An instrument that’s over 5,000 years old is about to speak in a new voice.
Friday night, the Lansing Symphony will take part in the multi-city premiere of a new concerto by one of the world’s foremost classical composers, Jennifer Higdon, performed by the most formidable harpist in the world, Yolanda Kondonassis.
This stellar convergence could have happened in Chicago, L.A. or New York, but local bragging rights are not the point. These two women are on a mission.
Against steep odds, Higdon is body-checking Bach, Beethoven and Brahms to become a vital presence on the world’s concert halls, to the tune of some 500 performances a year.
A fearsome, athletic harpist, Kondonassis is out to demolish her instrument’s genteel image, even if she has to commission new music to do it.
Here is a closer look at the unique personalities involved, the nuts and bolts of making harp sausage, and how Lansing got a piece of the action.
Stuck with a mystery
People come up to Jennifer Higdon after concerts, often in tears. They email and write her surprisingly personal letters. With a Pulitzer Prize and several Grammys on the shelf, Higdon is at the top of her craft as a composer, but what grabs people about her music is that she has something to say.
Higdon's “Blue Cathedral” is one of the most frequently performed new works in the world since its 2000 premiere. Between 20 and 40 orchestras perform it each year, an astonishing record for a contemporary piece.
“People look to music to reflect different aspects of their lives,” Higdon said. “We are all going through the same experiences — life, death, agony, falling in love.”
There’s a killer moment in “Blue Cathedral” when a flute pops into the mix. That lilt is the essence of Higdon, who was a flutist in her youth. A bit later, a clarinet joins in, representing her younger brother, Andrew Blue, who died of cancer before the piece was finished. Flute and clarinet briefly flit together. Too soon, tolling bells push the music on, into the unknown.
“I was trying to decide whether life was going to be about living or about dying,” Higdon told Hugh Sung in a YouTube interview a few years ago.
You can hear her choose life when a strange trumpet fanfare shudders from below, like an attempted suicide pulled out of an icy river and covered by a blanket.
Even if you don't know the music’s backstory, its emotional power is the same. How does that work? If the composer herself doesn’t know, we’re stuck with a mystery — and she doesn’t know.
“How do you explain the feeling part of it?” Higdon mused.
“It is really hard to explain, when something moves you — why, it moves you.”
The classics aren’t the only, or even the biggest, influence on Higdon’s music. Her dad, an experimental film-maker and short story writer, was into folk and rock. Higdon still counts the Beatles as her biggest influence.
At Bowling Green State University, where Higdon studied flute, she struggled to keep up with classical music history, plugging holes in her knowledge as she went along.
A turning point came when a teacher asked her to write a two-minute piece for flute and piano, which she called “Night Creatures.”
Instead of stress, Higdon found liberation. She thought of Johannes Brahms, who sweated bullets over writing a symphony — and almost never did — because Beethoven, Haydn and all the other greats were looking over his shoulder.
“Not knowing everything that came before was a blessing,” Higdon said. “I found my own voice. I didn’t get intimidated by masterpiece syndrome.”
Boxes of bells
A child of the pop era in more ways than one, Higdon drinks a lot of Diet Coke, with caffeine, while composing.
“People hear my pieces and say, ‘Just how much Diet Coke do you drink?’” she laughed. “My brain is wired to turn over ideas faster. Timing, knowing when to make a color change, the need for a clear pulse – I got all that from pop music.”
When the Lansing Symphony’s Timothy Muffitt conducts Higdon’s music, he can sense the audience leaning in — an exhilarating feeling for conductors who are used to spoon feeding new music in castor oil doses to resistant listeners.
“She’s not just filling space or trying to get from Point A to Point B,” Mufitt said. “I feel like her works grow organically from her own being.”
Unlike most composers, Higdon publishes her own music and owns the copyrights. In the ‘90s, before print on demand, she printed and bound them herself. She credits minimalist composer Philip Glass for advising her to own her own music when she was a student.
