“It pushes the boundaries,” says Catrin Finch. “It’s not really harp-based at all, so it’s a bit of a gamble.” She’s describing her lock-down collaboration with the Cardiff-based electronic musician and producer Lee House. “What I’m trying to do in this next phase of my career, is maybe move away from being solely a harpist.”
A bit of a departure for some perhaps, but for Catrin Finch, known chiefly as the most gifted classical harp virtuoso of her generation, making an album with “an Ibiza chill-out kind of vibe” is more than a bit of a gamble. It’s another bold departure from the well-paved classical music highway, onto uncharted byways bound for terra incognita.
Over the past decade, such diversions have gradually become par for course for the ‘Queen of Harps’ (queen of the understatement too). Back in 2009, she pursued a genre-busting collaboration with Cimarron, virtuosi of harp-heavy joropo music from Colombia. Then came her duo with Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita, which has so far yielded two award-winning albums, Clychau Dibon (2013) and SOAR (2018), a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for ‘Best Band’, multiple tours and appearances at leading global music festivals including WOMAD, Shambala, Sfinks, Hay Festival and Lorient Interceltic Festival. And yet, through all that, she never stopped writing, recording and performing with leading classical orchestras and composers.
It’s Catrin Finch’s ability to pursue all these disparate paths simultaneously, with verve and virtuosity, without compromise, that makes her unique. And recently, she’s had to do it whilst dodging some of the more outrageous curveballs that life and fate deploy to throw us off course: cancer, marital break-up, new love and, of course, the pandemic.
“I’ve always been lucky enough as a musician to have a diary full of concerts, and projects on the go,” she says of the enforced hiatus imposed by Covid 19. “So, it’s a bit strange to be confronted with this blank void of question marks.”
A bit strange? Truth is, Catrin Finch has hardly stopped since the day her parents took her to see the Spanish harpist Marisa Robles perform at the Lampeter Music Club, not far from the village of Llanon where she was born and raised, on the shores of Cardigan Bay in West Wales. Catrin was five years old and the glamorous Robles captivated her. “She was selling cassettes at the end of the concert,” Catrin remembers, “so I went up to her and said, ‘I’m going to be a harpist like you, but I haven't got a harp and I haven't got a teacher."
True to her word, she completed all the Associated Board grades by the age of nine, scoring the top mark in the country in her grade eight exam, and became a pupil of the revered Welsh harpist Elinor Bennett who lives in Caernarfon in north Wales. Despite the weekly 200-mile round-trip there and back and despite having to mortgage the family home to pay for it all, Finch’s half-German mother and Yorkshireman father never hot-housed her or let the harp dominate life at home.
Joining the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at the age of ten was a reality check. The realisation that there were other prodigies out there served to ground Catrin. Gradually, she progressed up the local, regional and national rungs of Wales’ national Eisteddfod competition and won rounds of The BBC Young Musician of the Year. She even appeared on Blue Peter. All before she was sixteen.
Moving to Harrow to attend the Purcell School of Music, just as her parents were going through a divorce, was tough and disorientating. But life in London opened up enticing vistas, as did her new teacher, the ‘session queen’ Skaila Kanga, who has played for everyone from The Beatles and Elton John to Boyzone and Björk and contributed to hundreds of film scores, including Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Code. Kanga made Catrin realise that there was more to being a top-flight harpist than playing in classical music ensembles orchestras.
In 2000, Catrin received a call from the palace. Would she be interested in becoming the Royal Harpist to H.R.H. The Prince of Wales? It seems that Prince Charles had long entertained the idea of reviving the ancient office, last filled during the reign of Queen Victoria, and was struck by Catrin’s virtuosity, her precocious achievements, which included winning the highly esteemed Lily Laskine International Harp Competition in 1999 and the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in New York in 2000 while she was enrolled as a full-time student at the Royal Academy of Music.
The Royal appointment involved serenading gala occasions and intimate gatherings. Catrin grew to appreciate Prince Charles’s genuine love of music and interest in the harp, whilst revelling in the incongruity of it all. “Every now and then I’d put a posh dress on and toddle off to Buckingham Palace,” she remembers, “where I was transformed into this glamorous figure. And then I’d make sure I’d get home in time to go to the pub.”
It also applied a rocket boost to a career that was already flying at cruising altitude. Since graduating from the Royal Academy with the Queen’s Commendation for Excellence in 2002, Catrin has performed with many of the world’s leading orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, the Boston Pops, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the English Chamber Orchestra. She has graced the stages of A-list classical music festivals, including Salzburg, Edinburgh, Spoleto and MDR Musiksommer in Leipzig and toured throughout Europe, north and south America and the Middle East.
