New Classical Tracks - A Harpist's Album

by Valerie Kahler, Minnesota Public Radio
July 10, 2012
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St. Paul, Minn. — I'll just come right out and say it: I'm a fan of the photo album. I relish the sensory enjoyment of the pictures themselves, and the added delight of sitting next to a beloved someone on the couch, flipping through those pages as your friend shares the behind-the-scenes madness that took place just before the shutter clicked.

Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis has a new CD out, and you could think of this album as... well, an album. A photo album, full of favorite snapshots and commentary, culled from 20 years' worth of experiences.

This is a landmark year for Kondonassis — she's celebrating two decades of recording with a new compilation, Solo Harp, on a new label: Azica. The actual process of sitting down and spending time with these younger versions of herself was, she said, "illuminating."

These days, she's much more drawn to the lyrical, expressive qualities of the harp, but listening back to one of her first recordings, a fiery Carlos Salzedo piece called "Scintillation," she took great delight in hearing her 20-year-old self play with such abandon. She said, "Listening to myself play that piece is like watching my daughter dance. There's this freedom, this joy of newness."

She included a fair amount of Salzedo on her best-of CD. "Of course, Carlos Salzedo! I had to include several tracks of his, because from a pedagogical standpoint, he's my grandfather. He was the teacher of my teacher, Alice Chalifoux. And it's really lovely when you feel rather close to the source, and can really understand what a composer is trying to do."

Other pieces made it onto the CD because she wanted to strike a balance between presenting a wide variety of composers, without getting too whiplash-y. The lineup also reminds us that Kondanassis started out as a pianist.

"My first love was the piano. I continued the piano all the way through high school. So I love that repertoire, and I have not given it up easily. It's been a carryover of my love of the piano, which led very naturally to me stealing a bit of the music for my instrument as well."

Among those "stolen" works is the Gershwin Prelude No. 2, and one of the Gnossiennes by Erik Satie.

"I so enjoyed doing these Gnossienne pieces by Satie. They're little miniatures. I loved so much Satie's notes to the performer — they're little non-sequiturs. They almost exist within the subconscious mind. One I love the most that he writes above a particular phrase, 'With the tip of your thought.' Things like that, where there's a dream-like state, a stream of consciousness to these Gnossiennes... that was just so much fun to work with. They remain some of my favorite things to play. It's almost like meditation, it's like yoga, it's like Tai Chi — anything where great focus but relaxation is possible. I think we need to have music that does that for us."

That idea of harp music as relaxing, gentle, ethereal is familiar, and valid. But, says, Kondonassis, there's so much more. "I think there are few instruments on this planet that are such chameleons as the harp. The range of dynamics on the harp is tremendous. Many people know that the harp can sound soft and gentle and lovely, but it can also sound very powerful, and even abrasive if you want to go there.

"It can also adapt to so many different colors and timbres. It can blend in with other instruments in a way that you don't even know what that instrument is. Many times we may hear the harp in interesting movie scores or other popular contexts and not even know it's the harp. So I think the versatility of the instrument, when it's fully explored, is just extraordinary. And I think that's what keeps me interested."

At the heart of what Yolanda Kondonassis does is exploration. Exploration might mean painstakingly figuring out how to turn a beloved piano work into a piece that sounds like it was written for the harp, or practicing till her fingers bleed, or encouraging other musicians to dive into explorations of their own.

"It's an interesting exploration. I think there's a lot about the harp that hasn't even been tapped into yet. I hope to help composers and harpists do a little bit of that throughout the rest of my career."

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