It was a leap of self-faith at first. Few mortals make a living as a composer these days, or any days. “Mozart tried to self-publish, get a subscription series going, but he couldn’t get enough people to sign on,” Higdon said.
She was lucky to get one order a month at first, “usually from someone I knew.” Now she averages four or five orders a day, mostly from orchestras.
Muffitt shakes his head at numbers like that. “It’s amazing, and so exciting, that our living composers are getting that much exposure,” he said.
Higdon gets most of her income from publishing, freeing her to write more and teach less. She is proud of the life she’s earned for herself, but doesn’t take it for granted.
“The night before we read through ‘Blue Cathedral’ for the first time, I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to work,” she said. “I was convinced it was going to be a failure. I feel like I’m not a very good judge of this stuff.”
Yolanda Kondonassis first heard Jennifer Higdon’s music a dozen years ago, while waiting backstage to play a concert. She was doing her usual warm-up routine, hopping and stretching to get the blood moving, when the music blew backward from the orchestra like a hot breeze. She stopped in her tracks.
“I heard this new sound and knew she could do really cool things with the harp,” Kondonassis said.
Kondonassis searches for the next great harp adventure the way Captain Ahab scans the horizon for Moby Dick. “There’s nothing wrong with a brunch wedding, but that’s not what I do,” she said. For her, the traditional French and Romantic stuff for harp is a “guilty pleasure” at best.
“No dis on them, but it’s not what gets my whole body buzzing and tingling,” she said.
And that’s not all she doesn’t do. “I’ll probably tick off a lot of people with this, but before I go somewhere, they always want me to sit in my car, or in a practice room, and make a video,” she said, imitating social-media gush: “Hey, I’m really looking forward to coming to Blah-blah-ville and I can’t wait to try their new restaurant, Urban 21!” Slowly, promoters are getting the idea that she’s not interested.
“I believe in presenting an art form, so people feel they are getting something that’s not tied to branding and imaging,” she said. “We get so diffused trying to cover all these bases we forget what the hell we’re doing — the art part.”
The art part was on fire at the Lansing Symphony’s previous brush with Kondonassis, in 2011, when she and Muffitt played the hell out of the prickly, Latin-tinged, quasi-modernist harp concerto by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. It’s still her signature work.
Impressed with Muffitt’s musicianship, Kondonassis approached the maestro with a proposition.
Would Lansing be willing to join a multicity consortium of orchestras, pool their resources and commission a new work by Higdon?
“Tim is a blast,” Kondonassis said. “Jennifer’s music is very complex. You need a traffic cop at the podium in addition to a wonderful musician, and Tim is both. You need to be able to look up for a split second and know where ‘one’ is, where ‘three’ is.”
To Muffitt, it was a “no-brainer.”
“This is one way for an orchestra that isn’t the New York Philharmonic or the Boston Symphony to have a really significant impact on the direction of music,” he said.
Kondonassis has another Michigan connection. She chose to devote her life to the harp, and not the piano, after learning the Ginastera concerto at Interlochen, where she studied four years.
“Michigan is like a second home to me,” she said.
Kondonassis signed up five more orchestras — Harrisburg, Rochester, Fargo- Moorhead, Oklahoma City and Baton Rouge, where Muffitt serves his other music director gig.
With the principals and funding in place, all they had to do now was get a concerto.
After almost eight years of back and forth schedule jockeying, Kondonassis and Higdon finally spent a day together in Philadelphia.
They talked about life, music, politics. They grabbed a practice room at the Curtis Institute, where Higdon teaches. They borrowed a harp from the music department and settled in for an unusual master class — one master to another.
“I played for her for three or four hours, everything I knew,” Kondonassis said.
When it came to breaking the harp out of brunch wedding purgatory, they were on the same page.
