Harpist  Yolanda  Kondonassis

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 our interview.

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?

Yolanda Kondonassis:  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 harp?

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 quickly.

BD:  Most people don't understand that they should watch a harpist's feet!

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?

kondonassisYK:  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 different.

BD:  Why?

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 world?

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 part.

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 the concerts.

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 harp?

YK:  Sometimes!  Usually harpists take care of their instruments very lovingly, so there's pretty good continuity from year to 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 partnership.

*     *     *     *     *

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 harp?

YK:  No!  The harp has a great deal more repertoire than most people realize.

BD:  Then why is this repertoire not better known?

kondonassisYK:  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 repertoire and 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?

YK:  [Laughing]  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 21st centuries?

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!

YK:  Right!

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 accomplish it?

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 audience?

kondonassis cdYK:  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?

YK:  [Demurely]  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 that.

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 unstrung.

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?

kondonassisYK:  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 love.

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 for it.

YK:  [Laughs]  I guess I am!  I haven't heard put that way, but I suppose you're right.

BD:  You play music originally written for the harp and also transcriptions.  Are transcriptions easier or harder?

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 challenge, 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 right.

BD:  "Here are Yolanda!"  [Chuckles]

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!  It's a fascinating concept, really, and I think we might do a little more of it.

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 just, "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 the 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 there are 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 together.

YK:  I think so.

BD:  When you're approaching a piece and preparing it for performance, how much is the composer and how much is you?

YK:  You have to start with the 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 another.

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 concert 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 musician?

kondonassisYK:  [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 understands that even if we get home from traveling, a ten-hour day playing a concert, it's 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 this age?

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 harpists?

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 supportive of each other.  There are so many different ways for a harp career to manifest itself.  As a breed, harpists are very innovative in 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 keys 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 there?

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.

===   ===   ===   ===   ===
-----   -----   -----
===   ===   ===   ===   ===

© 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.

Award - winning 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 like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, 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.