A conversation with Bruce Duffie
She's modern, she's lovely, she's a first-rate performer. She's a
teacher as well as a touring musician. Her repertoire includes
solos, chamber pieces and orchestral concertos. She is Yolanda
Kondonassis, and her chosen instrument is the harp! Yes, the 47
(or 48) string beauty that stands on its own waiting for just the right
hands to unleash the delicate tinkles and powerful glissandos.
But being a woman of the internet age, she has her own website, where more biographical
and calendar information can be found.
One of the foremost makers of harps is Lyon & Healy, located in
Chicago just west of the Loop. It was here in the first month of
1997 that I arranged to meet with Yolanda, and we had a brief tour of
the factory and then retired to a restaurant across the street to have
There are, of course, smaller harps, but the concert variety is nearly
the size of a grand piano without the box or keyboard. Naturally,
when talking about a rather large instrument, one's thoughts turn to
the problems of size and portability. Since everyone can't play
the piccolo, some musicians become virtuosos on bigger things,
including some that require more than one person to transport.
The concert harp is just such an instrument. It's lovely to hear
and a joy to play, but getting it from one place to another means more
than just putting it in a convenient case and toting it to the next
location. The case becomes a steamer-trunk and toting requires
the strength of a couple ample people.
With all this in mind, one understands the first question I posed . . .
Bruce Duffie: Are there
times you'd rather play the violin or the flute
just for logistics' sake?
Certainly there are times when the logistics are pretty
complicated. But it's just one of those things. Everything
has its drawbacks and I just accept what it is and learn to plan ahead,
and go on to the next thing.
BD: Are there times,
though, that if you had a piano, other
people would have to take care of you?
YK: Right. Well,
you know, that has a downside, too,
because you never know what you're going to find. And the touch
of a piano is almost as different as the touch of one harp to the
next. So I guess we all have our crosses to bear.
BD: Did you start out as
a pianist, or did you go directly to
YK: I started as a
pianist just about as soon as I could crawl up
on the piano bench. My mother's a pianist, so she started me very
young and I think that was extremely valuable to me. When you go
to the harp, it's a very complicated instrument just from a mechanical
standpoint. To have all the musical background and the digital
discipline at that point from the piano, really made the harp go very
BD: Most people don't
understand that they should watch a
YK: Exactly! There
are two levels of action on the
harp: the feet and the hands, and the feet have as much to do
with what you hear as what your hands are doing.
BD: Have the instruments
been standardized at all? Is a
harp like a harp, like a harp, or are there many different sizes and
shapes and kinds and degrees of harps?
YK: Oh, there are an infinite
number of styles and kinds and
types of instruments, and styles of music! There's a great
movement of folk and Celtic harp music.
BD: I'm not talking about
the little harps that you can carry
easily, but the concert harp.
YK: There's many, many
different kinds of those as well, all
sorts of slightly different degrees of size, of sound, of timbre.
Even two harps of exactly the same make and style will sound very
YK: The soundboard of the
harp really determines the sound, and
that depends on the kind of wood, and even if it's the same type of
wood, a slab of maple from two different trees can sound very, very
different. So whenever I choose a harp, I make sure to have many,
many to try from because the sounds are so very particular.
BD: Then what do you look
for when you're selecting an instrument?
YK: As a soloist, I look
for an instrument that is both rich and
very full, but penetrating as well. I don't like instruments that
are too terribly bright which tends to sound brittle, but I do want a
sound that will cut through a very thick orchestral texture in a
concerto, or fill up a 3,000-seat hall in a recital setting.
BD: This is different if
you were a harpist in an orchestra?
YK: Some of those
considerations are very similar, but I need a
harp that will not only sound sweet and lush, but one that will really
take all I give it. And also you need a harp that's very
hardy. Lyon & Healy, which is based right here in Chicago,
makes great harps that really hold together. I mean, I give a
harp a beating because I travel so much, and the solo repertoire really
taxes the instrument a great deal.
BD: Do you wish you could
be based in one city and play most of
your concerts in that city without having to always travel all over the
YK: Oh, no. I love
to travel. I love it! It's
one of the perks, I think, of doing it. Exploring different parts
of the world and meeting all sorts of different people, I love that
BD: And you always travel
with your harp?
YK: Sometimes. I
try and have my harp whenever I can.
Certainly when concerts are booked domestically, I try and get my own
harp there somehow, in a plane or drive it, but when I travel abroad,
it gets a little more complicated. Occasionally I'll ship my harp
over, but normally I'll try and find some reliable network of harp
contacts that can find me something.
