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Classical IPR in conversation with Yolanda Kondonassis and Ward Stare


Yolanda Kondonassis is one of the leading harpists in the world today. Ward Stare is the music director of the Rochester (NY) Philharmonic Orchestra.

Kondonassis and Stare recently collaborated on the world premiere performance and recording of a new harp concerto by Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award-winning composer Jennifer Higdon

Kondonassis and Stare recently spoke with Classical IPR about Higdon's harp concerto, which appears on a new album called "American Rapture." They each chose a movement from the concerto to share with IPR listeners as well.

Listen to the entire conversation with music below. An edited transcript of the interview appears below.

Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis on her four years at Interlochen Arts Academy

YK: That four years at Interlochen was just really life-changing. It was so indelible and so meaningful. Probably not a day goes by that I don't think of my time there at Interlochen in some way, shape or form. I will feel forever connected.

On her past statements that “the harp is a crazy, challenging, magical instrument” 

YK: I could come up with about 30 other adjectives as well. The harp is an oddball. There's no way to get around that. It was at Interlochen that I decided to make the harp my life's work. That crazy, oddball, magical part of the instrument was why I picked it. It's also a challenge, and I felt like there was a lot of open territory to be explored, and a lot of ambassador work that the harp needed in terms of [forging] its way in the concert world.

On choosing Jennifer Higdon as the composer to write a harp concerto for her

YK: You know, she's a little crazy and magical also. So I think it was a good fit. She really has a way with color, and when you have an instrument like the harp you want a composer who deals in color. . . . Once I got in her queue - which is long - I then busied myself assembling an orchestral consortium, assembling the various sources of funding and convincing all my friends and conductors and orchestras to participate.

On connecting with conductor Ward Stare and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

YK: Ward and I have known each other for quite a many years. We became acquainted at a music festival 10 or 12 years ago, and when I was assembling orchestras for this [harp concerto], I thought of him immediately as somebody who would not just be a wonderful friend to work with but who would really do an amazing job with this.

On the third movement of the concerto, “Lullaby”"

YK: We've often referred to the third movement the jewel in the crown of this piece. Jennifer told me that that the lullaby was inspired by my relationship with my daughter, who I'm in love with. [Higdon] wrote this amazing movement that's like a little break in the action - it's chamber music. Really, it's the harp and then principal players and a healthy dose of percussion. It's not a sleepy lullaby. It's more of a precocious lullaby, one with lots of flow. Jennifer is a good listener because this movement really does embody my particular daughter, who has never been a sleepy child - sadly never gotten much more than about eight hours of sleep at a time out of her, even a tiny baby. This is her movement. This feels very, very personal to me.

Conductor Ward Stare on his summer as an intermediate camper at Interlochen

WS: I remember the uniform very well. It was one of the first times that I was away from my home for an extended period of time. Being immersed in that constant atmosphere of being with colleagues, being with other enthusiastic music students, and having so much to listen to and discover and learn – it was really quite special.

On his frequent work with new music by living composers

WS: I think that all of us as artists have a responsibility to be nurturing and promoting and vigorously advocating for the creation of new work in our art form, so that we constantly are expanding our horizons and our palette, so to speak, artistically, sonically and conceptually. I love working with new music, I love working with composers for world premieres or pieces that have recently been written. I love the challenges that come with that. I love the sense of discovery that one has going through that process, and being able to give the world premiere of a work is truly an honor.

On the fourth movement of the concerto, “Rap Knock”

WS: If you're listening to it on the radio, you may be confused at the very beginning because you hear percussion instruments, and you may think it's just featuring the percussion section alone. But, in fact, Jennifer has written for the harpist to be a percussionist, using the fingers to literally rap and knock on the sides of the harp itself. There's no plucking of the strings in the in the beginning for Yolanda – she’s just a percussionist with her colleagues in the percussion section. Then once this groove gets established, you'll hear this sound you've never heard before coming out of the percussion section itself. It's a new color it's a new technique that Jennifer discovered. Basically you take a crotale and you strike it over a snare drum and you lower it slowly onto the head of the drum. And if the snare is turned on, the snares activate, so it almost sounds like you're starting a roll. But then you drop the cymbal on the head of the drum and the roll stops. So it's got this sort of “whoosh, swish, roll” kind of thing, all combined into one unique sound.