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International harp festival celebrates Wales’ famed slate quarries

22 Feb 2023 7 minute read
Slate quarries of Gwynedd (Credit: Welsh Government)

A new piece of music to celebrate the slate quarries of Gwynedd being granted World Heritage Status will be given its global premiere at a festival.

The composition, Llechi (Slate), will be performed at the opening concert of the Wales International Harp Festival at Galeri in Caernarfon on Wednesday, April 5 – with a slate xylophone being used as one of the instruments.

The music has been written by Math Roberts, a talented young composer who hails from Cwm y Glo, near Llanrug, and the words are by the former National Poet of Wales, Ifor ap Glyn, from Caernarfon, who has won the prestigious Crown competition at the National Eisteddfod twice.

It’s a piece for an ensemble of musicians playing a variety of instruments including two harps and the xylophone made of local slate and will be performed by vocal soloists and instrumental alumni of Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias.

Composer Math Roberts

The concert will also feature the North Wales Harp Ensemble under its director Tudur Eames and Côr Godre’r Aran, the Llanuwchllyn-based choir under conductor Eirian Owen.

The festival’s artistic director, acclaimed harpist Elinor Bennett, who will be stepping down from her role after this year’s event, will also be performing a harp duo with Meinir Heulyn, Scenes of Childhood, by John Thomas.

Math, 22, gained a BA in music at Oxford University and trained at the Royal Academy of Music is now a London-based musical director, composer, pianist, and performer.

His orchestral arrangements can be heard on the albums of several prolific performers in London’s West End and he has co-written several musical shows.

One of these, Don’t Say Macbeth, was hugely successful at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival drawing critical acclaim and earning a prestigious award.

He said: “The music makes use of folk melodies, hymns and brass bands which were closely linked to the quarrying industry which Ifor ap Glyn’s words reflect.

“The score also evokes memories of the sounds made in the slate quarry such as striking an anvil and the hooter sounding.”

Ifor ap Glyn. Pic by Rhys Llwyd for Literature Wales

The commission was a particularly poignant one for Ifor ap Glyn. Although born in London into a Welsh-speaking family he has close links with two slate quarrying areas of Gwynedd.

He said: “The slate quarry workers are close to my heart. My great grandfather lived in Tanygrisiau near Blaenau Ffestiniog and both he and his son, my grandfather, worked in the slate quarry and my grandmother’s family are from Dinorwig near Llanberis and also worked in the local quarry.

“And I played a small part in the bid for UNESCO World Heritage status for the North-west Wales Slate Landscape by working on a television programme which was broadcast when the decision to award the status was made in July 2021.”

Elinor Bennett said: “The Wales International Harp Festival has commissioned many new works for the harp and in this one we wanted to mark the award of World Heritage status to Gwynedd by UNESCO. It was a very important decision for the area and it has to be recognised as such.”

Harpist Elinor Bennett

Ms Bennett is also looking forward to hearing Côr Godre’r Aran, under their long-serving director Eirian Owen, take part in the concert.

She said: “I’m so pleased they will be at the concert. They had to stop rehearsing and performing during the Covid-19 pandemic and it is only recently that they re-started. My links with the choir go back to their very early days.

“My family moved from Llanidloes to Llanuwchllyn soon after the choir was formed after the end of the Second World War and my father, Emrys Bennett Owen, who workd for the co-op, Hufenfa Meirion, was one of the original members of the choir.

“During the Festival of Britain in 1951 a dozen members of Côr Godre’r Aran travelled to the Dorchester Hotel in London to sing.

“But it was personally notable for me because my father went looking for a harp for me and he succeeded in finding a Grecian harp which he brought back to Wales with the choir on the train. It was the harp I learned to play on

“The harp duo, Scenes of Childhood, is a nostalgic reference to my early childhood in Llanuwchllyn and brings back many fond memories,” she said.

The concert is part of an extensive programme of concerts and recitals which intersperse with the festival’s four prestigious competitions.

Nicknamed the “hip-hop harpist”, Deborah Henson-Conant, is one of the USA’s most popular and flamboyant performers on the electric harp and she pays a return visit to Caernarfon on April 6.

Meanwhile, concert harp classics including music by Debussy, Tournier and J S Bach will feature in a recital by French harpist Isabelle Moretti on April 7.

Catrin Finch

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 will share the stage with the show-stopping Colombian harpist, Edmar Castaneda.

Renowned harpist Sioned Williams, who is originally from Flintshire, will present the story of John Thomas who was a harpist to Queen Victoria.

The final concert on Monday, April 10, will feature Gambian harpist Sona Jobarteh. She is the first woman to become a professional virtuoso on the Kora (African harp) 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 fresh interpretations of the Welsh folk tradition emerged during lockdown and gained instant popularity.

Folk singer and harpist Gwenan Gibbard

The festival will conclude on April 11 with an opportunity to listen to the performances of the three finalists in the Pen Cerdd (Chief Musician) competition in memory of Osian Ellis, with recitals of their chosen music.

The winners of the competition will scoop £8,000 in cash prizes between them and become the first holders of the Osian Ellis Prizes.

Eminent harpist Dr Osian Ellis CBE, who died during the Covid-19 pandemic, was the festival’s Honorary President and the Chief Musician or Pencerdd is being awarded in his memory, with a second prize of £2,000 and a third prize of £1,000.

Contributions towards the Prizes are invited from anyone who wishes to recognise Osian Ellis as one of the great harpists of our 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,” said Elinor Bennett.

Contributions towards the Pencerdd competition can be made online at the Wales Harp Festival website HERE or cheques can be sent, made payable to CGWM, to Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias ar Galeri, Caernarfon, LL55 1SQ. More details about the festival online at while tickets are available from the Galeri box office online at or telephone on 01286 685 222.

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