“I felt like too many composers had written namby-pamby music for the harp. The harp can be pretty powerful, much more rock and roll-ish,” Higdon said. “I wanted to up the ante and give it some serious material.”
Higdon took out one of her ubiquitous notepads. She had a lot to learn about what was and wasn’t possible.
“She showed me about the hands, the pedals,” Higdon said. “Most people don’t know that harpists only play with four fingers. They don’t play with their pinky, ever.”
Despite her strong ideas about what works best for the harp, Kondonassis resisted the urge to check in on Higdon for a long time.
“That artistic process is important to respect,” Kondonassis said. “You don’t want to get into somebody’s head.”
‘Thank you, Jennifer’
Now it was down to Higdon and her muse. She worked at her computer, surrounded by notepads full of musical sketches.
“There are days when there’s nothing there,” she said. “I keep writing because I know I have to move the work forward. Sometimes in my third or fourth hour of writing, a little bolt of inspiration might come up.”
A grand piano at her back is connected to the computer via a Midi keyboard. In front of her is the latest can of Diet Coke.
It took a few dozen of them to make a harp concerto coalesce.
“Giving it enough material to make it interesting to listen to, and obey the physics of what a harp can do — that’s a lot of thinking and daydreaming and crossing stuff out,” Higdon said.
When the concerto was almost done, Higdon sent the harpist a few sketches — her first taste of the music — asking whether the fast parts were playable.
Kondonassis excitedly made iPhone videos of herself playing the bits in question.
“I can do it as fast as you want,” she wrote Higdon. As soon as the score arrived, Kondonassis started working it out for the first time on the harp — usually the most painful, fraught and potentially disappointing part of the process.
She found that Higdon had learned the instrument very well.
Taking a break from practice, she texted the composer. “I always talk to myself when I do this, and this is the first time I’ve used language suitable for my daughter to hear,” she wrote. “This is awesome. Thank you, Jennifer.”
Weeks later, when Muffitt read the score, the maestro’s ear heard a voice he hadn’t heard yet from Higdon. Somehow, the composer turned the orchestra into a giant harp.
“All the movements contain very elaborate interlocking structures, which, I’m guessing, are inspired by the harp, because the harp can produce those kinds of musical structures with great clarity,” Muffitt said.
“I feel like a lot of the orchestral writing, even if the harp isn’t playing, is harp inspired.”
The music even starts with the harp playing alone, for a minute or so.
“It’s a way for us all to get in the zone,” Kondonassis said.
“A lot of people just haven’t heard the harp.”
She described the second movement, ‘Joy Ride,’ as a “kick in the pants,” and the fourth movement, “Lullaby,” as an “ode to the wonder of childhood.”
“I’m certain I waxed on ad nauseam about my daughter, who I’m in love with,” Kondonassis said. The movement is a unique latticework of solos from various instruments and Kondonassis' harp, with no orchestral blasts.
The last movement, “Rap Knock,” begins with Kondonassis knocking on the frame of the harp and launches into “very fast, technical passagework and general chaos.”
“I’m a closet percussionist anyway,” Kondonassis said.
This might seem like a lot of fuss over 25 minutes of music, but Friday’s premiere is a not just a high note for Lansing and for its plucky orchestra. Vital signs like this make it harder and harder to dismiss classical music as a hospice case.
Muffitt is amazed that Friday marks the second big premiere in as many LSO concerts.
“We’re a living, breathing organism,” Muffitt said. Last month, the orchestra premiered an eloquent concerto for trombone and orchestra by MSU composer David Biedenbender.
“These are not dinky little three-minute pieces,” Muffitt said. “The response to David’s piece was fantastic. It’s like — we’re not apologizing for doing this. I feel like our community is right there with us, and this is part of our identity as an orchestra.”
Higdon thinks they “pulled it off,” but don’t ask her how.
“I still find composing a mystery, even though I do it every day,” Higdon said. “It’s like, ‘Where is this stuff coming from?’ It seems a little magical.”