—by Caroline Lizotte
In 1990, the National Youth Orchestra of Canada selected two harpists for its summer session: Jennifer Swartz from Toronto and me from Quebec City. This was my first meeting with Jennifer. At the time, I had never spoken a word of English, and Jennifer had not spoken a word of French. In spite of that language barrier, the friendship between us began instantly and is still going strong 27 years later.
In 1994, Jennifer won the principal harp position with one of the most prestigious orchestras in North America—the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM). Over the last two decades, she has crafted a brilliant career as an orchestral harpist, soloist, chamber musician, and teacher. She is harp professor at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University, and her albums, recorded mainly by Atma Classique, reflect her best qualities as an artist and as a human being: supple, free, and limpid.
Under Jennifer’s fingers, any work becomes a gem. Her touch on the harp is exceptional, colorful, and has a rare sensitivity. For her, the harp is a way of being, a way of speaking. It is an immense honor for me to work with her as a second harpist at the OSM, as a member of the Four Seasons Harp Quartet, and also to collaborate with her as a composer.
Today, Jennifer speaks French Canadian fluently, and I speak fluently some sort of English. We have played almost the entire orchestra repertoire for two harps, and we have a lot of fun together. Amid our busy orchestral schedule this spring, we sat down for a conversation that I hope will let the harp world know this amazing artist as I do.
Harp Column: Could you tell us about your musical upbringing—both your teachers and your musical family—and how that shaped you?
Jennifer Swartz: I grew up in quite a musical family. I started playing music very young with parents who were quite encouraging of us exploring classical music. I guess having that around all the time just became part of my normal existence. When I was 8, I went away to an arts and music camp, Interlochen, which many of the readers may know about, in Michigan. It was there that I took a beginning harp class with Joan Holland. Joan was my first exposure to harp and to harp pedagogy, I would say. Even though I was a little girl, I really felt like Joan showed me how important the relationship between teacher and student is. She took me under her wing and treated me like her own daughter, like part of her own family. That continued as I came back and my mum was trying to find someone who would teach harp to me at that age. [My mother] reached out to the only person she could think of, which was the principal harpist of the Toronto Symphony at the time, Judy Loman. Judy never really took little kids to teach, but she had a student of hers that she liked to give students to—Maureen McKay. So I started with [McKay] at that point. But Judy was always in the background; she was always keeping an eye out. I would go and have lessons with her once a year for the first couple of years. Again, that idea of being part of something that was connected—the harp community—and to be brought in as part of that family was continued as Judy took me on as her own student. I was still young—I was only 10—and basically grew up with her. To answer your question as to how that shaped me, I think it profoundly shaped me to see music in a much bigger way—more than as an activity or a skill, but as a way of life. I saw learning music as a life philosophy, and being part of not just one but many different families and many different approaches.
HC: When you were young, is it true you learned to play the pedal harp with pedal extenders?