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Wednesday, January 5,2011

Calluses and clouds

Kondonassis brings hard-core harp music to Lansing Symphony

by Lawrence Cosentino
Courtesy Photo/Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis

 

In New Yorker magazine cartoons, harpists sit on clouds. To see a harpist in real life, you might have to crash a brunch wedding and brave the meatballs.

No wonder there’s so much work for Yolanda Kondonassis, the guest soloist at Lansing Symphony’ Orchestra’s Saturday concert.


Kondonassis has spent the last 20 years demonstrating the harp’s staggering range, from Baroque rigor to Latin fire to French languor and way beyond. Modern composers are so moved by her skill and passion for the instrument they write new works just for her.


“It’s an instrument with unlimited potential,” Kondonassis said. “There’s nothing wrong with a brunch wedding, but that’s not exactly what I do.”


A recital or concert by Kondonassis is as impressive to the eye as it is to the ear. Her towering Art Deco harp looks like the Brooklyn Bridge stuffed into the Chrysler Building, and she engages it like an athlete. She swims in it, climbs it, caresses it, drums her fingers on the frame until your memories of light harp music are vaporized.


After every recital or concert, somebody is bound to come up to Kondonassis with saucer eyes and say, “I never knew a harp could sound like that.”


“That’s one of the best things anyone can say to me,” Kondonassis said.


“I consider that my self-appointed job, and I’ll just keep at it until I drop.”


On Saturday, she’ll play the centerpiece of the repertoire for harp and orchestra, Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s harp concerto. It’s a colorful, intricate tango of harpist and full orchestra, with triple-extra percussion. Conductor Timothy Muffitt will be her partner in a steeplechase of split-second timing.


“It uses the harp in such a cool and innovative way,” Kondonassis said. “But at the same time, it’s no walk in the park to put together. There’s a lot of mixed meters, cross rhythms, and innovative use of Latin rhythms.”


Next come a set of dances by French Impressionist Claude Debussy. Kondonassis compared them a smooth sorbet after a spicy meal.


“There’s no piece I love playing more,” she said. “It’s right in the hand, and yet it stretches the boundary a little bit.”


She recorded the dances on her first CD 20 years ago and returned to them in last year’s “Air,” pairing them with music by modern composer Toru Takemitsu.


As substantial as they are, Saturday’s works are also curiosities. Plenty of composers are pianists — hence the umpteen thousand piano concertos — but few know their way around a harp.


“It’s complicated at first glance,” she said. “The pedals seem to put people off.”


Harp strings are like the white keys of a piano. If you want black keys — the sharps and flats — you have to use the pedals.


When
composer Bright Sheng wrote a concerto for Kondonassis last year, she
had to get him used to the harp the way a zoo curator might introduce a
keeper to a giraffe.


“We just sat there for hours while I played a huge variety of music for him,” Kondonassis said.


She gave Sheng her own working scores, with pedal movements marked in bright red pencil.


The resulting concerto, Sheng’s evocation of ancient and modern China, takes up most
of Kondonassis’s critically acclaimed new disc, “Never Far Away.” It
will soon be joined by another major work for harp and orchestra, “A
Thousand Ophelias,” by young composer Hannah Lash, also dedicated to
Kondonassis.


“One of my visions is to leave the harp world with a few more concertos than we had when I found it,” Kondonassis said.


Kondonassis
admitted to a “pretty superficial” start on her chosen instrument, at
age 9: “I just saw a lot of harps in a store window and thought, ‘Hey,
that’s pretty cool.”


She was already trained on piano, so she mastered a
baby harp quickly.


“Everything came so easily at first, that I was kind of hooked before it got really hard,” she said.


She spent her four years of high school at the Interlochen Academy.


“Michigan has a soft spot in my heart because of that,” she said.


Recently,
Kondonassis has indulged a second passion, educating children about the
environment. Her book for kids, “Our House is Round,” was released
Earth Day 2010.


Kondonassis
was inspired to write it when she couldn’t find an accessible book
about the environment for her own daughter, now 8 years old.


“I can still conjure up the beautiful illustrations in children’s books I read as a kid,” she said.


“People glaze over when faced with facts and statistics. The arts are a good portal. They touch a whole different button.”


In her book, Kondonassis even works in a bit of revenge against those cliched clouds where cartoonists always park harpists.


“It’s a picture of a great big tree, eating popcorn clouds full of CO2,” she said.

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