Photo Credit: Laura Watilo Blake
The harp may be among the oldest musical instruments—dating back to at least as early as 3500 BCE in Ancient Mesopotamia—but that doesn’t mean an old instrument can’t learn new tricks.
Renowned classical harpist Yolanda Kondonassis recently joined forces with Grammy Award-winning classical guitarist Jason Vieaux to record an album of new music which pushes beyond the limits of simply classical. The album, titled “Together,” explores the vivid colors and rich textures of contemporary repertoire for harp and guitar by showcasing works by five composers from diverse musical backgrounds.
The result is a vibrant program of music which travels seamlessly from lush melodies to simple folk dances to Argentine tango and even the modal tonalities of traditional Asian music. Some of the pieces even use unique harp effects such as pedal glisses, whistles, harmonics, “washboard” strumming, and percussive knocking on the soundboard.
“Contemporary effects are becoming far more common in today’s harp writing as composers try, I think, to search for new ways of expressing the harp idiom,” Kondonassis said. “In my opinion, the best harp writing occurs when the effects enhance the musical ideas and seem natural. It’s also up to me to make the effects sound seamless in the context of the music.”
The duo’s distinctive instrumentation allows their sound to blend and contrast, creating a wide variety of musical textures and timbres.
“I think a well-written piece by a composer who understands the two instruments will create great blend, contrast, dialogue, color—everything that makes chamber music work,” Vieaux said. “It’s really there in the compositions—we just have to bring it out.”
The pieces also provided a unique opportunity for each musician to explore new colors within their own instrument. Kondonassis even got the chance to add some pizzazz to an otherwise angelic pizzicato instrument.
“As a harpist, I’ve always been obsessed with trying to make my sound as warm as possible. It’s so refreshing for me to play off Jason’s warmth sometimes and be the spice, the acidic texture in the mix for a change,” Kondonassis said. “Sound-wise, I really opened up on this recording in ways I’m not sure I have before.”
The album begins with a performance of Argentine composer Máximo Diego Pujol’s four-movement “Suite Mágica,” a charming and romantic piece which takes much of its style, rhythms, and musical forms from the Argentine dance tradition. A guitarist himself, Pujol’s piece fuses elements of the classical idiom with vibrant Latin influences, transitioning flawlessly from gentle, lyrical melodic lines to vivacious rhythmic patterns.
The piece is followed by a beautifully contrasting work: Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge’s “Fantasia.” Amazingly diverse in its rhythmic and melodic content, the piece creates a dynamic and strikingly poetic conversation between the two instruments. The three contrasting movements illustrate an eclectic exploration of whimsicality and drama, occasionally even venturing outside of traditional tonal harmony to keep the listener hanging on every note.
The duo switches gears for Alan Hovhaness’ Sonata for Harp and Guitar (“Spirit of Trees”), an ethereal five-movement work which explores themes of nature, mysticism, and meditation. The piece’s frequent use of modal tonalities reflects the composer’s interest in traditional Asian music and philosophy, an influence which gives his music a tranquil, calming quality.
The album also includes two world premiere recordings of works commissioned by Kondonassis and Vieaux: Gary Schocker’s “Hypnotized” and Keith Fitch’s “Knock on Wood.” Schocker, a harpist himself, was inspired by the diverse musical textures made possible by pairing a string instrument capable of using vibrato with one that is not. His five-movement suite explores the vast possibilities of this unique instrumentation, ranging from lively, enchanting motifs to long, lush, and lyrical melodies.
Fitch’s “Knock on Wood” is probably the least traditional composition on the album. As the title suggests, the piece incorporates a wide range of percussive and rhythmic effects, making it a fascinating and fully captivating exploration of the sonic diversity of guitar and harp.
The composition is the perfect ending to a truly innovative album, offering a dazzling glimpse into the vast musical possibilities of this instrumental combination as Kondonassis and Vieaux continue their collaboration.