Many people envision harp players living in the clouds, descending down to Earth to take their place onstage for a concert, bringing some of the celestial sound with them, through their instruments. But harpists are actually real human beings, like Maria Casale, Principal Harp of the California Philharmonic. Maria laughs, recounting a concert once, where there were so many players with not enough space onstage, that the conductor was at a loss for where to fit her. He said to Maria, “I don’t know where to put you, I guess we’ll have to put you up on a cloud.” Harps are in a class of their own, not really part of any section of the orchestra and usually take up the space of two seated instrumentalists. Musically as well, they don’t fit with any category, as they don’t bow, like the strings, or blow like brass and woodwinds, and don’t exactly beat like the percussion, but rather pluck and create the heavenly glissandos so characteristic of the harp. Though harps can be traced back to antiquity, the modern concert pedal harp used in the orchestra today dates back only to the 1840s. Legend has it that the harp evolved out of the bow and arrow, created by master archers.
It is always intriguing to find out how a person starts on such a unique instrument. Maria Casale was born in Los Angeles to artistic parents, who had met in Drama School. While her father was attending UCLA as a theater major, the LA Riots of the 1960s broke out, and the family chose to move close to Maria’s mother’s sister up in Oregon. One of 4 children, Maria grew up in an artistic Italian Catholic household, with her mother running a ballet school, and all the children playing music and taking dance. It was at the Catholic girls’ school across the river, when she was 3 years old, that Maria first saw and heard a harp. She peaked into a room where, a young lady named Jennifer Craig was taking a lesson with one of the nuns, Sister Emerentia. “I was mesmerized,” Maria declares. She begged for lessons, and was told she had to first play piano, which she started at age 5. Fortunately, a year and an eternity later, she got her harp lessons. (Coincidentally, Jennifer Craig now serves as principal harp of the Oregon symphony and Maria has subbed for her). One might wonder how a 6 year old could manage such an instrument. Maria explained that there are 3 sizes of the pedal harp; petite, semi-grand and concert-grand.
Portland can boast of having one of the oldest youth orchestras in the nation, the Portland Junior Symphony, and at age 13, Maria auditioned and won the position of harpist. She also gigged around town, playing for high school musicals that needed harp, taking master classes, honing her skills and making money. As the harp is such a large instrument, in high school, she played flute and piccolo in the marching band, choosing the smallest instruments. In fact, the piccolo is so small, it was easy for her to forget it, much like a wallet. She graduated from high school a year early and headed to Juilliard where she studied with Susann McDonald, whom she already had taken Master classes with back in Oregon. Not only did she earn her Bachelor’s and Master’s at Juilliard but she met her future husband, bass player Chris Henulike as well. Mr. Henulike won the position of principal bass of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Maria moved out to LA to begin her career as an award-winning concert harpist. She is a gold-medal winner of the first USA International Harp Competition, and has toured throughout the world including Japan, Europe, Israel, Mexico and the United States. She was even performing in Mexico while she was pregnant, but chose to take a break from the jet-setting lifestyle and work locally while raising her 2 kids with husband Chris. At present, her daughter Isabella, a talented dancer, is in Medical School, and her son Nick works as an EMT while playing in a garage band.
Ms. Casale has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Oregon Symphony, Santa Barbara Symphony, San Diego Symphony, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Los Angeles Opera, Long Beach Symphony, and San Louis Obispo Mozart Festival, as well the Israel Philharmonic, and Orchestra Sinfonica National, on the International scene. As everyone is enchanted by the sound of the harp, Maria has also graced the pop world with her celestial instrument performing with such celebrities as Stevie Wonder, Josh Groban, Barry Manilow, Andrea Bocelli, Christina Aguilera and Sarah McLachlan.
Maria Casale was recommended to the California Philharmonic in the orchestra’s early days, back at the Arboreteum, performing as a soloist with Principal Flute, Jamie Pedrini on the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto. “What’s great about Victor,” she says of the Maestro, “is that he uses members of the orchestra as soloists.” She also appreciates the diverse audiences who attend Cal Phil concerts, and the “phenomenal pairings” Dr. Vener produces, such as Puccini and Phantom of the Opera in one concert. “It’s like chocolate and peanut butter,” she muses. “Why didn’t anyone else come up with that?” And like so many other musicians in the orchestra, she values Victor’s fun, informative talks, the mutual respect and the social atmosphere of the orchestra which is actually somewhat unique to the California Philharmonic.
As if all this isn’t a full enough schedule, Ms. Casale is Professor of Harp at Pepperdine University and California State University, Northridge, and teaches privately. She also is involved in rescue animal work, fostering dogs, even having had 7 dogs in their home at one point. Though the terrestrial planes occupy most of her time, Maria Casale still brings a heavenly touch of the clouds down to Earth, by strumming her harp with the California Philharmonic.