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Music Media Review



Harp Music to Save the Planet

April 22, 2022 - Easthampton, MA:


Five Minutes for Earth, Yolanda Kondonassis [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yolanda_Kondonassis], harp (Lyon & Healy [; https://www.lyonhealy.com/], Salzedo Model [https://www.lyonhealy.com/harps/salzedo/]; Chicago; Be sure to check both links.), 15 composers [https://www.yolandaharp.com/_files/ugd/b547a7_f1129619b8b4440f9f0c13fad6bf7792.pdf]; Azica ACD-71349, © 2022, TT: 79:32, $20.77 via e-bay [https://www.ebay.com/itm/394011471299].

This was officially released on April 1; my copy from Jenson Artists arrived, with an excellent three-page press release (by its owner, a violinist who did her grad work at UMass, so I know her), in my mail on the 16th, after returning from a recital in a small, square-ish 1851 Unitarian church in Amherst (with a lovely 1871 Tiffany window, and a good acoustic) by two UMass grad students: an oboist (I sat next to her professor) and a bassoonist, who asked to be able to give one at the end of their first year; they'll have a required one in a year, and are clearly on track for good careers. I put it in my player and listened to it that evening and read the information in its quadruple-folded cardboard sleeve before turning in, leaving the press release for this morning, and began writing before dawn, now re-listening for the fourth or fifth time.

Full disclosure: I love music for harp and the harp as an instrument, and know Anita Burroughs-Price, harpist of the NC Symphony Orchestra, well – I arranged a recital by her on an early harp that she brought back from Paris (I think) for the Alliance Française de Raleigh back in the 1990s, when I was its president, that enraptured everyone in the audience – a truly unforgettable experience! I have over 60 CDs (with a couple others on order) of music for harp in my collection, including several in a series on period ones that are quite different from modern ones, by a Japanese harpist, Masumi Nagasawa who teaches at Maastricht in the Netherlands, on a Dutch/Belgian label, Etcetera; these are really nice, but many are out of print.

The instrument is among the oldest: King David is often portrayed in medieval art playing one as he sings his Psalms. It was largely developed into its present form in France, mostly, but not exclusively, in Paris, by Jean-Henri Naderman (1734-1799) and Sébastian Érard (1752-1831; he also invented the double escapement mechanism of the piano, as I mention in another piece on this site). Marie Antoinette played a Naderman, which increased exponentially its popularity and that of music for it prior to her unexpected and unfortunate demise. Czech composer Jean-Baptiste Krumpholz (1742-1790), who grew up in Paris, also contributed an improvement. My collection includes CDs featuring some of their earlier instruments, including an original single-action one, and music of Marie Antoinette's time.

This is a unique product in so many ways that it is difficult to know where to start, but the above entry, with its links that you should use and read, is a beginning. The c. 6 ll.-long capsule (not to say 'thumbnail') bios of the composers, in alphabetical order (as their surnames appear on the cover, that is on the outside of the sleeve's second fold) are on the inside of the first three folds, five/page – you'll find more in the linked text, including their comments on what inspired them and what they are attempting to achieve and/or portray; you should make the time and the effort to read them – the print is small, but your device may well allow you to enlarge it? There are several interconnections between them: one was a student of another (Heyder and Kernis); two (Chen Yi and Zhou Long) are colleagues in the same university, both are also grads of the same school: the Central Conservatory in Beijing, where a pianist, Yuan Sheng, whom I've mentioned in several items on this site, and have seen often, because he returns every summer to perform, teaches. The only one I've met is Esmail, when she was visiting in this area in connection with a commission, but she studied at Yale which is not far away, so she may have been here more than once.

The inside of the fourth fold is where the non-biodegradable clear plastic disk holder is glued – it would have been better were it a double-sided sleeve into which the disk could be inserted, naked, or in a thin white paper envelope (w/o, as the Swedish Bis [f.y.i.: this word is French and = 'repeat'; it's what audiences shout when they want an 'encore', also a French word; but French musicians sometimes play again (which was once/originally the standard practice) something already played.] label uses in its 'wallet' sleeves, or w/ a clear window so its face can be seen), form that return(s) to the packaging of vinyl recordings in the 1950s-70s era.

Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis commissioned the composers of various ethnic, generational, and musical styles to write c. five-minute works; some are a bit shorter, some are a bit longer: they range from 1:50 to 8:19. All are world première recordings. She and her producer, Alan Bise (credited in the notes and on the face of the CD), arranged the performance order and there is NO amplification, but the sound is magnificent. Many evoke aspects or features in nature; their titles often indicate their character or thrust. The program notes are on the outside of the end flaps of the four-part sleeve, so when you open it they are side-by-side before your eyes. On the left face, her three-paragraph capsule bio is first; next is her one-paragraph description of the process of developing the project, her purpose, and the resulting playing techniques that ends: "The result is this musical ode to our Earth in all its glory, beauty, and pain – past, present, and future."

On the right face is a one-paragraph description of the what she asked the composers to write and contribute and how it grew into a "live, multi-media concert, a unique video for each track [Here's the link to the YouTube trailer], a separate published collection of Earth-inspired solos for younger harpists, and most importantly, the opportunity for harpists all over the world to perform these innovative works for solo harp by some of today's most lauded composers. Every verified performance of any of these works from the FIVE MINUTES for Earth collection, anywhere in the world, will result in a monetary contribution to a recognized earth conservation organization, sponsored by my non-profit foundation, Earth at Heart." It ends with a second one-line paragraph: "What is at stake is only everything we have." She's putting her effort and money where her head and her heart are! The press release lists some of the organizations, and, as it happens, several are ones I, too, support, meager income notwithstanding.

She physically began it intensely in 2020 (the © of three works is 2020, with most in 2021); the most recent statement that the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) just issued gives us until 2025 to get our act together. The five minutes on her scheme thus became a metaphor for five years; nearly 1/3 of them are already gone! This is nothing to scoff at; we are here because too many people in positions of decision-making and power in corporations and governments have scoffed, motivated by their agenda(s) and/or greed(s), way too long at the science that people in the Middle Ages (I'm a medievalist by education/training, so know what I'm talking about on that subject) and during the 18th-century Enlightenment respected/revered. I knew better than to do that well over 50 years ago. I have come to the conclusion that many of the specimens of the homo sapiens species are, alas, not very sapient (= having wisdom, wise; discerning. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition [issued for the Bi-Centennial], William Morris, ed., Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1976, p. 1151). It's now a real wake-up call; will those who need to do so to save the planet and all its species finally wake up? The 250th anniversary of our independence is just over four years away. Will we be here to celebrate? I seriously wonder!

And at this moment, we have another maniacal tyrant seemingly heading into a WW III by invading a neighboring country and deliberately massacring its private citizens right and left! George Santayana(1863-1952) wrote: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" in Reason in Common Sense, 1905, well over a century ago. Avoiding greeting violence with violence, in view of the weapons of mass destruction that man has created over the centuries, is a treacherous path strewn with nails and shards of broken glass, and must be traveled with care. Of course, Mother Nature has her own, too, like volcanoes and hurricanes, and the universe has its own as well, like the massive object that struck the Yucatan Peninsula and created the Chicxulub Crater that gets its name from the modern village closest to it (I have been to that area, and have friends who winter there), which supposedly 'did in' the dinosaurs, but never before has a creature (aside in mythology) done this, as mankind is doing now. This is not political, but philosophical, and many politicians seemingly don't wish to face and deal with such intangible concepts because they fear their constituents won't understand or vote for them, and consequently fail to lead rather than leading.

This music is really very lovely, often evoking natural things and places, even natural creatures (e.g., Itol's Koholá Sings, and Kernis' On Hearing Nightbirds at Dusk), and events (e.g., Maneval's The Devise of the Shepard Glacier), as the YouTube trailer shows, reflecting the wide variety of their composers' origins (e.g., Pujol's Milonga), and backgrounds, frequently downright enchanting, all on a single instrument whose strings are being plucked masterfully by a real virtuoso who is also a person truly devoted to what matters most. It also brought to my mind one of the appealing features of the "New-Age" music movement/fad of the 80s (of which I have a tiny collection, because that aspect appealed to me, as did some of its ethnic and philosophical aspects). It is a very enjoyable, inspired, inspiring, varied, and successful listening experience, created for a good and worthy cause. There's no dissonance here! It easily withstands re-listenings, even in immediate succession: something newly noticed enters into your ears and mind!