Yolanda Kondonassis is based in Cleveland, Ohio where she heads the harp departments at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and The Cleveland Institute of Music. The internationally renowned recording and live performance musician is a star in the classical music galaxy. Kondonassis is also an Okie whose Christmas Eve dinner reservations last month were at Legend’s Restaurant in Norman. Champagne glasses clinked that night and there’s strong possibility celebration will be in order again Sunday.
Kondonassis has been nominated for a 2020 Grammy Award in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category. She snagged the recognition for a World Premiere Recording of Jennifer Higdon’s Harp Concerto on album “American Rapture” (Azica Records) with Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra led by Ward Stare. The disc was recorded live Sept. 17-20, 2018 in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre and released May 17, 2019. It’s another major accomplishment for Kondonassis who has received a prior Grammy nomination. She explained the key to her success.
“I work really hard and love what I do,” Kondonassis said. “I think that’s a good combo. I tell my daughter who is a senior in high school and my students that it’s a particular little cocktail that you mix up. Work ethic, good timing, recognizing opportunities when they present themselves or creating opportunities when they don’t. Then taking advantage of every single thing you get.”
Kondonassis got a whopper of an opportunity when celebrated composer Jennifer Higdon wrote a score just for her. It’s the piece that got the Grammy nomination.
“I was in hot pursuit of this concerto for close to 10 years,” Kondonassis said. “Jennifer has a wonderful, unique American musical language. Oklahoma has played a part in this whole project. The OKC Philharmonic was a consortium member in the commissioning of this concerto. They not only presented the piece but contributed to the cost of the commission which I appreciate greatly. It came full circle because the very first time I ever heard one of Jennifer Higdon’s works was when the OKC Philharmonic programmed ‘Blue Cathedral,’ one of her iconic works. It was played before I played a harp concerto.”
Kondonassis was blown away when she heard the work and knew Higdon would be able to write amazing music for her instrument.
“I contacted her and said I’d love to have her language for a harp concerto,” she said. “Jennifer said she would and basically it took years of waiting in her queue.”
The process of making it all happen was a long journey that came to a happy conclusion. The Grammy is icing on a cake that took thousands of steps to bake.
“Hundreds and hundreds of projects are submitted in the first round for recording academy consideration,” she said. “You wonder how it ever happens in that tiny bottleneck of getting it down to five final nominees. It feels a little bit like a miracle. It is doubly humbling when you see how much great music is made every year.”
The miracle’s genesis was in Norman when Kondonassis was 9.
“I think my mom saw me as developing slightly as a nerdy tomboy,” she said. “I loved reading and adored playing piano but I think she was looking for some refining element.”
A small troubadour harp was ordered.
“I think my mom’s hope was just that she could get me into a dress,” Kondonassis said. “Instead of me becoming a little a more angelic because of the harp, the harp became a little less angelic because of me.”
The journal Harp Column notes that Kondonassis raps her knuckles on the instrument’s sound board and gets down into a bone-chilling groove.
“I look for repertoire that doesn’t fit stereotype,” she said. “I like playing music that shows a much broader dimension of the harp. Jennifer Higdon wrote a piece for me that really is heroic, lively, tough and spirited. It also has a lyrical element, the full spectrum.”
Kondonassis attended Madison Elementary and Irving Middle School before going away to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. Her dad, Dr. Alexander Kondonassis, is University of Oklahoma professor emeritus of Economics who taught here for 50 years.
“I get back to Oklahoma several times a year,” she said. “It’s where I come home to.”