Soul Sisters Unite in a Fortunate Stroke of Serendipity Fueled by Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring'

Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring ballet score was an experiment in tonality, rhythm, stress, and dissonance in the 20th century. And now, more than one hundred years later, the Russian's masterful orchestral work has been resurrected. Giving it new life are Frost School of Music alumnas Ksenija Komljenović and Liana Pailodze Harron. The soul sisters have created a group called Vesna Duo, whose new recording of The Rite of Spring, played on nothing but piano and marimba, is up for a GRAMMY® nomination consideration in the category of Best Chamber Music / Small Ensemble Performance.
Frost School of Music alumnas Ksenija Komljenović and Liana Pailodze Harron. Photo by: Antek Olesik

Suppose someone has posted a digital ad looking to connect a pianist, percussionist, recording, and production engineer to arrange the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky's controversial The Rite of Spring, which contains many novel features for its time. Chances are this album would not have seen the light of day, even in the age of social media. 

But the serendipity phenomenon does exist. Ask percussionist and arranger Ksenija Komljenović and pianist Liana Pailodze Harron. Their fortunate stroke of fate has not only connected the two but bonded them in such a special way that they've created a chamber group and a brand called Vesna Duo. Amazingly, their union has produced a brilliantly colored rendition of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, a ballet that revolves around the return of spring and the renewal of the Earth through the sacrifice of a virgin chosen to dance herself to death—a theme that shook the world after its Paris premiere in 1913.

Flash forward 109 years later. Vesna Duo's new recording is up for a GRAMMY® nomination consideration in the Best Chamber Music / Small Ensemble Performance category—proof that the Frost brand networking creates communities and soul sisters, if you're lucky.  

In a recent interview, Harron and Komljenović shared their story. Here, they talk about their incredible journey from Frost School of Music to the GRAMMYs®, the powerful union that has sparked a fire under their belly, and the resurrection of a beloved piece of music. And about a crazy idea to make something good out of the bad and ugly worldwide pandemic. As they tell it, their plan was simple: doing what they had never had time to do—re-write the "Rite" anew.


Liana, you graduated from Frost School of Music with a Doctorate in Piano Performance in 2013, then moved to New York to perform and teach at 92NY School of Music, a cultural center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Ksenija, you received your Doctorate in Percussion Performance in 2017 from Frost and your Artist Diploma in 2018. After a year in Hong Kong, you moved to Texas, where you now work as an Assistant Professor of Percussion at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. So, your paths never crossed at any given time at the Frost School of Music. How did the two of you connect in 2020? 

Liana: Frost School of Music is a beautiful community, and the network is powerful. Ksenija and I knew of each other without having met.    

Kseniia: Liana and I met through a mutual friend —another Frostie—Mitya Nilov, our playing partner. I played percussion with him, and Liana played piano with him. I kept hearing wonderful things about her through him and everyone else, and that's how we connected.

So, how did the conversation lead to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring after you met?   

Liana: I was in Miami in 2020. A group of us were expecting to meet to rehearse in preparation for a performance at Carnegie Hall with Mitya Nilov (who won the Concert Artist Guild) in New York City. We quickly realized that would not happen, at least not yet. Suddenly, we felt like our entire future got erased. I had heard amazing things about Ksenija, not only as a person but as a musician. So, I called her and said two things: first, we need to be friends. And second, let's do something we never have time to do in our normal lives. Let's pick something absolutely crazy. Ksenija is a composer and an arranger. So, I asked her if there was something that she could create for us that would be basically impossible. 

Ksenija: After our Carnegie Hall cancellation, I told Liana I have always wanted to do The Rite of Spring—the only piece that has made me cry while playing it on stage. I learned that Liana is one of those people that can be told, "Okay, you must grow an extra limb to do this. Could you please play a million notes simultaneously while I play four?" And she'd say, "Sure, no problem. Just throw them at me!" That's how it all began. I discovered I had a soul sister. Working with her is easy and makes chamber music magical. 

And how did you work together, being that you were both in two different parts of the country?

Ksenija: I would arrange a movement every couple of days and send it to her. She would test the piano part and send back corrections. When we eventually met up in October 2020 and tried it out, we realized, "Oh, my God, this is going to work!"

Liana: It was one of those freaky moments when we looked at our parts. For a second, we got confused because we had our scores marked in the same way. We looked at each other and thought, "Oh, my God! Where have you been all my life? Why didn't we collaborate until this moment?" We knew then and there that we had to play this together because the energy was already there. We just had to work hard to learn the piece. Ksenija's arrangement is something that a composer typically takes about nine months to a year to create, and she handed in the score in three weeks. It was incredible!  

So, when did the idea for a whole album materialize?

Liana: We did not expect this to, so to speak, grow its legs. We wanted to create this project and perform it in a concert. But then, we began getting attention for our world premiere and invitations to perform. We knew we had to record an album, make this official, and have it preserved for the rest of our lives. 

According to you, this album was a product of love, with several Frost School of Music alums contributing. Name those working behind the scenes. 

Ksenija: Everyone who worked on this album has, at some point, been associated with Frost. Besides Liana and me, the amazing Antek Olesik, who was in charge of our video/design/promotional images, is a current member of the Frost Percussion Studio. Justin Chervony, our fabulous recording engineer who also did mixing/mastering, worked at Frost as a Studio Production Engineer. This album was an effort between the four of us with the unwavering support of Liana's wonderful husband, Tommy Harron, also a Frost alum! 

