Courtney Hershey Bress ’92 grew up surrounded by the enchanting music of the harp the way other kids listened to nursery rhymes or Raffi tunes. As a toddler, she would sit on the base of the 6-foot tall instrument as her mother, a professional who played at weddings and other events, plucked the strings.
Bress started playing the piano at age 6, and at 7, she announced that she wanted to be a harpist too. “I wanted to be just like my mom,” Bress said. Her parents bought her a 3-foot high harp with levers instead of pedals to change the pitch.
Bress not only became a professional like her mother, performing around the world, but she also won a coveted spot in the Colorado Symphony as principal harpist in 2001. Most major orchestras have only one harp, and so competition for that seat is fierce.
This May, Bress reached another milestone in her musical career when she played the world premiere of Grammy award-winning composer Michael Daugherty’s concerto, Harp of Ages, at Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver. Bress had asked Daugherty to write the composition for her, and he agreed to compose his one and only harp concerto.
Her fingers plucked and strummed the 47 strings as she showcased the range and beauty of the oldest known instrument. Alternating between Irish wedding music, Detroit blues and a funky movement inspired by Harpo Marx, she stretched the audience’s idea of what the harp can do. In one movement, she tapped the side of it as though it were a percussion instrument while plucking the strings with the other hand.
The performances on May 12-14 were even more special because she played her brand-new harp – a Lyon & Healy Style 3 Gold, one of only about 60 ever made in the world. The first time she strummed a chord on the rare instrument, it was as though a bolt of lightning struck her.
“It’s a piece of art. It’s the harp of my dreams."
It was a highlight of her career, playing a dream concerto on her dream instrument.
After all three performances, Bress received standing ovations. Among her fans in the audience was Stan Nevola, who retired this June as band teacher at the Senior School. He has remained a mentor and friend to his former student and one of her biggest supporters over the years. “I wouldn’t miss it,” he said of watching her play the world premiere. “I have many alumni who have gone on to careers in music or have gone on to do music on the side,” he said. “But nobody has reached the level that Courtney has.”
Even as a little girl, Bress was serious about the harp, studying under Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra principal harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen. (She said her mother, Suzanne Hershey, though an accomplished harpist herself, knew better than to teach her own daughter).
In middle school, though, her enthusiasm flagged as she realized how many hours of intense practice it would take to make it in the highly competitive world of music. At one point, she considered quitting.
But by high school, when she enrolled at Shady Side Academy, her musical ambition had returned. Her confidence grew as she began to win music competitions and played in the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra. She began to believe she could be a professional musician.
At Shady Side, she performed solos at school recitals and took music theory classes from Nevola. Bress had a rare combination of traits, Nevola recalled – social and well-liked but also driven and disciplined as a musician.
“Many musicians tend to be more ethereal, more romantic in their interpretations of music. And Courtney is more of a realist," he said.
"While she is incredibly expressive in her playing, her ability to be disciplined within the frame of being an artist is pretty unique.”
She decided to apply for conservatory, and her parents were nothing but supportive of her taking a stab at a career that can be crushingly competitive. “Some parents say, ‘Wait – you are going to get a music degree? What if you don’t succeed?’ My parents were never like that. They were very supportive.”
She studied with Kathleen Bride at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, earning a Bachelor of Music and the Performer’s Certificate. Though she knew the world of classical music was competitive, she didn’t realize just how hard it was to break in until she saw the scarce job listings that were posted rarely.
One week, there was only one posting on the job board. It was for a harp seat with the U.S. Army Field Band. Bress laughed, but her teacher overheard and stopped her. She encouraged her to go to the audition, insisting she had what it took to get the job. Joining a military band wasn’t the job she had envisioned after conservatory, but she took her teacher’s advice and won the seat.
