Domenico Scarlatt: Sonata in A Major, K. 208
Trad. Chinese/Arr. Kondonassis: Small River Flowing
Carlos Salzedo: Chanson dans la nuit
Recordings by Yolanda Kondonassis have long been a cornerstone of my music collection. So when she parked her giant instrument behind Bob Boilen's desk recently, I was overjoyed to meet her. But I hadn't thought about the other persona I would also meet up close: her harp.
Harps are something of a curiosity — even to the other members of the orchestra. First of all, they're huge. Kondonassis hauled her instrument here in a minivan with all the seats folded down and even that was a tight fit. Second, harps are one of the most difficult instruments to tune (besides the piano, which is so complex that it takes a professional). Each of the 47 strings must be tuned separately using a special tool — which means that for this short concert, the tuning took about three times as long as the performance.
Kondonassis' harp has a powerful presence in a room, due not only to its size, but also to its distinct appearance. The ornate Art Deco design of her instrument, characterized by understated geometric structures, comes from the early-20th-century composer Carlos Salzedo, whom Kondonassis calls the Renaissance man of the harp.
Yolanda Kondonassis in front of her Art Deco-inspired harp at NPR.
Yolanda Kondonassis in front of her Art Deco-inspired harp at NPR. Abby Verbosky/NPR
The tone of the instrument was pure and mellow. Kondonassis started out with a Scarlatti sonata, a piece originally written for keyboard but easily adaptable to the harp. In Scarlatti's music, every note is exposed, allowing the performer no room for error. Listen for her perfectly executed two-handed trills — particularly impressive in light of the fact that she'd recently injured a finger.
Kondonassis pointed out that the harp is versatile enough to fit into any world tradition, because many cultures use harp-like instruments in various shapes and sizes. To that end, she played her own arrangement of the Chinese folk song "Small River Flowing" — an arrangement that let the tune speak for itself in undulating pentatonic lines.
The last piece was an homage to Salzedo. His Chanson dans le nuit is rife with glissandos and impressive percussive techniques, which made for a showy finale that delighted the crowd.