If concert-goers emerge from the next York Symphony Orchestra performance a little stunned, a little entranced, that's quite all right. The night's premier guest artist, Yolanda Kondonassis, had the same reaction when she first fell in love with the harp.
On a family trip to Chicago, the then-8-year-old Kondonassis encountered a Valentine's Day display at the music store Lyon & Healy. Riffing on the angelic holiday theme, the shop had created a half-block tribute to the instrument.
"We walked by this window, and I was just mesmerized," she says. "It was the first time either my mother or I thought, 'Gosh, I guess a person can play the harp.'"
With a piano teacher for a mom, Kondonassis already had a strong musical background.
"I had studied the piano from earliest memory," she says. "Shortly after (the trip), we ordered a little harp. ... Things moved pretty fast from there."
Performing: Fast forward a few decades, and Kondonassis is a top recording artist who leads the harp departments at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and gives concerts around the world. This weekend, she'll perform with the York Symphony Orchestra.
"I'm just coming off of weeks of recording," she says. "I always so enjoy getting back on the road and performing live."
When the audience and the environment merge with the music to set the mood, the performance becomes a unique event. A happy accident can even add to the magic.
"What I love is the spontaneous quality of performance," Kondonassis says. At a concert once in North Carolina, "there was a violent thunderstorm during this piece, and it kind of worked with everything that was going on in the music."
At the York show, she'll play Ginastera's "Concerto for Harp," a harp solo with orchestral accompaniment.
"I love this piece. I would say it's probably my favorite concerto to play with orchestra," she says.
Awareness: Stretching the audience's understanding of the harp is part of Kondonassis' role as an ambassador and advocate for the instrument. The image of angels strumming harps is burned into popular culture, but the reality is much more than that, from classical harpists like Kondonassis to jazz harpists, rock harpists, hip-hop fusion harpists and others.
"I like to expose audiences to not only what they may expect, but really show them the full range of capability of the harp," she says. "More often than not, people come away thinking, 'Gosh, I didn't know the harp could do that or could sound like that.'"
With the range of the strings, the complexity of the foot pedals and the body of the harp itself as a percussive device, the instrument offers much to engage the eyes and ears in the audience.
"It's a wonderful musical gadget," Kondonassis says. "It's endlessly fascinating from a visual standpoint (and) from an auditory standpoint."
Even composers and performers have more to learn about the range of possibilities.
"We're probably only scratching the surface at this point of what can be done with the harp," she says.
On Saturday night, Yorkers can explore a little deeper with Kondonassis.
The Ginastera piece is "a wonderful old friend," she says. "I'm always really eager to share it with people."
The York Symphony Orchestra will welcome three guests at its second classical concert of the season: harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, organist Victor Fields and pianist Gabriel Benton, the orchestra's Young Artist award winner.
Kondonassis will perform Ginastera's "Concerto for Harp." The concert will also feature selected pieces by Chopin and Saint-Saens.
The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23, at the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center, 50 N. George St., York.
Tickets are $36-$56 for adults and $18 for students.
For more information on the concert, call (717) 846-1111 or visit www.mystrandcapitol.org.
For more about Kondonassis, visit yolandaharp.com.
- Reach Mel Barber at firstname.lastname@example.org.