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New Classical Tracks: Harp and Guitar get 'Together'

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Listen to Julie Amacher's New Classical Tracks interview with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis and guitarist Jason Vieux. New Classical Tracks is a Syndicated feature airing Nationally on PRI: Classical 24 & Statewide on Minnesota Public Radio.  

READ THE TRANSCRIPT - "You know, what I like about this collaboration is that it did evolve naturally and slowly. I didn't feel forced or rushed. It was organic in its evolution."

That's how harpist Yolanda Kondonassis talks about her new collaboration with guitarist Jason Vieux. It's a recording appropriately titled Together.

"We picked our repertoire, we had some things commissioned," she says. "We did some concerts together. In this crazy world of ours, very often collaborations can feel a little bit frenetic. You come together, you rehearse quickly, it's intense, you grind things out. And this just really felt like it kind of evolved because it wanted to."

"And we weren't afraid of taking our time," Jason adds. "Maybe that is because we knew we'd always be seeing each other around at the Cleveland Institute of Music. So we wanted to evolve the right way until we got a program that we were really satisfied with."

As teachers at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Yolanda Kondonassis and Jason Vieux often pass one another in the hallway. It was Yolanda who finally suggested they play together sometime. The first work they performed together in recital was the Sonata for Harp and Guitar by Alan Hovhaness, subtitled "Spirit of Trees," which appears on this recording.

"Hovhaness is such an interesting composer because he dabbles in the mystical and the spiritual and the Asian sonorities and at times is really quite traditional and tonal - he's sort of an original eclectic," Yolanda explains. "When you're dealing with two instruments that are a little bit less heard and seen together, I think it's nice to have a piece that's a little bit of everything, something for everyone. That was a good place for us to start."

Jason agrees. "His musical perspective through that piece really suits the two instruments very well," he says.

One goal of this collaboration, according to Yolanda and Jason, is to encourage the creation of more repertoire for harp and guitar. In fact, Yolanda and Jason offer two world premieres on this recording. One is by composer Gary Schocker, who's also a harpist. Schocker's suite, Hypnotised, contains a movement called "Together" which gave this album its title.

"I think the title suggests two instruments that have their own solo repertoire and their own chamber music repertoire as well, but coming together for something that's a little more unusual, a little more unique," Jason says.

"It's been said by quite a few folks - and I think Jason and I would agree - that it's hard to tell which instrument is playing at any given time when there's a true blend," Yolanda clarifies. "Much of what we do is a conversation, but also there's that fusion, and I think that's also suggested in the title. Is it almost a third instrument in a way, not the guitar, not the harp but … a blend of the two? That, I think, is reflected in that word 'Together,' as well."

The recording opens with "Suite Mágica" by Argentine composer and guitarist Maximo Diego Pujol. Yolanda says this piece demonstrates the percussive qualities of both instruments. "I think we'd be remiss if we didn't include something with a great Latin influence, because both of our instruments are so prevalent in the Latin cultures," she says. "It's a suite of dances: The first movement is an introduction, then followed by a Valse, then a Tango, the very quintessential Argentine dance form. Then finished by a Candombe, which is very cool because we each get a bit of a drum solo at the end. We thought it was a great way to start the album and highlight that conversational fusion of sound."

Composer Keith Fitch makes special sound effects a centerpiece of his world-recording piece titled "Knock on Wood." "He makes specialty sounds on the two instruments, and particularly on the harp, a real focal point on this work," Yolanda explains. "He has the harp doing glissandos of all different kinds, gushing chords, washboard, strumming, whistles, which requires you to slide your hand up the bass wires of the string, make sort of a hydroplaning sound, sort of like a whoosh. Normally we slide the finger across the string to make that beautiful traditional harp sound. This piece even uses the pedal to gliss, which quite a few composers are doing now. Keith incorporates it in a highly rhythmic way which - I won't lie - is really tough on the harp, to be in mixed meters and doing all sorts of other effects and at the same time sliding your pedals between positions. He really explores the special-effects potential on harp in this piece."

Together, a new recording from Yolanda Kondassis and Jason Vieux. An organic collaboration between friends and colleagues, "I hope I'm always growing," Jason says. "You want to be growing and learning and getting better with each project and collaboration and each musical experience. And this is definitely one of those things, where you feel like, I definitely haven't done something like this before."

"There's no better lifetime education than being a teacher," Yolanda adds. "On top of that, we have these cool special projects that really stretch us. I think of that Nelson Mandela quote, It always seems impossible until it is done. There are a lot of things that seem a little far-flung, maybe that's a reach. Then it gets done and you're glad you did, and now you know how to do the next one."