BD: And then you're at
the mercy of whatever harp they give you.
YK: Right, but you do a
lot of checking and if you know someone
who knows someone who knows someone who can guarantee it's a pretty
good instrument, that's good enough for me, usually. [Chuckles]
BD: When you come to a
new harp, how long does it take before it
is really your harp?
YK: It's not always
possible, but I usually try and get places a
day to even two days in advance to get used to the instrument.
And really, the adjustment happens pretty quickly. In fact, it's
strange... I always get rather attached to the harps that I'm
playing on in a span of three or four days of a concerto weekend.
It's like making a friend and then having to say good-bye at the end of
BD: Do you try to get
that harp back when you return the next
year, or the year after?
YK: Oh, definitely.
BD: And is it the same
Usually harpists take care of their
instruments very lovingly, so there's pretty good continuity from year
BD: And yet, as you say,
they have to be able to take a beating
just from the actual playing of the instrument, besides the transport.
YK: Sure. There are
a great number of different kinds of
harps, but they're built to take quite a bit. I would say what I
give a harp on a normal basis, my own personal harp with all the
traveling, it's possibly a little more than the usual harp might get.
BD: How do you travel
with it overseas? Do you have to ship
it, or do you buy a first-class seat, or what?
YK: I don't do this very
often and I'll watch the season that I
do it in, too, because in the winter, if the harp is exposed to very,
very cold temperatures for prolonged periods of time, that's not good
either. But you go through a whole network of customs agents,
customs brokers, and crate the harp in its manufacturing crate, and
insure it separately from its own insurance policy. Then you take
it to cargo loading at an airport and have them load it into the belly
of the plane.
BD: Is the harp with you,
or are you with the harp?
YK: Ohhhhh, it's a big
question mark, sometimes, which one of us
serves the other. [Both laugh] But, I guess it's a mutual
BD: We've been talking
just about the instrument, so let's talk a
little bit about the music. Is it difficult to find music for the
YK: No! The harp
has a great deal more repertoire than most
BD: Then why is this
repertoire not better known?
YK: I think it just takes
harpists getting out there and playing
it. The harp is a challenge on several levels. As a
soloist, I've had to not only convince people that I'm the harpist they
wanna hear, but before I ever get to that, I have to convince people
that the harp can be a great many things and expose a great many
dimensions that go beyond the stereotypes of the heavenly, angelic kind
of salon instrument. The harp can be very powerful, very
passionate, very colorful. It's almost a matter of selling an
audience on the idea of the harp before you ever get to the idea of
selling them on you as an artist. So it's a challenge!
BD: Most people are
fascinated with the instrument, and you
almost come in second or third, then.
YK: Oh, well, that's all
right. You are sort of one with
your instrument. If they're fascinated with the harp, so much the
better, and I don't mean in terms of stereotypes. That's a
negative thing. But in order to really exploit the full
the full canvas of the instrument, you do have to get beyond that
expectation of dainty and delicate.
BD: You mean we're not
all going to be angels sitting on Heavenly
clouds playing the harp?
Well, let's hope not!
BD: I assume you probably
have to play all
of the literature for the harp.
YK: I think there's
definitely enough to cover a lifetime.
A great many times a year I do the standard concertos, the standard
recital repertoire, the standard chamber music.
BD: Of these standard
pieces, did the composers understand the
instrument? Did they write well for the harp?
YK: Most of the time, I
would say. Most of the pieces in
the standard repertoire were really shepherded by a harpist who worked
with the composer and encouraged it, and fostered the composer's
interest in writing for the harp. So there was usually somewhat
of a collaboration going on.
BD: Were those harpists
always right in what they said, and does
that now transfer from the 18th and 19th centuries into the 20th and
YK: A different time
period provides a different context.
Most of the time I think it was very well done, though I've talked with
many different people about the Flute
and Harp Concerto of Mozart and some music historians and
musicologists feel that that piece may not have even truly been
playable on the harp of the day. Mozart just probably thought to
himself, "Well, they'll figure it out. I'll write it and they'll
figure it out eventually."
BD: From a musical point
of view, or from a technical standard?
YK: From a mechanical
point of view, really. The harp that
was in use at that time was a single-action harp and what we use now is
a double-action harp, meaning that the pedals can provide two changes
from the open string. So really, each string can now provide
three different pitches: the open string; the first change into a
natural position; and the second change into a sharp position, which
provides full chromaticism. This is what I'm referring to in
terms of not being completely available in the 18th century.
