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Starring role at festival will be bittersweet for young Welsh piano virtuoso

10 Jul 2024 6 minute read
Ellis Thomas

A hugely gifted young Welsh pianist has paid tribute to his inspirational late grandmother ahead of his first starring appearance at a top festival.

Ellis Thomas, from Penrhyn Bay, will be performing with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the North Wales International Music Festival at St Asaph Cathedral on Friday evening, 20 September.

The 23-year-old Cambridge University Music graduate, who has just gained a Master’s degree from the Royal Academy of Music, will play festival founder William Mathias’s First Piano Concerto while the BBC National Orchestra of Wales will also perform Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Professor Mathias, who is buried in the Cathedral grounds, established the festival in 1972 and was its Director until his death in 1992 and composed the anthem, Let the people praise Thee, O God for the 1981 royal wedding of the then Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

The wheel has come full circle because his protégé, the festival’s newly-appointed Artistic Director is fellow royal composer Paul Mealor, a native of Connah’s Quay, who wrote the Kyrie sung by Sir Bryn Terfel at the King’s Coronation.

In the New Year’s Honours List, Professor Mealor was appointed a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order (LVO) for his services to royal music and was also presented with the Coronation Medal for his contributions to the service at Westminster Abbey.

Bittersweet

According to Ellis, a former pupil of Ysgol John Bright, performing at the festival will be a bittersweet occasion.

He said: “My grandmother, Marion Hawley, was Head of Music at St David’s College and was a local piano teacher.

“She really introduced me to music and I doubt I would have started to play the piano if it hadn’t been for her.

“She used to pick me up from primary school when I was five and take me back to her house and we’d sit at the piano and sing and play nursery rhymes and she was always encouraging me.

“Sadly she died a couple of years ago but before that she used to travel to Cambridge and to London to see me play and I was pleased she was able to see me graduate from Cambridge.

“She was a big influence and my mum and dad, Stephen and Megan, have also dedicated a lot of time to taking me to concerts and supporting me.”

Ellis, who currently lives in West Hampstead, in London, divides his time between teaching music and playing including trips abroad to play with other musicians in Spain, Italy, Finland and Germany.

He said: “It will be nice to be home as well and to see my family. My younger brother, Callum, is at Durham University, not studying music but still playing the cello, and my sister, Lucy, is in high school.”

It’s not his first time at the festival in St Asaph as Ellis said: “I used to play violin as well, and saxophone, and played in the orchestra there as a violinist but this is my first time in the Cathedral playing piano and I’m looking forward to it.

“I like the Romantic composers, particularly Chopin, but I also listen to jazz and pop – it gets a bit boring if you just listen to one kind of music.”

Ar Log

Top brass band, Foden’s Band, are first-time visitors to the festival and leading Welsh folk band Ar Log will perform an evening of their popular classics and some new songs.

Baritone Jeremy Huw Williams explores the music of William Mathias in what would have been his 90th birthday year and the world famous King’s Singers make a welcome return to the festival with their dazzling vocal artistry.

The combined choirs of Trystan Lewis’s North Wales Choral Union make their festival debut with a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

The festival, which runs from September 12 to 21, has been made possible thanks to the support of headline sponsors, the Pendine Park care organisation via the Pendine Arts and Community Trust which supports community and arts activities, and main grant funders the Arts Council of Wales, Colwinston Charitable Trust and Tŷ Cerdd. This year’s festival is also part funded by the UK government through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund for Denbighshire.

Young Musician of Wales

Another highlight this year will be the inaugural Pendine Young Musician of Wales competition that’s being funded by the Pendine Arts and Community Trust set up by festival sponsors, the Pendine Park care organisation.

Entries for the competition are now being accepted via the festival’s website, www.nwimf.com and the closing date for applications is 5pm on August 31.

It’s open to all musicians who were born or who are living in Wales or who are Welsh nationals studying abroad.

All musicians must be under the age of 21 on January 1, 2024, to be eligible to compete but there is no minimum age for entry.

The winner will receive a cash prize of £2,000 and the Pendine Trophy, as well as being invited back to perform at next year’s festival.

BBC Radio Cymru will be broadcasting a number of events from the festival including the final of the Pendine Young Musician of Wales competition.

The Festival Fringe is new departure and takes place in St Asaph’s pubs and features an RnB/Hip-hop fringe concert with Aisha Kigs, Welsh folk music with Angharad Jenkins and Patrick Rimes, a poetry and literary evening with leading writer Grahame Davies and a first ever North Wales Comedy Club night.

Professional musicians from Live Music Now Cymru will stage a dementia friendly and inclusive concert, as well as the popular tots’ concert, and interactive events within schools, care homes and St Kentigern Hospice as part of the festival’s annual community tour.

Excited

Paul Mealor said: “I am hugely excited and incredibly proud to be organising my first ever festival.

“The programme will include something for everyone, including some new features like the Pendine Young Musician of Wales competition.

“I’m also keen to extend the reach of the festival to include people who have never been before or may not have thought it was/is for them.

“With that mind, the festival fringe will engage the very best in Welsh pop and folk music and comedy too. It’s going to be a blast.”

Details of how to apply to take part in the Pendine Young Musician of Wales competition are on the festival’s website, www.nwimf.com along with the programme. Tickets will be on sale on Friday 19 July.

Details of how to apply to take part in the Pendine Young Musician of Wales competition are on the festival’s website, www.nwimf.com along with the programme. Tickets will be on sale on Friday 19 July.


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