A self-defined risk-taker, harpist Jennifer Swartz is passionate about stretching the perceived boundaries of her instrument. For many people the harp evokes visions of heavenly angels, leprechauns and weddings — clearly a victim of its own reputation. It’s no wonder then, that Swartz is considered a pioneer in her field who is willing to take the harp beyond its polite boundaries. Her latest ATMA recording, The Garden of Peacocks, features music for two harps that ranges from Raga, a commissioned work by Caroline Lizotte inspired by Indian classical music, to tunes by Andy Creeggan of Barenaked Ladies fame and classic rocker Eric Clapton. Swartz made the recording during a snowstorm last December with fellow harpist and childhood friend Lori Gemmell.
Likewise, any preconceived ideas that harpists are low-key performers who wear long, flowing gowns are banished when one considers Swartz’s frenetic itinerary: she currently holds two of the most high-profile posts in Canada, as principal harp for the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, and head of the Harp Program at McGill University.
Jennifer Swartz’s early career path provides some inkling of her tremendous energy and talent. She began her harp lessons at age eight, and by age 11 had obtained a full scholarship to study with Judy Loman at the Royal Conservatory of Music. She graduated with a degree from the prestigious Curtis Institute, and while still a student at McGill University, won the position of principal harp with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, where she remained for a year before becoming principal harp of the OSM.
Swartz’s schedule includes many solo and chamber concerts, and when their schedules permit, she performs with her violinist brother Jonathan who teaches at Arizona State University. She also performs as part of The Four Seasons harp quartet together with Lori Gemmell, Caroline Lizotte and Caroline Léonardelli.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Swartz recently recorded three CDs in 12 months — not the kind of relaxed activity normally reserved for a sabbatical year! She has recorded six CDs for ATMA including Autour de la Harpe, which was named one of the Montreal Gazette’s Top Twenty Albums of 2006. Upcoming ATMA recordings include an all-Britten project with tenor Lawrence Wiliford.
As focused as she appears to be, there is a delightfully playful side to Jennifer Swartz when she admits that she loves to indulge in “completely amateur musical adventures” playing bluegrass and klezmer music on the violin with her partner, who plays mandolin. They share a house in Gatineau Park where she spends half her time, with the other half of her week being devoted to her activities in Montreal. They both enjoy participating in contact improv jam sessions — a kind of dance technique not unlike its musical cousin. Engaged to be married, Jennifer looks forward to a lifetime jam session with her partner and his two children.
By Luisa Trisi