And how did you prepare for all that production? And how did you come up with your brand Vesna Duo?

Liana: When we premiered this, we were not an official duo. We were just two friends collaborating on a project. Then, we started getting invitations to perform. Eventually, participating at The Chamber Music America Conference needed us to have an official name, which made us think in that direction. 

Ksenija: That's when we came up with Vesna Duo. I love this because the creation of this chamber group was an entirely altruistic act—we just wanted to play together. The name came about as I spent so much time looking at Stravinsky's music. I was inspired by this old pagan ritual and realized how little I knew about my background regarding the pagan culture that used to exist in many of the Balkans and Slavic-speaking countries.

So, I read about Slavic mythology and found a goddess called Vesna. In Russian (and in many Slavic languages), it means springtime. The word Vesna was also there in the title of Stravinsky's ballet (Vesna svyashchennaya). Vesna represents the goddess of spring, resurrection, and rebirth. So, during this dark time when Covid hit, our duo gave me life. I felt so connected to Liana and this music on some deep core level. And so, I thought, this is the roots of the roots. We were born out of the fire. 

A piece born out of the fire . . . interesting. Can you expand on that?  

Liana: Overall, 2020 was a hectic time . . . The premiere of "The Rite" was baptism by that fire. 

Ksenija: A few days before our premiere, a winter storm hit South Texas, which happens as frequently as a snowstorm in Miami! School was out, and flight after flight was canceled. Liana was finally able to come in only a day before the concert. We had 24 hours to rehearse and present this to people.

Liana: I remember when Ksenija called me up and said, "So, should we do this?" We decided we should jump into the fire. That is how it's been ever since—jumping from one fire to another. It's been quite a journey.

After your first concert at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, you started receiving lots of attention, even from the media. When did you realize you had something extraordinary?

Liana: It was when Jonathan DePeri offered us a concert. He is the founder and artistic director of Gotham Arts and one of the major philanthropists in New York City. A day before the release of our album in May, he hosted a special party where we performed the Rite of Spring and two other short pieces.

Aside from The Rite of Spring, what other music did you play that night? 

Ksenija: La Muerte del Ángel by Astor Piazzolla, and The Ever-Evolving Etude by Avishai Cohen. 

Liana: It was when we had the conversation with Jonathan that we realized, okay, maybe this is really, really happening. He said, "I would like to host your album release. How do you feel about it?" And suddenly, this turned into a two-day event in New York. Our other album launch concert was at Salon 58, on the 68th floor above Central Park, with a stunning sunset view. 

And what has happened since the album was released? 

Ksenija: Most recently, the album was nominated for a GRAMMY® consideration in the Best Chamber Music / Small Ensemble Performance category.  

Liana: We have a series of concerts across the U.S. This November, we're performing at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in Indianapolis, one of the largest percussion-related events in the world. It features concerts, clinics, panels, and presentations given by the finest artists worldwide. We've received so many messages from friends saying they will be there, which is super exciting. I don't even know how to explain all of this.  

Do you have an agent doing all this PR work for you? 

Liana: Funny you say that. Someone recently commented when we were featured in that Wall Street Journal article, "Tip your agent!" We replied, "We don't have an agent. We do all our publicity ourselves!"  

Ksenija: We did our homework and designed the best way we could to give this album life. It's been amazing how it has resonated with people. And now, it's been in the national news and reported abroad in many languages. That's special. 

Liana: Our vision for the future is to take Vesna Duo all over the world, including Iceland! We've been invited to perform at Harpa, one of the greatest concert halls in the world, next year.   

Where do you find the strength to juggle all your work? 

Liana: I teach at 92NY School of Music, one of the best schools that produced many Broadway stars. I have a large studio of 15 students and teach several classes. I also perform and record with a couple of other UM alum friends. We get together several times a year to work on projects. I have a four-year-old son, and I became a better musician after becoming a mother. So, I have to work hard to make it all happen. I do this by staying organized and having a ton of lists, making sure that nothing falls through the cracks. I ignore the sense of being tired . . . that doesn't exist, so I keep on going.

Kseniia: Besides working at the university, I'm a producer on a podcast, I help run a festival, a competition, have other chamber ensembles, and I compose/arrange music. Organization is one of my greatest superpowers. 

What advice can you give our current Frost School of Music students? 

Ksenija: Dream big and understand that you're in a wonderful place. Frost School of Music is an incubator for artists. I felt safe, loved, appreciated, and encouraged while there. 

Reach out to people who are one step ahead of you. One thing is that I don't have the shame of asking what others might think are stupid questions or something we should all know. I call and say, "How do you do this?" For example, I don't know what the road to winning a Grammy® is like, but I can ask someone, “how does one do that?”  

Also, be an honest person. Say what you mean and do what you say you will do. Being genuinely loving and caring for other musicians and their projects will put you in a group of people who will be your support system.

Liana: Start building your network while you're at school. The people that you meet today will help build your career tomorrow. There is no such thing as self-made. Help others, and they will help you, too. Have a big goal. Write it down, break it into smaller goals, and make sure you do something towards that big goal every day. The tiny steps will add up in the end.