Appeal launched to honour harp legend Osian Ellis
An appeal has been launched to honour a globally renowned harpist at the international festival where he was the president.
During his stellar career, the late Dr Osian Ellis CBE played in the world’s finest concert venues and rubbed shoulders with film stars like the Oscar-winning actor Hugh Griffith, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Dr Ellis, a native of Ffynnongroyw in Flintshire, was brought up in Denbigh and lived in Pwllheli until his death, was for many years the Principal Harpist with the London Symphony Orchestra.
He died during the Covid-19 pandemic aged 92 and as a result, many of his friends and admirers did not have an opportunity of paying their respects to him.
But his contribution to harp playing and Welsh music will be recognised at the fifth Wales International Harp Festival organised by Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias, to be staged at Galeri Caernarfon from April 5 to 11.
The Osian Ellis Prizes totalling £8,000 will be awarded to the winners of the Chief Musician or Pencerdd competition for young harpists, born on or after September 1,1987.
Festival director Elinor Bennett, herself a former pupil of Osian Ellis, said: “As a token of appreciation of his musical legacy, the Wales International Harp Festival is dedicating the Pencerdd or Chief Musician Competition for young harpists, to his memory and an appeal has been launched to raise funds towards the main competition prizes.”
“We have closed the entries for this competition and we expect 18 harpists from eight countries from right around the world to take part. Entries have been received from Japan, the USA and even from an Australian harpist. It really is very heartening to see so much interest being taken in the harp and in our festival.”
Elinor Bennett said entries for the other competitions are still being accepted and she expects more than 100 harpists will be taking part at the festival at Caernarfon from April 5 to April 11.
She says contributions towards the prizes will be welcomed from anyone who wishes to recognise Osian Ellis as one of the greatest harpists of all time.
“By supporting young harpists, Osian’s friends, colleagues and followers can show their appreciation of his work and ensure that future generations will remember his great contribution to music internationally,” she said.
As well as being the Professor of the Harp at the Royal Academy , he collaborated with leading British composer Benjamin Britten who wrote music especially for him.
Elinor Bennett said: “He was my teacher at the Royal Academy in London and he mentored me at a time when it was most needed and for that I am very grateful to him.
“He was an iconic figure in the harp world and his contribution has been immense,” she said.
During the festival harpists will compete for three other prestigious titles. The Junior competition is open to harpists born on or after September 1, 2009, and they will be expected to present a free choice programme up to seven minutes’ duration.
The Youth competition is open to those born on or after September 1, 2003,and entrants are expected to present two short programmes of their own chosen pieces and set works from eminent Welsh and international composers who include John Thomas, Gareth Glyn, John Metcalf, Alun Hoddinott and William Mathias.
The World Music competition features performances based on folk and traditional music from any country or tradition.
Elinor Bennett said this can be a solo harpist or group of up to five members and can include any instrument or voice.
“But it must include at least one harp of any kind, for example Celtic, guzheng, kora, koto, pedal, triple,” she said.
Entries for these three competitions can be accepted until February 12.
The festival also features a varied programme of concerts and recitals.
The opening concert on April 5 will see the premiere of a new work called “Llechi” (Slate) with music composed by Math Roberts and words by former national poet of Wales, Ifor Ap Glyn.
The work will be performed by vocal soloists and instrumental alumni of Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias to celebrate the World Heritage status given by UNESCO to the slate quarries of Gwynedd.
Also taking part in the concert will be the North Wales Harp Ensemble under its director Tudur Eames and Côr Godre’r Aran, the Llanuwchllyn-based choir under conductor Eirian Owen.
Meinir Heulyn will join Elinor Bennett in the harp duo “Scenes of Childhood” by John Thomas.
Nicknamed the “hip-hop harpist”, Deborah Henson-Conant, is one of the USA’s most popular and flamboyant performers on the electric harp.
She pays a return visit to Caernarfon on April 6, where she appeared in the first two Wales International Harp Festivals back in 2006 and 2010 when she delighted her audiences with her mix of music described as “cross-genre: jazz-pop-comedy-blues-flamenco-Celtic”.
Concert Harp Classics including music by Debussy, Tournier and J S Bach will feature in a recital by world -renowned French harpist Isabelle Moretti on April 7.
The following evening’s concert will bring two continents together by combining the Llanera harps of Latin America with harp music from Wales and Europe.
Former Royal harpist Catrin Finch, who has created wonderful musical partnerships with performers on many different styles of harps from many cultures, will share the stage with Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda who the New York Times described as “almost a world unto himself”.
Renowned harpist Sioned Williams will present the lively story of ‘Pencerdd Gwalia’, John Thomas (1826–1913) ‘Harpist to the Queen’. The concert will include works by John Thomas, John Parry, Mendelssohn, Rossini, Schubert and others.
Sioned, who is originally from Sychdyn, in Flintshire, held the prestigious position of Principal Harpist of the BBCSO from 1990–2017, and continues to have a busy career with recitals, broadcasting, recording, researching and teaching and studied harp with Elinor Bennett at the Welsh College of Music and Drama.
The final concert on Monday, April 10, will feature Gambian instrumentalist and singer Sona Jobarteh and her band. She is the first female virtuoso Kora (African harp) player to come from any of the West African Griot dynasties. and is the Founding Director of The Gambia Academy, an institution dedicated to educational reform for Africans on the continent of Africa.
The concert will also include performances by Pedair, a group which draws on the talents of four of Wales’ most prominent folk musicians – Gwenan Gibbard, Gwyneth Glyn, Meinir Gwilym and Siân James. Their music has captured the hearts of audiences with their fresh interpretations of the Welsh folk tradition and their first recordings, having emerged during lockdown, gained instant popularity.
The festival will conclude on April 11 with an opportunity to listen to the performances of the three finalists in the Pencerdd competition with recitals of their chosen music.
Elinor Bennett said each finalist will collaborate with the violinist, Simon Chalk, in a performance of the beautiful “Fantaisie for Violin and Harp” Op. 124 by Camille Saint-Saens before a Panel of International Jury.
Contributions towards the Pencerdd competition can be made online at the Wales Harp Festival website or cheques can be sent, made payable to CGWM, to Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias ar Galeri, Caernarfon, LL55 1SQ.
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