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New Classical Tracks: Yolanda Kondonassis Premieres New Harp Concerto By Jennifer Higdon In 'American Rapture'

Laura Watilo Blake

Yolanda Kondonassis

Laura Watilo Blake

Julie Amacher, Classical MPR

Yolanda Kondonassis has played a lot of contemporary harp concertos. Her new recording, American Rapture, features the world premiere of one written especially for her by American composer Jennifer Higdon.

"I've played a lot of contemporary music where it's been more, sort of, a catalog of special effects. But the way she's used the special effects on the harp are very idiomatic, and I actually get to play virtuosic, fun, colorful things on the harp strings."

That's one reason Yolanda is so excited about this new release. The other is her collaborators, Ward Stare and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. The ensemble is part of a consortium of orchestras that helped to commission the work. Ward says it's the centerpiece of this recording, which is a celebration of American composers past and present.

"When we were discussing repertoire options to pair with Jennifer's new concerto, I think rather quickly we got the idea that, wouldn't it be wonderful to look at different generations of American sound. I immediately thought of Barber, and the First Symphony is a piece that I love and I've done all over the place with many different orchestras. It's got all the dramatic power and punch of a Mahler symphony in just a little over 20 minutes.

"And I also thought it was important to feature the newest generation of American voices, and that's what Patrick Harlin's piece represents, and Rapture is, again, a wonderfully compact piece because there's a lot there in about eight minutes."

The recording itself is called American Rapture. Are you taking that from the Harlin piece, in terms of the title?

"Well I know that when Patrick first saw it, he called me and he said, 'Wow, who picked the title. I love it.' So yeah, it certainly gives a nod to the Rapture, and I think American Rapture, it's a perfect title. It takes you to so many different places in the American sound."

The Harp Concerto by Jennifer Higdon — that is like the centerpiece of this recording. I know, Yolanda, she said that your enthusiasm for your instrument is infectious. How did that impact the concerto she created for you?

"One of the things I asked Jennifer for when we were in our early discussions is a groove. I really wanted to be able to catch a musical wave with the orchestra and not just sit there quietly while the orchestra cut loose. And then I came in when all was quiet, and I had my harp installed with a jack and a microphone inside the soundboard so that we wouldn't have to be so careful and touchy about balance, and you know, technology has improved so much that you can get a very, very real acoustic sound with the right equipment."

When Jennifer Higdon writes a concerto, she likes to bring the qualities of the instrument to the forefront. What qualities does she bring out in the harp that you're most pleased about?

"She runs the gamut throughout this four-movement work. The first movement is called First Light, and it almost is like sitting on a mountaintop watching a sunrise. It starts very quietly with the harp alone. I think it's a stroke of brilliance, because one of the things that I told her was that an audience really needs to latch on to the sound of the harp before you start blending it. I think audiences have to know what they're they're listening for, what they're extracting from the larger texture, and that it's such a wonderful way to bring listeners into the portal of this piece."

She has added a wonderful sense of intimacy to that third movement Lullaby, and part of that is due to the fact that it's expressing your relationship with your daughter. Would you share more about that please?

"She heard me wax on — probably ad nauseum — when we got together about my daughter, who I'm just in love with, and so she kind of dedicated that third movement to my relationship with my daughter, and I love that. And it's not a sleepy movement. It's more of a wonder-filled movement with that. You know, that sort of magical color and touch, that you almost see the world through that sparkly lens of a child.

"I'm so touched and honored that she took a movement out of this piece to highlight that relationship, because so often, when we've devoted so much of ourselves to our career as I have, it's wonderful to integrate the two sometimes, and make it a kind of an homage to the many different sides of all of us."

To hear the rest of my conversation, download the extended podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

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