Composers tend to write works for the musical forces available to them at a given time. During a six-month sojourn to Paris in 1778, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed a concerto for a duke, who played the flute, and the duke's daughter, a harpist.
Stories abound about Mozart's alleged dislike for the flute, but if that were the case, it seems unlikely he would have composed two concertos for the instrument. As for the harp, only one of Mozart's 600-plus compositions features that instrument.
For the Oklahoma City Philharmonic's upcoming classics concert, harpist Yolanda Kondonassis and flutist Marina Piccinini will be the featured soloists in Mozart's “Concerto for Flute and Harp, K. 299.” The concert, subtitled “Mozart and Mahler,” also will feature Mahler's “Symphony No. 1 in D Major.” Joel Levine will conduct.
“With any kind of double concerto, the soloists have to be functioning as one organism, or it just does not work,” said Kondonassis, a Norman native who teaches harp at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.
“I've worked with Marina several times, and it's always been an absolute pleasure. She plays the flute like that blending organism. The first time we played together, it was like getting in a Ferrari and pushing the pedal.”
Mozart's “Concerto for Flute and Harp” showcases its soloists throughout, individually and in tandem. And, as is common in any concerto by the Austrian master, the transparency of the musical textures presents any number of challenges for the soloists.
“I think anybody will tell you that Mozart is the easiest and the most difficult to play,” Piccinini said. “This concerto is in essence an operatic work. There's a stroke of genius in the combination of a wind instrument and a plucked instrument. The precision, perfection, elegance and poise required are just extraordinary.”
In much the same way that five pianists will offer five different readings of the same piano concerto, Mozart's “Concerto for Flute and Harp” affords its soloists numerous opportunities to put their unique interpretive stamp on the work.
“I don't think you can find two instruments that could vary so much from one player to another,” Kondonassis remarked. “The flute can sound like a different instrument in the hands of two flutists. With the harp, everything is manual. Finger texture can make it sound like everything from a lute to a piano.
“The way you put your finger on the string affects the color and atmosphere of the sound. It's the same with the way you leave the string and the distance you raise away from the harp. Changing your thoughts ever so subtly will change the output, the mood and the texture of the sound. That's endlessly fascinating to me.”
Beauty in simplicity
While variations in orchestral color do exist throughout Mozart's compositional canon, they tend to be more of a subtle nature. That's a marked contrast to the vivid colors one hears in the music of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov or Ottorino Respighi.
“The concerto features a standard classical orchestra, with horns, oboes and strings,” Piccinini said. “The color comes not so much from the orchestration, but more from the texture that is achieved by the inclusion or omission of instruments. The beauty lies within the simplicity and the sophistication in which he turns a phrase.”
The two soloists for this concert have impressive musical pedigrees. Piccinini studied with Jeanne Baxtresser, Julius Baker and Aurele Nicolet. Kondonassis earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she studied with Alice Chalifoux.
“She was certainly one of the most indelible figures in my life,” Kondonassis said of Chalifoux, principal harpist with the Cleveland Orchestra from 1931 to 1974. “She was incredibly colorful and a wonderful mentor who guided me through all the nooks and crannies of the business.
“When I did the eulogy at her memorial service, I said I didn't think that I would feel her loss as terribly as I feared because she resides so permanently in my head. She has a nice two-bedroom condo in my brain. She's always there. I hear her voice, her humor and her ways in so many things I do.”