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Arts Features

RPO premieres new harp concerto

Candace diCarlo
Jennifer Higdon and her cat, Beau

American orchestras have come under fire recently for not playing enough music by women composers.  But this week the Rochester Philharmonic presented an important voice. On Thursday night, Ward Stare conducted the world premiere of a new harp concerto by American composer Jennifer Higdon.

Here's how it came to be. 

Fifteen years ago, harpist Yolanda Kondonassis was backstage getting ready to play a concerto with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic Orchestra.  She was trying to focus when she heard “Blue Cathedral” by Jennifer Higdon.

“I was just entranced by it,” she says.  “The audience went bananas, and I felt the same way.”

So she emailed composer Jennifer Higdon and asked her to write a harp concerto.  Higdon said “yes,” but added that it might take a while.   She has a busy schedule.

Several years in the making, the new concerto premiered in Rochester via a “consortium commission.”  That’s when a bunch of orchestras throw money raised through private donations into a big pot to sponsor its creation and premiere.  

For this piece, the RPO partnered with several other symphonies, including the Oklahoma City Philharmonic Orchestra.  They all plan to perform it over the next year or so.  

Music Director Ward Stare says he feels lucky to get to play it first.  

It's in four movements, including one in which Higdon layers just a few string players and winds with the soloist. Then, in the last movement, she says, things get wild. 

"One of the things I wanted to do was to prove that the harp can actually rock and roll,” Higdon says.  "That, you know, it's not just beautiful or lyrical (it IS beautiful and lyrical - it's completely exquisite), but I also wanted kind of an element in there that even if it was someone coming into the concert hall for the very first time who's never been to a classical concert, I wanted them to be entranced enough to say, 'Oh, I wanna go back and hear that again!'”

An audience in Kodak Hall in Eastman Theatre heard the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s new harp concerto Thursday night.

In the fall soloist Yolanda Kondonassis will return to record it with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.  That release will be the first commercial recording to feature the RPO's Music Director Ward Stare.  Hear more about the piece in a long interview with WXXIs’ Julia Figueras at classical915.org.