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Grammy-nominated Oklahoma native returns home to perform

January 21, 2019

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — While most people can recognize her instrument by sight, harpist Yolanda Kondonassis knows their familiarity with its wide range of sounds is probably limited to the stereotypical tinkling glissandos.

“It’s like the intro to the dream sequence, the wafting to heaven, the acid trip,” she said with a laugh to The Oklahoman . “I consider myself sort of an unofficial ambassador for the instrument itself. When I go around, I feel like in a lot of cases I’m introducing the harp to audiences long before I introduce myself or whatever I’m playing. I think that everybody kind of has an idea of the harp: that angelic, sort of ethereal, esoteric kind of thing. But that’s never really been my interest in the harp.”

To that end, the Norman native has commissioned several harp pieces, and she is bringing the latest, Jennifer Higdon’s “Concerto for Harp and Orchestra,” to her home state when she performs as a soloist on the Oklahoma City Philharmonic’s Jan. 26 Classics concert.

“It’s been a wonderful project just ... seeing what I really think will become a very standard piece in the harp repertoire come to life. And it’s great that so many orchestras climbed on board,” Kondonassis said over coffee in an Oklahoma City restaurant the day after Christmas, when she was in town visiting her father, Alexander Kondonassis, who still lives in the metro area. “It’s been really cool places that don’t often get a commission, don’t often get to get their name in the score of a major work written by a Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. So, it’s been really fun. I’m so grateful that Oklahoma City was willing to climb on board with this one and help make it happen.

“And it’s nice to do it here in my hometown, too, which is always a really special thing.”

The Grammy-nominated harpist premiered Higdon’s “Concerto for Harp and Orchestra” in May with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in Rochester, New York, and has been touring to perform the new work with other symphonies that commissioned it. The OKC Philharmonic is the last member of the consortium with which she will perform the piece.

“I was thrilled when we were given the opportunity to be a participating co-commissioning orchestra for this new concerto for Yolanda,” OKC Philharmonic Executive Director Eddie Walker said in an email. “She is an Oklahoma treasure.”

One of the world’s premier solo harpists, Kondonassis, 55, previously performed with the OKC Philharmonic in 1999 and 2014, but this will mark her first time working with its new music director, Alexander Mickelthwate. Titled “Independent Creativity,” the Jan. 26 program also will include Leonard Bernstein’s “Three Dance Episodes” from “On the Town,” Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)” and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Symphony No. 41 in C Major” (aka the “Jupiter Symphony”).

“Yolanda is huge, and it’s fantastic. I know Jennifer from a long time ago, so it’s a great connection,” Mickelthwate said. “In the end, I’m really programming what I love. I love all the classics, like the Beethoven, the Wagner, the Bruckner, everything. But then what I love is I love to pair them . with contemporary things.”

The harpist said Higdon’s “Concerto for Harp and Orchestra” is a fresh and innovative contemporary piece with a classical framework and feel. The first movement, titled “First Light,” is a sort of homage to Aaron Copland, Kondonassis said, while the second is called “Joyride,” ″and that’s exactly what it sounds like.” Named “Lullaby,” the third movement is full of magical moments inspired by the harpist’s 16-year-old daughter, Amanda Sachs, but the final movement, “Rap Knock” is arguably the most inventive.

“The whole last movement starts out with I’m knocking on the soundboard. It’s a very intricate puzzle of rhythms,” Kondonassis said. “It just really cooks. One thing I asked her (Higdon) for in this piece is I really want a harp piece that finishes big, has a groove. I don’t want it to be all loose, sort of angelic noodles. I really want it to have some rhythmic groove. Audiences seem to really love it. Every place I’ve played it, people jump to their feet.”

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Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com

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