BD: Sort of like a brass
instrument with no valves!
BD: So the development of
valves in the brass instruments and the
development of the action in the harp are roughly parallel?
YK: I would say that's a
good parallel to draw, for sure.
BD: Do you have some
advice for people who want to write music
for the harp these days?
YK: I have collaborated
on a few commissions, and I think that
the best way to go about it is to get to know a harpist and then let
your imagination run wild. Let the harpist tell you what's
possible and what is not. I think that's a much better way to go
about it than to have the composer get a whole list of rules from the
harpist and then try to write something. That's like saying,
"Okay, this is a list of 106 things you can't do; now go be
creative." [Both chuckle] I think it's much better to start
from the point of unbounded imagination and then reel it in from there,
instead of the opposite.
BD: Have there been times
when something has been written that
you've said you can't do, and then eventually you figure out a way to
YK: I think so.
There's a lot of meeting in the
middle. If you're really committed to the project, it's sort of
like the sum of two parts is greater than each alone, and it's very
exciting! There's nothing more exciting than watching a piece
come to life and push the boundaries a little bit. The harp is
just like a symphony of instruments in one and we should be encouraged
to use every bit of it!
BD: Tell me a bit about
the piece by Donald Erb. [See my Interview with Donald Erb.]
YK: I commissioned him to
write a harp
sonata for me a couple of years ago, and that was a case when we
really did work very closely in a collaborative way. It's a
wonderful piece because it really breaks
stereotype. The last movement, in fact, is called "Dirty Rotten
Scherzo," which you might not expect to hear on
the harp. He really pushes the boundaries of
techniques on the instrument. In the second
movement he has the harpist not exactly singing, but
intoning in a very haunting movement, called "Song for Sarah
Gooder," which is the story of a young girl who was being
interviewed before the Mining Commission in England in the
1800s for child abuse. [The Ashley
Mines Investigation Commission was convened in England by Lord Ashley
in 1842. Sarah Gooder, a child mine worker, was eight years of
age at the time.] It's really amazing how many
things you can do with the harp and I really think
Don tapped into a lot of them in this piece. I just recorded
it for New World.
BD: How do you divide
your career between concerto appearances
and solo performances?
YK: It's not hard; I love
the variety. My management in New
York, ICM Artists, Ltd., does a great job of varying the schedule, so
every season I have a nice mix of chamber music, solo recitals and
concertos, and then, of course, I do recordings every year. So
that's a full plate!
BD: Do you play the same
for the microphone as you do for a live
YK: That's a good
question! I would say no, I don't because
the microphone is very intimate. The microphone picks up every
breath, every swish of your foot. Every time you move your knee a
little bit against the wood of the harp, it's there. So my
approach is very intimate with the microphone, whereas in a hall you're
thinking projection; you're making sure that the nuances are all scaled
to the point where even the pianissimos are heard. So the range
is very different. I love both. I love being able to really
put it out there in performance, and I also love the freedom of total
intimacy with the microphone. You can do things that would be
lost in a concert hall.
BD: Does the public that
hears your recordings then expect the
same kind of perfection when they come to a live concert?
Well, we try! [Laughs] I don't
know! That's an interesting question because nowadays, with the
recorded product and all that there is to do from the point of sound
and wonderful, sophisticated microphones, there's no reason for the
sound not to be of a very superior quality. So in a concert hall,
if the acoustics in a room aren't particularly good, maybe it is going
to be a little bit less than what you would hear on a CD. But the
excitement of a live performance, I think, compensates for the perhaps
crystalline perfection of a recording.
BD: Is there such a thing
as a perfect performance?
YK: I don't think
so! I think as you grow as an artist,
your definition of perfection keeps growing, too. It's like being
on a race course, and the finish line keeps moving, getting further and
further away! The more you grow, the more you expect of
yourself. If I were going for the same "perfect" I was going for
when I was 16, I'd make that every night. But now I think
"perfect" is probably a word that almost doesn't belong. It's
that really special place in a piece of music, and every note may not
be absolutely perfectly in its metronomic slot but it's great because
every performance is different, and may be perfect in its own way.
BD: But you strive for
YK: Oh, yeah. I'm
definitely a perfectionist. That's
why I try and keep from thinking about that word "perfect." It
gets in the way sometimes. [Laughs]
BD: You also have to
constantly tune the harp and fix minor
problems, so you really have to be your own technician!
