It’s not often that an internationally acclaimed harpist comes to town to play with the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra. It’s also not very often that the FM Symphony performs a brand new piece that it co-commissioned with other orchestras around the country.
But that’s the treat in store for the FM Symphony’s second Masterworks concert this weekend at NDSU Festival Concert Hall.
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Yolanda Kondonassis – regarded as today’s most recorded solo classical harpist – joins the FM Symphony to perform a new harp concerto written specifically for her by Grammy-winning composer Jennifer Higdon.
To open the program and precede Higdon’s concerto, FM Symphony principal flutist Deb Harris joins Kondonassis for the second movement of Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto and the orchestra will conclude the performance with Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 “The Inextinguishable.”
Higdon’s piece, which has been in the works for nearly 10 years, was co-commissioned by the FM Symphony with five other orchestras around the country.
Kondonassis says the performance this weekend is the fifth premier of the concerto since its world premier with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra back in May.
“It’s a wonderful recipe of boldness, freshness and magic. That’s the combination I used to describe it because it’s not your typical harp concerto,” she says.
Kondonassis made her debut at age 18 with the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta, and since then, she has brought new audiences to the harp and has appeared as a soloist with major orchestras around the world.
As an ambassador for the instrument and champion of new music, Kondonassis initiated the harp concerto commission with Higdon and worked closely with her throughout its composition.
“(Higdon’s) originality and ability to resonate with listeners on so many levels made her the perfect choice for this much-needed addition to the harp repertoire,” Kondonassis says.
“We tried to aim for a wide geographical swath of America for the premiere series of concerts (and) target areas where music is important, but not taken for granted,” she adds.
A Day in the Life of a Harpist
Kondonassis started playing harp at age 9 and says learning the instrument “came pretty quickly” because of her piano background.
Harp strings, she explains, are similar to the white keys of a piano while the pedals are similar to the black keys.
She played both instruments for many years but decided to stick with the harp because the instrument “needed advocates and performers a lot more than the piano did.”
“I also love the way it feels to play the harp, and I have huge hands, which is an advantage,” she adds.
But Kondonassis says part of being an ambassador for the harp is clearing up romanticized, angelic stereotypes about the instrument. In our phone interview, she detailed the rigorous logistics involved in playing the harp and getting it “out of that rigid box of loveliness” with refreshing honesty and a sense of humor.
Because they’re heavy, large and expensive, transporting the harp often requires renting a car and borrowing harps from communities close to her performances.
“People think harpists are supposed to float in on a cloud, when in reality, you (show up to the performance venue) out of breath. You’re double-parked. You’re dirty,” she quips. “If you’ve ever moved a harp, you learn very quickly not to wear white!”
But the rewarding aspects of the harp far outweigh the challenges and she’s greatly looking forward to performing with the FM Symphony this weekend.
“It is such an a honor to be the first to perform what I know will become an iconic concerto for my instrument, and to bring it to a premiere of series of audiences who will truly share the thrill.”
Tickets to the FM Symphony concert are available at fmsymphony.org, at the door or by calling 701-478-3676. A free, informal pre-concert talk with FM Symphony Music Director Christopher Zimmerman begins 45 minutes before each concert in Beckwith Recital Hall (adjacent to the lobby at NDSU’s Reineke Fine Arts Center).
Yolanda Kondonassis is also performing a sneak peek of the concert with Deb Harris at Urban Overture from 5:30 – 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 7 at the Radisson in downtown Fargo.
For more information on Yolanda Kondonassis, visit yolandaharp.com.
The featured photo is by Mark Battrell.