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Austin Symphony Orchestra

Yolanda Kondonassis joins ASO to show there's much more to harps than angel strumming

By Natalie Zeldin, Fri., March 8, 2013

Yolanda Kondonassis
Yolanda Kondonassis
Photo courtesy of Mark Battrell

If you close your eyes and imagine harp music, you'll probably picture a group of angels playing sweet and soft melodies. Well, Grammy-nominated Yolanda Kondonassis – guest soloist with the Austin Symphony Orchestra March 8 and 9 – will totally change that impression. "Certainly, the harp can be heavenly – and should be at times – but that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this incredible instrument," Kondonassis says.

The Norman, Okla., native plans to take concertgoers below the waterline when she performs Alberto Ginastera's Harp Concerto, a work she describes as having "tons of magical material." The composer employs a full range of tonal colors in the piece, much of it created by 34 percussion instruments, including no fewer than three bongos and four cowbells. (Yes, in fact, more cowbell, please.) And, if that isn't enough, Ginastera also instructs the harpist to use the edges of her instrument for additional percussive effects. Kondonassis says the piece is a huge challenge but that "every hoop you jump through technically is worth it." She adds, "It's just so fun to play. I never get bored with it."

On the eve of this South by Southwest, it's worth noting that Kondonassis is also an advocate for contemporary music. Although the harp has been around since ancient times, the modern version – with a pedal mechanism for chromatic pitches – has existed for only a few hundred years, which may be one reason the instrument lacks the deep repertoire of such orchestral companions as the violin. "The harp has a lot of catching up to do!" Kondonassis says. To do her part in expanding the harp repertoire, she regularly commissions new works. It's demanding of her time, requiring her to work closely with composers and to learn new music, but Kondonassis is so passionate about forging new paths for her instrument that she finds it well worth the effort.

Kondonassis is no less passionate about environmental issues and sees her music as a vehicle for raising awareness about the Earth. When people are listening to music, they're more open to listening in general, she believes, so she's made a point of performing "works that celebrate and depict the Earth and all of its challenges." Case in point: her recent Grammy-nominated album Air, which features works by composer Toru Takemitsu inspired by the wind and the sea. (Kondonassis donates royalties from the recording to the Environmental Defense Fund.) The harpist is also using words as well as music to make her case. In 2010, she published her first children's book, Our House Is Round: A Kid's Book About Why Protecting Our Earth Matters. She began working on this book when she was looking for something for her young daughter to read about Earth conservation efforts and didn't find anything. "Ever since I was a kid, I worried about the Earth," she says. "It's imperative for kids to learn about caring for the Earth."

Preceding the Ginastera Harp Concerto will be a performance of Leonore Overture No. 2, one of four overtures that Beethoven wrote for his opera Fidelio – although not the second one that he wrote, as you might suppose. This is actually the first one that Beethoven composed, but it was the second to be published, and that's the numbering that stuck. (ASO played Leonore No. 1 – the third to be composed – in February and will play Leonore No. 3 – the second to be composed – and the keeper of the bunch, the Overture to Fidelio, at its first May concert.) The second half of this week's program will feature the optimistic and sweeping Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius.


Yolanda Kondonassis will perform with the Austin Symphony Orchestra Friday and Saturday, March 8 & 9, 8pm, at Dell Hall in the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 476-6064 or visit www.austinsymphony.org.

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