Susann McDonald is enjoying a landmark year. This summer the USA International Harp Competition will hold its 10th contest. Since McDonald started it in 1989, the competition has grown into one of the world’s most prestigious for harpists. Shortly after that, the American Harp Society will honor McDonald with a tribute concert at its biennial conference in Atlanta. And last May, McDonald celebrated her 80th birthday, surrounded by her friends, colleagues, and students.
McDonald’s influence on the harp community in the United States in the last 60 years is unmatched. As Distinguished Professor of Harp at Indiana University (IU), McDonald heads the largest harp department in the country, drawing top students from around the world. Her USA Competition has launched the careers of some of the most talented harpists performing today. And her compositions and teaching method continue to guide each new generation of harpists. We asked McDonald’s current teaching assistant at IU, Natalie Hoffman, to sit down with her mentor to talk about her remarkable career.
Harp Column: This year marks the tenth anniversary of the USA International Harp Competition (USAIHC). You had an impressive 68 applicants, possibly the largest amount for any harp competition. What do you think is the big draw for the USA competition?
Susann McDonald: Well, I have thought about that a lot. I think it’s the repertoire. We usually try to have repertoire that harpists can really use in their performing careers and recitals, and also important repertoire that they should know. I think the Ginastera harp concerto was a big draw this competition. People really want to learn that concerto. We always try to have some of Renié’s music [Légende in this year’s competition]. We also try to include different schools of harp playing in the repertoire. So wherever one studied, whether in Asia or Europe or here, there will be pieces that they will know and might want to play. I like to be as fair as possible on repertoire—nothing extraordinary that requires you to jump through hoops. Not that it is easy by any means, but it’s challenging and hopefully develops their musicianship and their technique.
HC: I like that in the third stage, the competitors can choose their own repertoire because it shows so much insight into the artist.
SM: It is so important to allow a free choice, because otherwise, it seems unfair that they can’t use anything. This stage shows their personality and their musical taste.
HC: Twenty-seven years after the first USAIHC, how do you feel the competition compares to the vision you had when you started it a quarter century ago?
SM: That’s a good question. I feel like we have a lot more support coming from a good board of directors—people who have really devoted themselves to the harp competition, both financially and time-wise. We have a wonderful grant writer, Janet Smith, and that has really helped us tremendously. We have received major grants. That is one of the biggest things. And of course the constant support of Lyon & Healy.
HC: What was the impetus for starting the USA competition?