YK: Oh, yeah. My
training and my teacher stressed very much
the art of harp maintenance because especially with what I do, when I
travel so much, I can't really travel with a harp technician. So
if something goes wrong, I really need to be able to fix it, and many
times fix it very, very quickly.
BD: I'm resisting the
urge to say that I hope you never become
YK: [Laughs] I'm
sure that day will come.
BD: Let's continue with
an easy question. What is the
purpose of music?
YK: Ooh well, that's
almost like asking what the meaning of life
is. I think, as an artist, the purpose of music is to express
oneself, to find, like I said before, that special connection with what
you're doing, where you lose track of time and forget about yourself
entirely. It's a way of putting yourself completely at the
disposal of something perhaps bigger than yourself. Maybe that
sounds rather mushy and sentimental, but if you're not doing it then
you're probably not in the right field. It's a compelling
thing. It's a compulsion, almost. It's a voice that has to
find a way out, and words don't cut it.
BD: How early did you
know that this was your compulsion?
YK: Mmmmm! I think it
probably developed slowly so that it
almost creeps up on you. As a child, I loved it; I had a great
time with it. Of course the focus was on training and discipline,
and building the foundation. If you don't have that, then you're
struggling for the rest of your life. So I'm glad I spent those
years laying the concrete, but I would say during high school it became
something that I really knew I could not live without.
BD: Any regrets at all?
YK: Oh, no. Not at
all. I think you go through
different phases where you're discovering what you're all about and
what it is you have to say. Certainly there's frustration along
the way, during that process, but I don't have any regrets
whatsoever. I feel like the luckiest person in the world that I
get to make a living and spend my days, and nights, doing the thing I
BD: Is the music that you
play for everyone?
YK: [Thinks for a
moment] I'd like to think so,
but I'm sure that taste determines everything.
Different people like different things, and harp music is often
perceived as music to quiet down
by, to relax by. And that's great. I love when people come
up to me and say that one of my records is what
they listen to every night as they're getting ready
for bed and it really puts 'em in the mood to sleep. But at the
same time, as long as people are open to the fact
that harp music isn't just always a chill-out experience, I
think that's fine. Like with anything, we just have to look at it
as more than a singular experience. There are a lot of
things about the instrument that are really, as yet, undiscovered by
the general public, and I
suppose I'm doing my level best to get it out there.
BD: You're a proselytizer
YK: [Laughs] I
guess I am! I haven't heard put that
I suppose you're right.
BD: You play music
originally written for the
harp and also transcriptions. Are transcriptions easier or
YK: I'm not sure I would
classify them as "easier" or
"harder." They're important to
me because, with the piano training that I had, there is a lot
of music that I just love. Baroque music, for example, and that
was kind of the genesis for the Baroque album [A New Baroque
(Telarc, 1994)] that I did a couple of years ago. I wanted to
bring that music to life on the harp. Certainly there are
dilemmas when you really want to be very true to the
music and bring it through. In terms of my
transcribing philosophy, unless things can be translated rather
directly, I would prefer not to do them. Take, for instance,
harpsichord music, or piano music, or lute or guitar
music. If you have to drop harmonies, if you have to drop
parts of the music, I would rather just not do it
altogether. When we first began talking about doing the Pachelbel
Canon, I thought,
[sighs] "I've heard so many kind of
necessarily watered-down arrangements of that for a solo
piano, for solo harp, for solo instruments in general." I
just didn't know if that was quite for me, and
then we thought about the idea of doing it in two
tracks, which would allow me to take the original score for three
violins and continuo, and include absolutely everything. That
seemed to be a solution, and that was great! It was certainly a
sort of unique chamber music experience to be
playing along with yourself!
BD: Should you have two
program credits, then?
YK: [Laughs] I
guess so! I guess that would've been
BD: "Here are
YK: Right, right.
Me and myself.
BD: I suppose with
multitracking you could wind up playing even some Wagner, or some very
tricky orchestral pieces.
YK: Oh, I'm sure!
a fascinating concept, really, and I think we might do a little more
BD: At what point, then,
does it become a gimmick?
YK: I think as long as it
serves to bring the music to
the harp in its most original form, it's OK. When it becomes
"Let's see how many tracks we can lay over and
really outdo ourselves," that's when it becomes a gimmick. But
if it's a piece of music that I think, along with my label,
Telarc, would work beautifully on the harp, and that's the only way
to do it, that makes sense to me.
BD: In the music you
play, how much is art and how
much is entertainment?
