strands. They were so beautiful. And they gave us a strand to take home as a souvenir, and so I have it hanging in one of the rooms of the house, and it’s such a great memory. And the official press photo that was released by Pete Souza [the then-chief official White House photographer] was actually of me and Beyoncé, so that was pretty exciting.

You also performed with Jay-Z at Carnegie Hall.

I did a couple shows with Jay-Z. The first was at Radio City doing the 10th anniversary of Reasonable Doubt, so that was by far the more exciting of the experiences. The Carnegie Hall show was a benefit performance for his Shawn Carter Foundation. That was also really amazing and a strange juxtaposition of hip-hop music on stage at Carnegie Hall. But that Radio City concert was particularly special because it was honoring that first big album of his. We played, I think, two sold-out shows. It was extraordinary.

You also performed at “Tony Bennett Celebrates 90.”

That was also at Radio City. There’s a lot of tie-ins to Radio City. That was for his 90th birthday celebration, starring many different artists including Lady Gaga, k.d. lang, Stevie Wonder. It was a star-studded event.

I read that you’re the industry’s go-to harpist. Does that mean when they need a harpist, they call you?

Kind of. [Laughs] I’ve been very fortunate to be the person that’s been called for a lot of the backup positions with these artists and I’m happy to be that person because it’s a nice, different aspect to my career.

To learn more about Kirsten, visit www.kirstencopelymusic.com