About Yolanda Kondonassis
Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis is one of the world's most famous players of her instrument. She performs as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral harpist, and she is also an author and educator.
Kondonassis was born in 1963 in Norman, Oklahoma. She turned to music early, starting piano at the age of three. This was a matter of family talent coming down to her; Yolanda's mother was also a pianist and carefully watched her development. On a trip to Chicago at the age of nine, Yolanda saw the window display of the Lyon & Healy music store, one of the world's leading manufacturers of harps. The loveliness of the display appealed to her, and she asked for harp lessons as well. She did not give up the piano but studied both instruments through high school. She says the piano was "neck and neck" with the harp as her ultimate choice. The decision was made by several factors. One was that she had a facility for developing the particular muscles that are used in harp playing (and virtually nothing else). Another was that she loved the sensation of creating the music directly by her fingers on the strings, feeling that she could contribute more as a harpist. At age 14, she began boarding at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Her higher education was at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she obtained both her bachelor's and master's degrees. Her teacher there was Alice Chalifoux.
A competition win gained Kondonassis a young artists' debut prize as a soloist with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. She obtained regular employment as an orchestral harpist (holding this position with the Cleveland Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony, among others). In 1987, she won the top prize in the Affiliate Artists National Auditions, which enabled her to tour for five years. She developed a type of program she called "informances," where she plays music, makes light commentary, and also interacts with the audience.
Kondonassis plays all the regular harp repertory, recording much of it. Her Sky Music CD was one of the Ten Best Classical CDs of 1996 in the estimation of the New York Daily News. Her recording of the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto with the English Chamber Orchestra was released in 1997. She has recorded major 20th century works featuring the harp by Salzedo, Ginastera, Miyagi, and Hovhaness. She has also made transcriptions (including one of Vivaldi's Four Seasons), commissioned new works, and has begun to compose in her own right. Among the composers who have written music for her are George Rochberg and Donald Erb. She is interested in contradicting the stereotyped idea of the harp as an "angelic," "heavenly," or "impressionistic" instrument; one of the movements of the sonata Erb wrote for her is called "Dirty Rotten Scherzo."
In the 21st century, Kondonassis has, to a greater degree than most other players, attempted to communicate both with contemporary music aficionados and with crossover audiences. A series of releases on the Telarc label featured such titles as Music for a Perfect Day (2002) and Breathe: The Relaxing Harp (2006), but the same label issued Never Far Away: Music of Bright Sheng, featuring music by that Chinese-born Midwestern American composer. In the 2010s, Kondonassis has recorded mostly for the innovative label Azica, as well as a label associated with Oberlin College. In 2016, she issued Ginastera: One Hundred, an album commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Alberto Ginastera, featuring his Harp Concerto, Op. 25. In 2019, she won a Grammy Award for her performance on the Azica album American Rapture.
Kondonassis has taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Oberlin College Conservatory. She is married to Cleveland Orchestra principal trumpeter Michael Sachs (they have one daughter) and is the author of several books, including On Playing the Harp, a Comprehensive Guide to Harp Technique, and children's book Our House Is Round: A Kid's Book About Why Protecting the Earth Matters. She has been featured, among other venues beyond the traditional classical orbit, on one of the "Tiny Desk Concerts" presented by NPR. ~ Joseph Stevenson & James Manheim