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Yolanda Kondonassis on Her Cow Problem and Higdon’s Harp

Jamie Paisley
Yolanda Kondonassis in Rehearsal with Timothy Muffitt and the Lansing Symphony, Jan 2019

She is one of, if not THE, most recorded and celebrated harpists in the world and tonight Yolanda Kondonassis joins the Lansing Symphony. WKAR’s Jamie Paisley attended a rehearsal and met with her backstage at the Wharton Center to talk about the concerto she commissioned and is performing this Friday evening, and how cows have become a harpist's problem.

Friday night at the Wharton Center, the Lansing Symphony will be unveiling a piece they helped co-commission, a harp concerto by the Pulitzer-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, a work written for the harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, who knows exactly what people expect when you say the word 'harp,' which is to say glissandos and runs.

"You know, it's that sound that everybody, everybody knows on the harp. That it's very etherial and..." as Ms. Kondonassis plays a few examples.

I ask "Is that a good stereotype or a bad stereotype or a bad stereotype of the gliss[ando]."
"Oh, it depends on who you are," she says, "but, I probably played enough of that kind of glissandos to last me a while. So, what Jennifer [Higdon] does in the piece is has the harpist actually use the glissando almost as a struck chord." As Kondonassis gives more examples on her harp. "In various rhythms, and both the percussion and the harp reinforce each other with a slightly difference timbre. One danger with this is that the harp is doing so many interesting things in that last movement is sometimes people say 'Oh! I can't hear the harp!' Well, you just don't know it's the harp that you're hearing, I think. Which I think is a very, very cool thing."

Kondonassis was moved to ask for this harp concerto from Higdon once during her own backstage experience. "Oh, gosh, probably 15 years ago as I was waiting backstage to play the Ginastera concerto, I heard her blue cathedral, I thought 'Boy! This is a language which would work really well on the harp. So, a few years later, I kind of got in her line, and there is a line! I really think she's going to be one of the, you know, remembered and thought of as one of the major compositional voices."

There is one thing that might impact this Friday night’s performance with the Lansing Symphony and Maestro Timothy Muffitt, something slightly out of Kondonassis’ control. "Well, we harpists, we do have a cow problem. And I would say over the last, I don't know, 6-7 years now going on, I have become increasingly insane trying to keep strings on the harp and anticipate breakage and whatnot. But the problem is, as I've been told, in the United Kingdom, some new Mad Cow Disease regulations have been put into effect that require that cows of a certain age be destroyed. However, those old cows are the one that make the good harp strings, because of the strength and the resilience of the, you know, the intestinal material, to be quite frank that the gut is used for. Which, some wouldn't necessarily equate the harp with bad cows, but you know, everything effects everything. It's one big ecosystem in this world. But, so yes, we will all keep our collective fingers crossed that Friday night we will not have cow failure."

Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis joins the Maestro Muffitt and the Lansing Symphony orchestra in Jennifer Higdon’s Harp Concerto on a program which also includes Rossini’s Semiramide Overture and Schubert’s “Great” 9th Symphony this Friday evening at the Wharton Center. Tickets and more information at LansingSymphony.org

Friday, January 11th, 2019
Lansing Symphony Orchestra
Timothy Muffitt, conductor

Rossini: Semiramide Overture
Higdon: Harp Concerto
Schubert: Symphony No.9 in C, "Great"

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