For the past 76 seasons, the principal harp chair in the Cleveland Orchestra has been occupied by only two musicians: Wellbaum and her teacher Alice Chalifoux. Chalifoux, who turns 100 in January, was principal harp from 1931-74; according to the Plain Dealer she was known for her "tart tongue and rock-solid, luminous artistry."
Wellbaum reportedly only auditioned for the Cleveland Orchestra "to get them off my back." It was only thanks to Chalifoux that she got that far in the first place. According to the Plain Dealer, Chalifoux convinced the then-15-year-old Wellbaum not to drop the instrument.
Their relationship continued at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where Chalifoux taught for six decades. "Studying with her was an adventure, because you never knew what was going to come out of her mouth," Wellbaum told the paper.
Wellbaum's father was longtime piccoloist and personnel manager of the Cincinnati Symphony; her mother played second harp in that orchestra. Lisa Wellbaum was principal harp in the New Orleans Symphony (now the Louisiana Philharmonic) in 1973 when she was invited to audition for the Cleveland Orchestra. Then-music director Lorin Maazel reportedly asked her to play 45 minutes of harp excerpts and then to sight-read, unusual for harp auditions as harpists have to write in the pedals and mark in fingerings.
But she got the job and joined in fall of 1974. During her 33 years as principal harp, Wellbaum has played under hundreds of conductors. She told the Plain Dealer that one of the highlights of her career was the 1995 Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony led by Robert Shaw.
Wellbaum was soloist with the orchestra many times; under Christoph von Dohnšnyi she recorded Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp with principal flutist Joshua Smith for Decca.