Some are born to music. Others take a more circuitous route. Jason Harris was one of those slow starters, but when he arrived on the musical scene he landed dramatically.
The newly appointed director of choral activities at Xavier University didn’t begin his musical studies until midway through his time at a community college in California. Now, at age 40, he boasts two Grammy awards and is a sought-after singer, conductor and composer.
“We didn’t listen to classical music in my household,” said Harris, who grew up in Bakersfield. “My father raised me on the Beatles, and in high school I played sports and listened to mostly hip-hop.”
As a senior, he joined the high school choir on a whim and continued in college.
A lackluster student, he said he had no guidance or focus, not knowing what he wanted to do with his life.
“It didn’t occur to me until the summer after my second year that I could major in music,” he said.
At 20, Harris began teaching himself piano, and he enrolled in introductory music history and theory courses. “I couldn’t tell you specifically why I chose to pursue music as a profession. I just knew I was very good at it.”
He transferred to Chapman University in Orange, California, and chose conducting as a major. “I was so new to Western art music that I couldn’t specialize,” he said. “The only degree Chapman offered where everyone began at the same level of experience was conducting.”
Harris went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Michigan. There, he earned two Grammy awards (best choral performance and best classical album) for his choral conducting on Leonard Slatkin’s 2005 recording of the William Bolcom cycle “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.”
He taught four years at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music while his wife had a teaching job in Pennsylvania. When she relocated to Cincinnati for a position at Xavier, Harris followed.
“No matter what era or genre of classical music you like, there is an ensemble in this city that specializes in it” –Jason Harris“No matter what era or genre of classical music you like, there is an ensemble in this city that specializes in it,” he said. “That’s remarkable for a city the size of Cincinnati.”
In his few years in Cincinnati he has founded the professional group Schola Cincinnati and joined three ensembles as a performer – Vocal Arts Ensemble, May Festival Chorus and the choir of St. Peter in Chains Cathedral. And in January, he succeeded Brett Scott as artistic director of the premier amateur choir Cincinnati Camerata.
Harris views the typical emphasis on perfect virtuosic performance with skepticism, instead favoring musical impact.
“Frankly, you expect professional musicians to sound great all the time,” he said. “And while performing with great people is exciting, it can also sometimes feel like punching a clock. That’s why community ensembles can have such an effect on social connections through music. It’s made by people who don’t have to make it for a living. They’re only making it from their own passion, and any audience can relate to that.”
In his new role with Camerata, Harris looks to build those connections with new audiences.
Interviews and material for this story provided by Nina Naberhaus and Darrin Hunter of Cincinnati Camerata