Two of Wales’ brightest and internationally-acclaimed harpists will take centre stage a major festival celebrating the nation’s best-loved musical instrument.
Talented young harpists Gwenllian Llŷr and Ben Creighton-Griffiths will be inspiring a new legion of harpists when they appear in concert at Galeri Caernarfon at 7.30pm on Thursday, April 9, for the 42nd annual Wales Harp Festival.
Classical harpist Gwenllian Llŷr will make her festival debut with a show-stopping performance which includes a brand new piece by celebrated Welsh composer Mared Emlyn as well as her own arrangement of Calon Lân.
Ben, meanwhile, world-renowned master of the Jazz Harp who won first prize in the junior competition of the Wales International Harp Festival at the age of just 10, will return with his band, the Transatlantic Hot Club, featuring Adrien Chevalier (Violin) and Ashley John Long (Double Bass), and its vibrant blend of 1930s Gypsy jazz and swing.
The annual Wales Harp Festival, which takes place on April 8 and 9,is a two-day event organised by the Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias (William Mathias Music Centre) which aims to widen appreciation of the instrument as well as encourage a new generation of aspiring harpists.
Under the artistic direction of Elinor Bennett, an internationally-renowned harpist, the festival combines concerts with professional master classes and workshops, offering harpists of all ages and abilities the opportunity of learning from some of the best performers in the world.
In a packed programme of tuition and entertainment, the festival course will feature a performance from the TUDublin Junior Harp Ensemble, while their tutors Denise Kelly and Clíona Doris will join harp teachers from Wales, Dylan Cernyw, Mared Emlyn and Elinor Bennett, to give lessons and workshops. The Festival Concert will also include performances by Gwynedd and Mon Senior Harp Ensemble together with the Clwyd Harp Ensemble.
It also features the prestigious competition, held by the Nansi Richards Scholarship Trust which awards scholarships to promising young harpists from Wales.
“There is a great following for music in this area, especially for harp music,” explained Elinor.
“This is a very popular festival which aims to bring diverse forms of music to a bigger platform so people can listen to a wider range of music.
“The harp is such a popular instrument in Wales. Wales has the most harpists in the world per head of population, and there is a much deeper level of understanding here, it’s our national instrument.
“We’ve had great support from the local community over the years. We want to give something back and one of our aims is to bring high quality international artists here that might otherwise not be heard in this area.
Elinor is very much looking forward to welcoming back her former pupil, Benjamin Creighton Griffiths,, who she taught as a sixth form student in Cardiff and whose talent has seen him travel the globe with a varied repertoire covering all genres including jazz, swing, Latin, funk, electronic and fusion and Gypsy.
“Benjamin won our very first international festival junior competition in 2006. He was pretty fantastic,” said Elinor.
“The first time I heard him play I was entranced. He was a child protégé and his talent was phenomenal for such a young boy. He was that small he couldn’t reach the pedals and had to have extensions. It was an extraordinary thing to see.”
As the festival’s Artistic Director, Elinor is also thrilled Ben has agreed to host a jazz and improvisation workshop.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for children. We need to reach out to as many children who are having lessons in schools as we can, and enrich their musical experiences.”
For 23-year-old Ben, who lives in Cardiff, the event always offers a warm and receptive welcome.
The popular performer, who made his international debut at the age of seven winning second prize in the Under 18 section of the Le Concours International de Harpe in Nantes, France, is relishing the opportunity of sharing his fascinating repertoire which mixes French Gypsy Jazz inspired by the likes of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli with Romani and Balkan traditions.
“It’s fantastic to return to the festival. It’s a great venue, it’s always a lot of fun and it has a fantastic audience who are really receptive to different styles of music which is great for harpists performing alternative styles,” he said.
“In the UK there is definitely a growing appetite for this kind of music. It’s quite an easy style of music to listen to. People are definitely interested in it, especially when you perform in front of art centres like Galeri.
Swansea-born Gwenllian, who was a finalist at the USA International Harp Competition in 2013 and claimed first prize at the UK Camac Harp Competition in 2010, is proud to be performing at a festival she has attended many times as an audience member.
The star, who welcomed the arrival of her first child, a daughter, eight months ago, is also looking forward to one of her first performances of a new piece entitled Melangell composed by Mared Emlyn, which she commissioned with help from City Music Foundation and Ty Cerdd.
“I wanted to commission Mared to compose something that reflected a story so the piece itself is inspired by the legend of Melangell,” she said.
“It doesn’t tell the whole story but is inspired by parts of it. The first movement, ‘Canghennau Clwm’, is about the trees themselves and the second movement, ‘Llannerch’, is about the clearing of all the animals that are running around.
“I like to bring these stories to life when I perform, it’s really important.”
Gwenllian, who now lives in London, will be performing her own version of the popular Welsh song Calon Lân.
“It’s such a beautiful melody. There’s such a big tradition in the harp world for harpists to take folk melodies and turn them into something different and take you on a different journey,” she said.
Gwenllian, who began playing the harp at the age of seven and was taught by her mother, Sali Wyn Islwyn, a former pupil of Elinor’s, will get the chance to indulge in her other passion at the festival – teaching.
The performer will be hosting a composition class alongside Mared.
“I love the teaching side of things. It’s a passion of mine and if I hadn’t been a musician, teaching would’ve been part of my life in some way,” she said.
“It’s such a joy to see how people improve and how music really enhances their lives. It helps them in different aspects of their lives and builds confidence.
“The harp is a very difficult instrument to learn but it’s a very satisfying instrument and you can create a nice sound and melody relatively early on. All the sounds are there under your fingertips, it’s the techniques that are more difficult to accomplish.
“I always tell parents that at least when they are listening to something being practised it’s a nice sound!”
The Festival Concert will also include performances from Gwynedd and Mon Senior Harp Ensemble together with the Clwyd Harp Ensemble.
The concert will take place at 7.30pm on April 9 at Galeri Caernarfon and for tickets, contact Galeri Box Office on (+44) 01286 685 222.