SHE’S WELL KNOWN among music circles as a go-to classical harpist who prefers to read her part or play it from memory. But don’t assume that she doesn’t like to improvise. These seeming contradictions are only some in the multi-faceted life of Jennifer Cass. She regularly appears with her pedal harp in concert with local music groups like Ensemble Monterey and the Santa Cruz Chamber Players, in recital programs, with symphony and theater orchestras. She performs regularly on UC Santa Cruz faculty recitals. (This Sunday afternoon she’ll join other harpists during the Santa Cruz Harp Festival at Resurrection Catholic Church in Aptos, a benefit for the Community Music School.)
Having grown up in San Fernando Valley, Cass was driven by her keen interest in the sciences to enroll at UC San Diego where she planned to study biophysics. “But I switched to a math/music double major when harp lessons became available.” As a piano student at an earlier age, “I remember playing piano reductions of things like Haydn symphonies with my mother.” Music, she told me, was a big love among her parents and siblings. “I had considered a career as a pianist, and even as a conductor. I can’t remember a particular inspiration that made me fall in love with the harp.”
She went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Harp Performance at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, then a Master’s degree in math at UC Santa Cruz where, in 1992, she won a concerto competition. In that same year, she joined the math faculty at Cabrillo College and currently serves as the department chair. “I didn’t pursue a PhD because what I really love [about math] is teaching it, more than the theoretical.”
Teaching math and playing and teaching harp—“students from eight to 91”—take up the bulk of her time. If those things were all she did, Cass would be only half the person she is. Deeply thoughtful, she has confronted many of life’s adult challenges as a search for what is true. Buddhist thought has proven to be an important guide. “To be more self-confident I’ve explored various different pathways.” As a teacher, as in life, she feels an abiding need to help others become successful in their endeavors.
Until one plays an instrument sufficiently well he or she will never fathom all its inherent quirks and oddities. As a writer for Metro San Jose over several years I once heard a Chinese harp at a San Jose Chamber Orchestra concert. To my surprise, the player demonstrated vibrato on nearly every sustained note. (After the concert, the harpist showed me that the strings, attached at the top, then cross under the bottom and back up to another attachment at the top. This allowed her to pluck the string on one side while pushing in and out on its other-side extension.) Cass told me that the pedal harp, whose strings follow a one-way course, can achieve vibrato through the skillful manipulation of the pedals. She cited a Debussy trio, which was composed for the purpose of showing off the chromatic harp at the turn of the 20th century, but admits the technique is rarely otherwise called for.
Meanwhile, some of her favorite harp composers were themselves virtuosos of the instrument, in particular Carlos Salzedo, whose Scintillation is a popular encore, and Marcel Grandjany, both of the same generation and whose students figured prominently among her teachers. She also loves the harp music of their contemporary Marcel Tournier, American composers Lou Harrison and Alan Hovhaness and the arrangements by hotel lounge harpist and “harp therapist” Ray Pool. She has written out her own arrangements, mostly for weddings and private events. She warns “I have to play or I get grumpy.”
But her improvising takes an entirely different tack into the often zany world of ensemble comedy, such as can be witnessed this Saturday in a Fun Institute “Soup du Jour” performance at the Broadway Playhouse in Santa Cruz. “Improvising has changed me as a human being, made me happier and be able to roll with what life throws at you. I think of myself as a work in progress.”
And another passion is West Coast Swing, not for the harp but for dancing. Ask her about the Sugar Push.
Portrait photo by Bernadette Wilson