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Yolanda Kondonassis and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra: American Rapture

Date: June 2019
Textura. Click here for the original review.

Three generations of composers are celebrated on American Rapture, with a world premiere recording of a 2018 work by Jennifer Higdon featured alongside pieces by Samuel Barber and Patrick Harlin. Yolanda Kondonassis is the star soloist in Higdon’s four-movement Harp Concerto, which was written for and is dedicated to the harpist, though as critical to the recording’s impact is the playing of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra with Music Director Ward Stare conducting. Barber’s single-movement Symphony No. 1 receives a sterling performance by the orchestra, as does Harlin’s Rapture in another world premiere recording. That American Rapture is Stare’s first release with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra certainly bodes well for future offerings.

Higdon (b. 1962) was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto, plus Grammys in 2010 and 2018 for, respectively, Percussion and Viola Concertos. Her first opera, based on Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, won the prestigious International Opera Award for Best World Premiere. Barber (1910-1981) also received the Pulitzer Prize, not once but twice: for his opera Vanessa (1956-57) and his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1962). Of course today he’s perhaps best known for the Adagio for Strings and Knoxville: Summer of 1915, but his other works merit attention also, including the Symphony No. 1. Harlin’s (b. 1984) considered a rising star whose open-minded approach augments classical with jazz and electronic traditions, and is also marked by an interest in soundscape ecology. Similar to John Luther Adams, Harlin aspires to bring the sounds of the natural outdoors into the concert hall rather than treat it as an ivory tower of sorts.

A pioneering force for harpists everywhere, Kondonassis distinguishes Higdon’s concerto with her customary expressivity and impeccable technique. She and Higdon prove to be somewhat of an ideal pairing, the composer championing the harpist’s infectious enthusiasm for her instrument and the soloist reporting how in sync the two were about what a harp concerto should be: “strong, agile, lyrical, feisty, energetic and even heroic when necessary.” They also agreed that the harp’s rich, harmonic voice should resonate clearly without being encumbered by excessive ornamentation.

The harpist’s radiant presence precedes the orchestra’s in the lyrical “First Light,” though the music thereafter blossoms resplendently without ever losing a stateliness so lovely in its orchestral colour it rivals Ravel. In contrast to the serenity of the first movement, “Joy Ride” takes the listener on a rousing romp, the soloist here engaging in rollicking tête-à-têtes with the various sections, strings first, then woodwinds, percussion, and finally brass. Presented as a chamber work, “Lullaby” features soloists only, the stripped-down arrangement affording listeners a moment to monitor the harp’s hushed interactions with flute, viola, vibraphone, oboe, and bells. At concerto’s close, the exuberant “Rap Knock” begins with percussive noises generated by the soloist, a deliberate move on Higdon’s part to show the harp as being capable of producing more sounds than the ones typically associated with it. The composer’s command of colour and sensitivity to timbre are evident throughout, and in exploring so many facets of the harp and contrasts of dynamics and mood in the work itself, she’s created a piece over which one expects harpists will rejoice.

Written in 1936, Barber’s dramatic Symphony No. 1 distills the four-part form of the classical symphony into a single movement. Three themes are voiced in the opening section that retain their originating character when they re-emerge during the twenty-two-minute performance, the design handled in such a way that the transitions from one section to the next occur seamlessly. Moments of passionate intensity follow ones of pastoral splendour, the music shifting fluidly from agitation to tranquility. However strong an impression the aggressive parts make, it’s the extended adagio-styled material that emerges twelve minutes in and culminates in a grand, full-orchestra crescendo five minutes later that is the work’s high point. Like Higdon, Barber excels at putting to maximum advantage the range of colour the orchestra offers and also charges his material with a rhythmic urgency that keeps the listener never less than engaged. At album’s end, Harlin does much the same with Rapture (2011), a robust, nine-minute crowd-pleaser that would work equally well as a concert opener or closer. Rambunctious one moment, serene the next, the piece, like the other two, benefits mightily from the committed performance it receives from Ward and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

The album title, incidentally, signifies beyond the idea of celebrating American composers. The title Harlin selected for his work is intended to emphasize rapture not in religious terms but as an expression of intense emotion of the kind experienced by cavers who, after weeks underground, undergo a state known as ‘The Rapture’ that involves extreme and primal emotions. With respect to the American aspect, Kondonassis contends that “there is a tangible and unique essence that embodies the ‘American Sound’ in all its forms,” the music on this recording reflecting the country’s experience with all the joy, introspection, power, pain, and determination that that entails.