Yolanda Kondonassis will be training six harp students, ages 14 to 24, in a 10-day intensive training program at Potash Hill in Marlboro.
Laura Watilo Blake/Courtesy of Yolanda Kondonassis
Yolanda Kondonassis will be training six harp students, ages 14 to 24, in a 10-day intensive training program at Potash Hill in Marlboro.

For young harpists, a chance to ‘stop time, just for a brief bit’

‘The importance of summer programs for young musicians can’t be overstated,’ says world-renowned concert harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, who brings the American Harp Institute to Potash Hill in Marlboro for intensive training

MARLBORO-The famed Marlboro Music Festival is not the only musical event happening on the former campus of Marlboro College - now called Potash Hill - this summer.

From May 31 until June 9, world-renowned concert harpist Yolanda Kondonassis brings the American Harp Institute to Potash Hill, along with six concert harps and six harp students ages 14 to 24, for an intensive training experience.

Kondonassis held similar retreats the past two summers in Ohio and Maine for larger groups.

Participants will have private lessons with her, as well as seminars and master classes, on such topics as practice techniques, performance strategies, audition preparation, body care, preventing injury, harp technique, and musical development.

"The picturesque and tranquil campus offers a wonderful setting for focused practice and reflection where we provide an inspiring and serene environment conducive to creative development and musical training," says Brian Mooney, Potash Hill's managing director, in an email to The Commons, praising the American Harp Institute for "contributing to our rich legacy of arts and education."

Kondonassis, of Cleveland, Ohio, is head of the harp department and faculty member at the Cleveland Institute of Music. The Commons caught up with the recording artist, speaker, author and environmental activist by phone recently to discuss the summer institute, her career, and her hopes for her students at Potash Hill.

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Victoria Chertok: Let's start by talking about your Earth at Heart foundation on environmental awareness.

Yolanda Kondonassis: I've been into environmental activism for many years, and I founded this organization as a way to inspire environmental action and awareness through the arts. Our primary focus at this point is inspiration through music.

Our signature project is called "Five Minutes for Earth," a curated collection of Earth-inspired music that is commissioned for the foundation. Each composer's prompt is to write a piece that expresses the Earth in some condition or its atmosphere.

The project provides for sponsored donations to worthy environmental organizations with every verified performance of works in the "Five Minutes for Earth" collection - by any artist, anywhere in the world.

V.C.: Fascinating! Let's go back a bit. Where did you grow up, and how did you choose the harp?

Y.K.: I grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, and my father, who was a first-generation Greek, was professor of economics at University of Oklahoma. My mother was a highly trained classical musician who went to the University of Michigan and had a private studio with as many as 100 piano students at a time.

I started playing the piano at an early age. When I was 9, my mother thought I should learn a second instrument. She was a lover of all things unique, so she ordered a harp, and that was that.

V.C.: You attended the Cleveland Institute of Music and studied harp with Alice Chalifoux, legendary principal harpist of the Cleveland Orchestra, for 43 years.

Y.K.: Yes, I lived in Cleveland for six years while I was getting my [bachelor of music and master of music degrees] with Miss Chalifoux.

Then I took a one-year position with the St. Louis Symphony, which was Leonard Slatkin's last year there, so the whole season had a very celebratory feel.

As much as I enjoyed my orchestral work through the years, it was never my goal to play in an orchestra. I always knew my musical personality was more geared to being a soloist.

Right after St. Louis, I moved to New York to join the roster of ICM [International Classical Music] artists and began my career as a touring artist. A recording contract followed soon after, and the real work began!

The pursuit of being a classical soloist has always been difficult, but there was somewhat of a formula: If we won a few competitions, got a manager, scored a recording contract, moved to New York, and made smart choices, we had a chance.

Things are so different now.

While there are many more points of access for artists to break through - such as social media - the playing field is so much more diffused that standing out is harder, especially for those who are not media-oriented.

V.C.: So when Alice retired from Cleveland she asked you to succeed her at both the Cleveland Institute of Music and at Oberlin Conservatory?

Y.K.: When she retired she felt strongly that I should succeed her. She was like a musical grandmother, always believing in me and doing everything possible to support my artistic path, but she also believed that musicians should support great pedagogy as part of their mission.

There was no taking "no" for an answer.

She said, "You've got to do this," and I said, "I live in New York and tour constantly - how am I supposed to do this?"

She closed her eyes, as she often did, and said, "You'll figure it out."

And so I did, and I commuted for years.

Along the way, I married Michael Sachs - who plays principal trumpet with the Cleveland Orchestra - so that consolidated my home base by the early 2000s. We have one daughter - the joy of my life - who just graduated from college.

V.C.: Do you have a favorite composer for the harp?

Y.K.: My favorite composer for the harp would probably be Alberto Ginastera.

On the harp we don't have endless concertos, but Ginastera's Harp Concerto was a vitally important piece for me and helped establish my career as a soloist. It has lots of fire power, but also plenty of magic, so it was a great piece not just for me, but for showing what the harp can do in a solo role.

On the 100th anniversary of his birthday I spearheaded a project called "Ginastera 100," a recording that included not only my performance of his concerto but also other works of his for violin, piano, and guitar with performances by Gil Shaham, Orly Shaham, and Jason Vieaux. It was also a historical dive into Ginastera, the man.