YK: Hmm! Probably
most basic purpose of art is to bring enjoyment, to bring
pleasure, and if you define entertainment as pleasure and enjoyment,
then I think the two are one! I really believe that if you find
that point where
you're just at one with what you're doing and expressing
yourself in a very sincere and artful way, it can't help but be
enjoyable to a listener. But that's a hard place to reach because
always lots of elements swirling around, and
that point of total focus, total involvement, is the goal. But
that's a good
question, art and entertainment. I think they're
probably very similar.
BD: All wrapped up
YK: I think so.
BD: When you're
piece and preparing it for performance, how much is the composer and
how much is you?
YK: You have to start
composer, certainly, and that should be the
focus for quite a while. Then you add the
"you," perhaps, once you've connected with the composer. If you
understand what the composer meant and what
he's going for, then your goals will be very similar - although that
perception will be very different in every
single case! That's where the variety of
interpretation comes in, one's individual perception of
what the composer hoped for. Once
again, the two are all wrapped up in one. It's hard to separate a
lot of these issues.
BD: Exactly. I'm
looking for where you will put some
emphasis, and if something becomes overbalanced one way or
YK: I think that if
you are sacrificing yourself to the composer and view it that
way, then the result is less than what you want. It should be
almost a collaboration, a
very cerebral collaboration.
BD: Do you have enough
dates, or do you limit your concert dates so that you have enough time
for a personal life?
YK: Right now I'm just
having a great time. I'm not
limiting myself. I'm busy just
about 365 days a year. [Laughs] Personal life
is important to me too. I'm married and have a great
husband - Michael Sachs, who plays principal trumpet in the Cleveland
Orchestra. So we have a home in Cleveland and I kept my
apartment in New York, so we have a good
time! We're both really enjoying what we do,
and enjoying doing it together!
BD: Does it take a
musician to understand the life of a
YK: [Thinks for a moment]
I won't say always, but I
think it helps. Definitely it helps to be able to understand
that compulsion we were talking about before. Each of us
that even if we get home from traveling, a ten-hour day playing a
not crazy to either one of us that then we need to go sit
down and practice a little bit at 2 a.m. just so we touch base with our
instrument. [Both chuckle] That might be kind of hard for a
non-musician to understand.
BD: Are you at the point
in your career that you want to be at
YK: I think so!
Very recently I had
this moment of realization that I'm pretty much doing
exactly what I hoped I'd be right now in my life. You know, you
spend many, many years striving, and especially with an instrument like
the harp and
pursuing a solo career, there aren't a whole
lot of already-blazed trails to follow. So you end
up being very creative and trying
to be resourceful in creating this path that you
know is what you want. It isn't just sitting there waiting
for someone to step into it. I
feel enormously lucky every single day.
BD: Are there enough
harpists, or too many harpists, or too few
YK: There are more
harpists than you think! [Laughs]
I'll put it that way.
BD: Is there a
competition amongst you all?
YK: I think there's
always a healthy competition
among people who do the same thing. Of course
the goal is to keep it healthy, but by and large, harpists are very
each other. There are so many different ways for a harp
career to manifest itself. As a breed, harpists are very
finding all sorts of different paths to follow - you
know, the orchestral versus the "gig" harpist,
to an infinite variety of other options.
And then there's a solo career, like what I do.
BD: Are you able to
improvise on the harp the
way one would improvise on the piano?
YK: I'm not sure you can
do exactly what you could do on the piano, just because you don't
have quite the chromatic possibilities laid out in front of
you like a keyboard. On the piano, you have both white and black
just sitting there waiting to
be played. With a harp you have to create
those accidentals or those half-step variations. But
certainly, improvisation is very possible on the harp.
BD: You can't really have
a "blue note" anywhere.
YK: Right! You have
to commit to your key, at
least for a few beats.
BD: Do you want them to
design a harp that has a few
little extra gizmos on it so you could put in a "blue note" here and
YK: A great deal of
interesting experimentation is going on right now with the harp.
There's an electric harp that was recently developed by Lyon &
Healy and that has a whole lot of different possibilities
for people who improvise and for people who play pop,
jazz and progressive forms of music. I think
there's probably even a place for that in some types of classical
music. I'm excited about seeing what those
options might be, down the line.
BD: Do you have any
advice for younger harpists coming along?
YK: [Thinks for a
moment] That's a tough one because advice is so contextual, but I
would say, in general, young
musicians really need to love it very, very much
in order to do it because it's not an easy thing to strive
towards. You need to have
that love in the front of your mind at all times.
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© 1997 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on January 30,
1997. Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in
1998. This transcription was made and posted on this
website in 2008.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.