In 2009, Catrin Finch’s signature harp renditions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations were released on Deutsche Grammophon and entered the UK Classical charts at number 1. Three years later, she hit the top spot again with Blessing, her collaboration with composer John Rutter, which was also nominated for a Classical Brit Award. Other collaborations with Bryn Terfel, Sir James Galway, Julian Lloyd Webber and composer Karl Jenkins have appeared on Universal Records, Deutsche Grammophon, EMI and Sony Classical. In amongst her large and ever-growing catalogue, Catrin has also released albums of Welsh traditional music, lullabies and, in 2015, a collection of her own compositions called Tides, in support of WaterAid.
There was never really a moment of epiphany for Catrin, no sudden realisation that, for all its endless variety and depth, classical music would never satisfy her boundless curiosity and musical cravings. “There isn’t a big repertoire for the harp,” she says, “and few opportunities for advancement in the classical world. Which is why I’m always looking outside.”
A turning point of sorts came in 2007, when she stepped off the plane in the Los Llanos region southwestern Venezuela and found herself under immense skies, with grassland stretching all about to impossibly distant horizons. “I was awestruck,” she remembers. “Until then the harp had been a very female thing to me. But we got off this plane and walked to the nearby ranch and I saw this harper who was a macho guy, a very fiery character, very passionate as well. It was such an eye-opener.”
That journey to Los Llanos, and another to Ethiopia to film the ancient harp of King David, were part of a documentary for BBC 4 called The Harp presented by Catrin Finch. It set her on a new path, one less hampered by weighty tradition and obsessive precision. “In the classical world, there’s a wrong and there’s a right,” she says, “and that’s what I don’t like really.”
With Cimarron and Seckou Keita, it was more about intuition and feel. It took time and courage for Catrin to fly ‘blind’, without the mental support of crotchets and quavers and staves. The virtuosic twining of the 47 strings of her harp with the 22 strings of Seckou Keita’s kora–two cultures, two histories and two personalities merged into one–has become a rare global music hit in the UK and Europe.
2018 and 2019 were Catrin Finch’s anni horribili (with a gracious lining of mirabilis in the form of new love and a harvest of gongs for the mantelpiece). She managed to complete a major UK tour with Seckou Keita in the spring and summer of 2018 whilst undergoing treatment for breast cancer, rushing back to Cardiff after gigs in the north of England for bouts of chemo, digging deep to stave off intense fatigue, the loss of all her hair, the agony of deteriorating fingernails. But with the help of her girlfriend Nat, her management team, Dilwyn and Tamsin Davies, and huge quantities of Zapain, she made it through. Remission followed in 2019 and marriage to Nat in December of that year.
When lockdown came in March 2020, it was partly a relief, a chance to pause after all those whirlwind years, and partly an anxious cliff-edge of unknowing. “Initially, I actually found it very hard to function or to get any inspiration,” she says, “because it’s like you freeze up a little.” But the realisation, reinforced by the experience of surviving cancer and turning forty, that “life isn’t endless,” re-ignited her urge to make music. “If there are things you want to do, you’ve got to do them. Hence why I’m jumping in with this chill-out album project. Whether it works or not, it doesn’t really matter.”
A large part of that new self-imposed brief, with its spice of urgency, revolves around composition. Eight years ago, Catrin became artist-in-residence at the Royal Welsh College of Music and completed a post-graduate course in composition there. She composed a harp concerto for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, inspired by the Welsh poet Ellis Humphrey Evans, aka Hedd Wynn or ‘White Peace’, who was killed at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. More recently she’s been composing for Ballet Cymru, including a rewrite of Giselle, which will hopefully be performed next year (after Covid related delays).
Next year, Catrin and Seckou will be working on a new album with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which will involve scoring their own music for orchestra, a task that Catrin anticipates with relish. She has also decided to become a teacher. The Welsh harp tradition isn’t quite as fixated with genealogy and bloodline as the West African kora tradition, but still there are chains of master and pupil that can be traced back a few centuries. Catrin’s old teacher Elinor Bennett was herself taught by the great Nansi Richards, who used to listen to Romany harpers who would come and work on her father’s farm. Some of them were descended from Abraham Wood, the patriarch of a huge clan of tradition harpers and fiddlers who kept the grassroots Welsh harp tradition alive in the 18th and 19th centuries. That’s not the kind of chain you want to break.
Despite having run her own summer harp academy in the village of Gwaelod Y Garth near Cardiff for many years, attracting students from America, Australia and other parts of the world, Catrin never saw herself as a real teacher until now. “I guess I want to start handing on,” she says. “Because I’ve always said that I can’t teach, and I’m not interested in teaching. But I see now that maybe, at some point in my career, it’s my duty to pass on what I’ve learned and ensure there’s another Catrin Finch coming up. Isn’t it?”