Yolanda Kondonassis, considered by many to be among the foremost harpists in the world, will celebrate the release next month of her 11th album of contemporary pieces and classical selections arranged for the instrument. Two months ago, Kondonassis celebrated a release of another kind: new daughter Amanda, who did her fair bit of vocal improvisation into the Ohio end of the line when the Independent reached the harpist at home for a recent interview.
Missoula Independent: What was it that first attracted you to the harp?
Yolanda Kondonassis: Well, I studied the piano for quite a few years before I took up the harp. My mother was my piano teacher from age three on, so it was kind of a mutual decision between my mom and me. She decided it was time I learned another instrument, and we’d both been fascinated by the harp, which has a real magical quality to it. I started with a tiny little wooden harp without pedals, not the fancy kind with gold leafing and carving and all of that.
MI: How might someone go about taking up the harp if they couldn’t necessarily afford to buy one?
YK: More public schools are starting harp programs with little troubadour harps, which is what I started on. I can think of a good handful of schools in major cities now that are offering harp programs, and often a university will have a harp or a harp teacher will have one to rent. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
MI: Do you ever suffer from harpal tunnels?
YK: Um, no. I’ll have to remember that. That’s a good one.
MI: No, it’s not.
YK: Well, it’s a good pun for the right moment. Carpal tunnels have never been a problem for me, I think because I was trained in a fabulous technique that factors in more of the physical element of playing the harp, and playing the harp really is an unnatural thing to do. You don’t have gravity going for you. You’re trying to do something that isn’t very natural physically, so you need a really good physical method of doing it, or you do hurt yourself.
MI: I’ve noticed from all the praise of you included in your press pack that a lot of writers say basically the same things about your “poise” and “sensitivity” and “flair.” Like Well, duh! As though you’d want a harpist who didn’t have those things!
YK: I’ve often thought about the same thing, because I’ve gotten identical quotes on numerous occasions from people commenting on the graceful hands and poise and things that you mention. I think the harp is a very theatrical instrument, and certainly those things have to go with it, the poise of the body and the presentation. I think a harpist really misses the boat unless he or she pays attention to the visual aspects of the instrument. Because it’s a huge part of it, and you can really ruin—at best, detract from—a performance if you don’t pay attention to that. I wouldn’t thumb my nose at any kind of praise, but I’m happier to read about musicianship, and comments that would apply to any musician rather than comments specific to the instrument.
MI: What do harpists talk about when they get together?
YK: Oh, well, it depends who you talk to. The pros and cons of the different techniques of playing, certainly, although I try not to get too hotly embroiled in those discussions. I suppose harpists talk about different instruments, ways of handling blisters and calluses, and repertoire. Repertoire’s always a conversation.
MI: Do you consider yourself bold in choosing your repertoire?
YK: I think so. I think I’m always looking for something that’s a little different. And I think the key to getting audiences to embrace music that isn’t exactly what they expect is to give ’em a little of what they do expect, and then they’re a lot more ready to digest something that’s a little unexpected. It’s a bit of a mission of mine to not always just present the predictable.
MI: What do you think is the most surprising or unlikely piece that you’ve performed?
YK: Once, while performing for some inner-city kids from Oakland, I did an arrangement of MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This.” It got their attention and brought a few laughs—and a few cynical looks. By the end of the two hours, most of them were coming around. Only once in awhile, when I think I need a kind of portal for entry, will I do something like that.
MI: Was “Smoke on the Water” the first thing you picked out on the harp when you were learning?
YK: I don’t know “Smoke on the Water”…
MI: Dunh dunh duunnnh, dunh dunh dunh-duunnnh...
YK: (laughing) Oh, okay, that one. Well, since my mother was a classical pianist, I was never really steeped in popular music, although I loved a lot of deep-’70s stuff like John Denver and Barry Manilow. I guess I just feel like there’s so much that’s interesting and magical about classical that that’s what I’m there to turn (young) people on to.
MI: What’s a good present to buy for a harpist?
YK: A gift certificate for three massages. If you play the harp in a way that’s right for your body, you shouldn’t have many problems. Even so, just from sitting at an instrument for as long as it takes to do it well, you need a little release and downtime once in a while.