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Renowned harpist Elinor pulling strings to inspire new generation

Harpist Elinor Bennett

The woman who convinced King Charles to reinstate the position of royal harpist after a century-long gap is aiming to inspire a new generation to play the instrument.

Renowned harpist Elinor Bennett is going on a 12-stop Wales-wide tour, The Dwylo ar Dannau’r Delyn (Hands on Harp Strings).

The concerts, masterclasses and workshops will take Elinor, the Artistic Director of the Wales International Harp Festival, to places where she has close personal connections.

Starting at Bangor on October 23, the tour will visit Pwllheli, Llangefni, Llanrwst, Swansea, Barry and Denbigh.

Elinor will also be going to Llangadfan in Powys where she has close family links and Aberystwyth where she studied for a law degree at the town’s university.

She will also visit Swansea, Barry, Crymych in Pembrokeshire along with Merthyr Tudful where she once lived and Llanuwchllyn near Bala where she spent a large portion of her childhood.

The tour, which follows a launch concert for the festival at Bangor University’s PJ Hall, will feature some her former students and colleagues.

As well as re-igniting interest in harp music following the Covid pandemic, the aim is to promote the fifth Wales International Harp Festival which will be staged at Galeri Caernarfon from April 5-11.

She will also be inviting harpists to take part in four competitions at the festival, with the aim of giving children and older harpists a platform to perform, receive comments from internationally esteemed harpists  and make friends with young musicians from other parts of the world.

The closing date for applications for the competitions is January 2, 2023.

She will be stepping down as the festival’s Artistic Director after next year’s event.

Elinor said: “At each location on the tour I will be joined by either a former pupil or someone I have worked with in the past.

“We hope local harp tutors and teachers will bring their pupils along. Each event will last for about four hours and at the start there will be workshops and master classes where the youngsters can play together and then some solos.

“To close the event there will be a concert where I will play along with the guest tutor and perhaps with some of the youngsters if they wish. The concerts, of course, will be open to the public.

“And there will also be an exhibition of harps by the Vining company from Cardiff. They sell Camac instruments and are sponsoring the festival.”

According to Elinor, one of the aims of the tour is to encourage youngsters to learn how to play the harp.

“I have heard that fewer children and young people are taking up the harp and the tour will create an interest in the harp and raise awareness of the festival itself,” she said.

She added tickets for the tour are available online at walesharpfestival.co.uk and some local shops but will also be available on the door.

Elinor said when she started learning to play the harp in 1954 when there were very few harpists.

Born at Llanidloes in the former county of Montgomeryshire, her family later moved to Llanuwchllyn near Bala in Merionethshire.

Her father bought her first harp when she was just seven years of age though she did not begin lessons for another four years as her legs were not long enough to reach the pedals.

She said: “My father was very musical, as were my mother and grandfather. After we moved to Llanuwchllyn my father joined Cor Godre’r Aran. In 1949 they went to London to sing at the Dorchester Hotel, and while in the city he bought a harp for £30 and brought it back to Llanuwchllyn on the (London) Underground and the train.

After leaving school Elinor studied law at Aberystwyth but later applied for and won a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Music in London, studying with Osian Ellis, the acclaimed Flintshire-born harpist. After graduating she played with numerous orchestras at home and abroad.

Though known mostly for classical music she has also played with some of Wales’ most renowned rock musicians. She has recorded twelve solo  albums and  founded the Coleg Telyn Cymru (Harp College of Wales) and helped set up Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias Music Centre in Caernarfon.

Finding herself seated next to the then-Prince of Wales at a dinner, she told him of the tradition of a Royal harpist but which had not been filled for more than a century.

“He was interested and asked me to send him a proposal which I duly did. That led to the revival of the tradition with the first being Catrin Finch in 2000,” said Elinor.

The fifth Wales International Harp Festival will bring together leading exponents of the instrument from around the world to Galeri Caernarfon next April.. Organised by  Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias (Music Centre) it will feature concerts,  masterclasses, workshops and lecture recitals.

Elinor said performances will be given by world-class artists representing various aspects of the harp spectrum.

These include the Latin-American harpist from Colombia,  Edmar Castaneda, French harpist Isobel Moretti, who makes a return visit to Caernarfon and jazz harpis Deborah Henson-Conant from the USA.

The festival commission is a new work,   Llechi (Slate),  by  harpist and composer, Math Roberts,  with poetry by Wales’ National Poet, Ifor Ap Glyn.

Elinor said this has been written for a chamber ensemble and vocal soloists and will celebrate the unique culture of the slate-mining areas of Gwynedd, recently awarded World  Heritage Status by UNESCO.

“Participants in each of the categories in the four competitions are encouraged to create their own choice of programmes and include one or two items listed in the published syllabus.

“In the Youth and children competitions, equal scholarships will be awarded for the three top performances, to help talented young harpists to receive continuing expert tuition/

“Please join us over Easter in Caernarfon for a joyful and enriching experience.,” said Elinor.