I was able to become acquainted with Ginastera's daughter, Georgina, and do an interview with her that was picked up by WQXR in New York.

It was a fascinating window into Ginastera's personality from both an artistic and a human vantage point.

V.C.: What is it about the man and his music that you love?

Y.K.: What I love so much about Ginastera is his philosophy about art and making art, which is so aligned with mine.

He was the same kind of crazy, all-nighter perfectionist that I am. He would obsess for hours about using a D or G in a chord. I so appreciate that kind of thought and detail orientation, especially in the time we now live, where "fast" seems to be a primary virtue.

Oddly enough, the first piano competition that I ever won as a young kid was with Ginastera's "Malambo" for solo piano. There was some sort of cosmic quality in his music that resonated with me.

V.C.: What are your hopes for the harp students at AHI this summer?

Y.K.: The importance of summer programs for young musicians can't be overstated. I was fortunate enough to go up to the Salzedo Harp Colony in Camden, Maine for many summers.

It was sort of my summer home as a teenager, a completely focused retreat. The pressures of life and the world evaporated, which freed up brain cells to concentrate intensely and memorize most of the major repertoire up there.

I feel young people have that opportunity less and less now. Even when they get away, there is still that little dinging device in their hands that tends to call the shots.

I think this program at Potash Hill is going to be the closest I've come to the retreat atmosphere that I had in Maine. Everyone will get three private lessons with me in 10 days and at least a dozen other seminars or group sessions - plus the required practice. It's going to be intense.

Most days, we will have a harp lab at 11 a.m., where we will delve deep in one technical element like pedal technique, glissandos, harmonics, or arpeggios and chords. Then a lunch break and an afternoon seminar. After that, private lessons will be at 3, 4, and 5 p.m. for everyone, every other day.

The rest of the time I expect the students to practice or enjoy the surroundings. It will be a no-phone zone.

V.C.: You participated in the famed Marlboro Music Festival in the 1990s and early 2000s. What are some of the memories that stay with you?

Y.K.: It feels like coming home, being back at Marlboro. It's such a wonderful atmosphere and group of people who have made it happen all these years. The thread of commitment stays with you.

It's a connection point - both personally and artistically.

I went there for the first time when I was 19, and I think all musicians have a place where they find out how much they didn't know they didn't know.

It was a new standard of musicianship. You are rehearsing and eating with legends. It wasn't enough to go into rehearsals with notes learned. You needed to have ideas and be ready to defend them - like a musical debate. That mindset elevates music making to a whole new level. It makes you invested in the creation of music, not just the end goal.

Marlboro taught me about the importance of process. In fact, at Marlboro, we never even knew if we were going to perform a piece until a few days prior.

As a mature artist now, I truly believe that if we take care of the process, the final product will take care of itself.

V.C.: You mentioned a special spot - Dalrymple - on the Marlboro campus where you practiced.

Y.K.: There was a classroom called Dalrymple [named after Luke Dalrymple, chief carpenter at Marlboro College] and they always gave me my own room in that building, a big space on the top floor. Sometimes it was hot as hell, but it was my own.

Often when I memorize repertoire, I remember where I was when I first put a particular piece of music into my head. That top floor of Dalrymple - the smell of that room, the breeze from the open window, the view, the friends who would stop to talk - it's all such a vivid, multi-sensory memory.

V.C.: Which harps do you own and perform on?

Y.K.: I own two Salzedo-style concert harps made by Lyon & Healy. They are very art deco in style and have a big, extended soundboard and tone. I love them.

V.C.: Why did you choose Potash Hill for your summer retreat?

Y.K.: What I am trying to create this summer at Potash Hill is a throwback. There are lots of summer programs out there, and my interest is not creating another setting where there is a big group harp ensemble, concerts, and various people coming in to do master classes and seminars.

This will feel like a true retreat, where you can examine yourself physically, mentally, and artistically, with lots of hands-on guidance and cohesive goals. I want these harpists to make the kind of developmental discoveries and memories that happen only when you get off the merry-go-round and stop time, just for a brief bit.

The Marlboro/Potash Hill campus was a natural choice for this concept. I visited Marlboro for the first time in 20 years the year before Covid. I had a few days off between commitments in the New York area, and I decided to zip up to Marlboro and see a few dear friends.

While there are some beautiful facility updates on campus, literally nothing had changed. It was like stepping back in time.

That visit planted the seed. I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to share this feeling with young harpists who may not know what getting off the hamster wheel feels like?"

V.C.: That sounds like a great recipe for success! I love the idea of a no-phone zone and a deep dive into the repertoire and the pedagogy.

Y.K.: We can't do everything at once, so we need priorities during the process. As musicians, we have to map our own brains and know how to take in information, and then stir it up and send it back out in a way that reflects our own artistic voice. That is harder than it sounds, but it's doable.

But as both a performer and a teacher, I'm committed to making sure that my students don't have to learn absolutely everything the hard way. There is a lot of stuff that's already been figured out - by me and others - and I want the next generation to build on that accumulated knowledge and spend their time taking it all forward.

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For more information on Yolanda Kondonassis, visit YolandaHarp.com.

For more information on the American Harp Institute, visit potashhill.org/programs/american-harp-institute/.

Victoria Chertok covers arts and entertainment in Vermont for The Commons. She is a classically trained harpist and received a B.A. in music at Bucknell University.

This Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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