New Classical Tracks: Kondonassis's American Harp

by Valerie Kahler, Minnesota Public Radio
July 23, 2013
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis has been making albums since 1993 - baroque, Spanish, French and lots more. With her latest CD, she is stepping out of the box a little, but what's "out there" isn't necessarily unfamiliar territory. Kondonassis learned about most of the composers on her new American album years ago, when she studied piano in her childhood.

YK: Norman Dello Joio wrote a wonderful piece for the piano that I did on one of my very first piano competitions. So that name has been part of my consciousness for a very long time, so it's nice to come full circle and include an original harp work by that same guy all these years later.

She describes the middle movement of the Bagatelles by Norman Dello Joio as "carnival-like in atmosphere."

YK: I would say I'm not thinking about carnival with the funnel cakes and the merry-go-round and that kind of thing...I'm thinking of a carnival in terms of the excitement that I felt walking into a carnival - the sounds, the smells, the emotions...the stimulus that is all around you.

The outer movements are much more introspective, like much of the rest of the album. That's a mood that's well-suited to the harp. One piece stands out as particularly meditative: "In a Landscape" by John Cage.

YK: The Cage is a really great chance to just be with yourself. In the back of my mind I sort of have this Walden Pond fantasy where I'm able to really enjoy being. But as any musician will tell you, that's not altogether possible, when you've got music to learn and planes to catch and all of that. But I think that John Cage's piece "In a Landscape" is an opportunity to enjoy being static, being still.

Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis says it was the best kind of challenge to keep herself from adding things - like crescendo and rubato - that aren't in the score.

YK: You have to let it be beautiful, simple. It's good to just let the composer speak and let that be enough.

One American composer that Kondonassis says "speaks" in an unmistakable voice is John Williams. She says there's a reason his music is so popular.

YK: He's written so many different kinds of music and yet, through it all, I think the common denominator is that hope that he seems to inject in all of his music, whether it's a film score or a work for the orchestra concert hall. It just always has that lovely undercurrent, that subtext of hope. And I think that's why it speaks to so many people.

"The Lanes of Limerick" is a harp solo from his film score for Angela's Ashes.

YK: It's a family who experiences every manner of tragedy, and yet there's this thread of hope. And I think that in this relatively short solo, not only does it project that melancholy, but also you get that thread of hope throughout.

Kondonassis is drawn to that human-ness, the laughter-through-tears aspect of being fully alive. She said the Berceuse by Stephen Paulus - an almost haunted example of that lullaby genre - is a beautiful example of this.

YK: It's not a "put the baby to bed" kind of berceuse. Although it's very quiet and very calm, it has just a slight melancholy, which as a musician, I'm very drawn to. I'm very drawn to things that aren't just happy and light and tinkly and sort of predictable. It's more of a reflection of life. In the course of a day, in the course of a year, in the course of a lifetime, our emotions are going to be a huge mixture. Nobody's life is happy from the day they're born til the day they die.

American Harp is not all dreamscapes. There's plenty to snap you awake, and plenty to keep a harpist on her toes, literally...like Lowell Liebermann's "Music for Harp."

YK: There are a lot of pedals in Lowell's piece. I have not counted but there are easily hundreds of pedal changes, and when I say "pedals," I mean "pedal shifts." So when Lowell changes key and transitions tonally, that requires an awful lot of footwork. There are spots in his piece where it's as much of a dance as it is a finger experience.

Kondonassis says she's enjoyed making these new pieces for harp her own. All these composers, she says, have found ways to push the harp into some new territory, even while embracing the very special sound of this age-old instrument.

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