One week after graduating from Eastman, Bress began basic training in Fort Jackson, S.C., for eight weeks, running and exercising in the summer heat. “I was in the best shape of my life. I gained 15 pounds of muscle.” After basic training, she traveled with the band to all 50 states, playing a concert grand pedal harp in many small towns. “It’s kind of a public relations band for the Army,” she said. “I have played in the best concert halls. I have played in cow barns.”
Though it wasn’t always glamorous, she called it a great first job that enabled her to push herself. “I became a soloist every year on tour. It made me a better player.” As Nevola put it, “She paid her dues.”
After three years traveling with the Army band, she decided to go to graduate school and aim for her ultimate goal – a job in a major orchestra, which is a challenge for any musician but especially a harpist. She received her Master of Music in orchestral studies at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, studying under Sarah Bullen.
Bress was already on the audition circuit, talented enough to be invited to try out for harp jobs that would occasionally open up at symphonies. She would always make it through the early rounds, held behind screens so the judges couldn’t prejudge who was playing. The process was nerve-wracking. “Auditions are cut-throat and awful for your ego,” she said. “You almost have to be perfect.”
When the audition opened up for the Colorado Symphony, she played perfectly – until she made a single mistake in the last round. She heard a laugh from the music director, who was standing behind a screen. After the audition, Bress asked the music director why she had found it funny. She answered, “Because you finally made a mistake – I had to know you were human.”
Even after more than 20 years with the Colorado Symphony, Bress is often the first one on stage before a concert. One of the occupational hazards of the harp is the time it takes to tune all 47 strings, a process she often continues during intermission. “There’s an old saying that a harpist spends half their life tuning their instrument and the other half of their life playing out of tune. I thought that was funny when I was younger, but now I disagree because I do play in tune.”
A harpist also manipulates the seven pedals that change notes from flat to sharp. “It’s very technical, and you’re moving constantly,” she said. She also teaches harp as an adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, an instructor for the Lamont Summer Academy and a lecturer at the University of Wyoming. She was the assistant professor at Colorado State University from 2016 to 2021. Her teaching style is both encouraging and demanding.
Because the harp is so different from other instruments, many composers don’t know how to write music for it, she said.
In fact, Bress was so frustrated with lackluster orchestra harp parts that she wrote a book, For Love of the Harp. In the book, she gives advice to young musicians and relates stories about her career, then provides a guide to arranging and composing music for the harp. “I think most composers would agree it’s the hardest instrument to compose for. Which is why I chose Michael Daugherty for this piece. He gets it.”
When she first joined the Colorado Symphony, she played an orchestral piece he had composed that included a beautiful passage for the harp. Why not commission a whole concerto, a rarity for a harp? When she approached him about it 10 years ago, Daugherty agreed. “Sure, I will write one harp concerto in my lifetime,” he told her.
So she approached the executives at the Colorado Symphony, who told her she could pursue it if she could find an outside donor to fund it. She found support from the Kenneth and Myra Monfort Charitable Foundation.
Bress made two trips to Ann Arbor, where Daugherty teaches at the University of Michigan, and they worked on the piece together,
becoming good friends in the process. “It’s all his piece, but I did a little bit of editing to make a few things more idiomatic.”
She was thrilled to work with him and play a composition that suited her so well. “I love Harp of Ages by Michael Daugherty, because it encompasses all the ways the harp can be played. Daugherty wrote gorgeous arpeggios to contemporary effects such as pedal slides and tapping on the body of the instrument. I love how every movement is different and demands the harpist to change gears and create something different as the piece progresses. I truly feel that the piece matches my own personality, from warm-hearted to flashy and energetic.”
The composer took a bow with her on stage afterwards. Reflecting on the experience, Daugherty said, “Working with Courtney over a period of a year on Harp of Ages for solo harp and orchestra was a joy! Her performance of this innovative and unique concerto with the Colorado Symphony was simply amazing and the audiences went wild every night.
“Courtney has the technique to play anything and her acute musical instincts communicate with the audience in a special way. Our collaboration was truly ‘one for the ages!’”