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Classical 101

Harp Power: Yolanda Kondonassis Talks About Premiering Jennifer Higdon's 'Harp Concerto'

color photo o Yolanda Kondonassis surounded by harps
Laura Watilo Blake
Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis

If you think playing the harp is something only angels do, then you’ve never met Yolanda Kondonassis. She's in part the reason why the new harp concerto that Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon wrote for Kondonassis is anything but angel food.

One of today’s foremost solo harpists, Kondonassis outspokenly disavows the heavenly stereotype of her instrument and instead, um, harps on its earthly possibilities.

“My mother was probably the instigating factor in me beginning the harp when I was 9 years old,” Kondonassis said in a recent phone interview. “I grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, and I was a bit of a tomboy. And I think she thought the harp would refine me a bit. But in the years since then, I’m kind of fond of saying that instead of me becoming more angelic with the harp, I think the harp has probably become a little less angelic with me.”

There’s nothing Kondonassis describes as “angelic” about her most recent commissioned work, the Harp Concerto by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon. Kondonassis recorded the concerto with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Ward Stare on the recording American Rapture, recently released on the Azica Records. (Find it: Amazon | ArkivMusic)

The album takes its name from American composer Patrick Harlin’s Rapture, the world-premiere recording of which also appears on American Rapture.

cover of American Rapture
Credit Azica Records / yolandaharp.com
'American Rapture' features the world-premiere recordings of Jennifer Higdon's 'Harp Concerto' and Patrick Harlin's 'Rapture.'

Funded by the Rochester Philharmonic, the Harrisburg Symphony, the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, the Lansing Symphony, the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony and the Baton Rouge Symphony orchestras, Higdon’s Harp Concerto came about after Kondonassis and Higdon spent a day together in Philadelphia, just getting to know each other.

“Jennifer has said quite a few times in interviews that when she writes a concerto, she starts with the personality of the premiering performer,” Kondonassis said. “It’s almost like a timestamp, a signature that distinguishes the piece. She takes inspiration from whatever qualities the performer brings to the table.

“In the course of this day we spent together, we just talked about lots of stuff,” Kondonassis continued. “We sat in a room, and I just played the harp for her for a few hours. And she got a sense of me as a player, what my both non-musical personality is and what my musical personality is. And I really do feel that she wrote a piece that does embody a lot of my personal qualities as an artist, and I’m so grateful for that.”

The Yolanda Kondonassis Signature

So what does Kondonassis' signature sound like in Higdon's Harp Concerto?

“In terms of the signature, I love the power of the instrument,” Kondonassis said. “But what I would have to say I love even more than that is just the giant spectrum. And I would say that this concerto is magical and powerful. I think if I have a signature, maybe it is the range of color, the range of experience that is possible with the harp.”

color photo of Jennifer higdon
Credit D. J. Scott / jenniferhigdon.com
Composer Jennifer Higdon

Higdon’s Harp Concerto exploits that range of color in fresh and unexpected gestures right from the beginning. The concerto’s solo harp opening showcases the harp alone – not in airy arpeggios and twinkly bits, but instead in a passage of angular chords that unfold so serenely they seem to make time stand still.

The power of the harp comes out in full force in the concerto’s fourth and final movement, "Rap Knock." It's here the instrument does things a harp doesn’t typically do – knocking in a funky rhythm right along with the percussion section, pounding away on bold and dissonant tone clusters to the work’s bombastic, unethereal end.

And if there really is a Kondonassis signature in Higdon’s Harp Concerto, it might well be the work’s third movement, "Lullaby," which, for Kondonassis, has special personal meaning.

“Jennifer told me that it was inspired by my relationship with my daughter, which I’m quite certain I waxed on ad nauseam when we were getting acquainted that day in Philadelphia,” Kondonassis said. “It’s not your typical lullaby. It’s not something you would rock your child to sleep to. It’s full of energy and it’s precocious, and it definitely has a flow. It’s always moving. There’s not a sense of anything static about it, which would kind of describe my daughter, as well.”

What the Harp Can Do

Writing music for the harp – an instrument whose technical idiosyncrasies give many an accomplished composer pause – is one thing. But recording music for the harp is another thing, though perhaps one equally challenging. Certain registers on the harp project more readily than others, and the sound of the harp can all but disappear when pitted against a full orchestra.

In discussing the new concerto, Higdon and Kondonassis agreed that the solo harp part would be amplified.

color photo of Ward Stare
Credit Suzy Gorman / wardstare.com
Conductor Ward Stare

“Technology has improved so much in recent years,” Kondonassis said. “Twenty years ago, I would not have even considered amplifying my harp. It would have been a very synthetic sound, all sorts of issues to deal with. But I actually have a jack implanted in my harp and a very sensitive microphone in the soundboard, and it can be controlled almost to an imperceptible amount of enhancement that sounds very, very acoustic. So you’re not getting an electronic sound at all. It just kind of sounds like a harp that you can hear.”

Despite the amplification, some passages in the concerto needed slight adjustment to allow the solo harp sound to shine forth.

“There were passages where I could see Yolanda was exerting maximum effort to get things to project, and we were having trouble with the balance,” conductor Ward Stare said. “And it was simply a matter of changing the register sometimes.”

Stare says he was “blown away” by the power of an instrument that he had not experienced so intimately before recording Higdon’s Harp Concerto.

Said Stare: “The dynamic range of it was really unexpected – I didn’t expect it to be quite as powerful as it is. I really enjoyed just having my eyes opened to really what the harp can do, because I think this concerto takes it to another level.”

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Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.