Catrin Finch was 5 years old when she fell in love with her native country’s national instrument. Brought up on the west coast of Wales, Finch has since taken the harp much further afield, working with some of the world’s finest musicians at some of the world’s finest venues, and even becoming a regular fixture at Buckingham Palace.
And yet, seek out the most popular online video of her work – a recital of Karl Jenkins’s famous piece, Palladio, which boasts almost 900,000 YouTube views – and the scene is anything but traditional. In it, she plays a portable electric harp strapped to her waist and struts across the stage like a rock guitarist. That must have raised some eyebrows?
“Well, yes,” she admits, “there’s always a fine line between keeping those who are very into their classical things on board and at the same time trying to get a new audience in. And that’s the whole thing going on at the moment in the classical industry. When does the classical musician become not a serious classical musician anymore?”
Finch will perform a more conventional concert at Madinat Theatre tomorrow, her first in Dubai. Included will be “some Bach, some Dubussy”, but also several intriguing contemporary works. “There’s a piece I play called Bugs,” she explains, “where I have to pretend that I’m trying to get a mosquito.”
One particularly noteworthy new piece, A Short Handbook of Djinn, was actually written for this event. Finch’s concert is the latest of a continuing classical performance series called The Score and the organisers’ resident composer, Joanna Marsh, has conjured a magical centrepiece. A musical guide to the fabled Arabian spirits, the djinn, it showcases the harp’s versatility by encouraging a Middle Eastern sound, similar to that of the oud.
The Dubai-based composer favours themes “that are culturally relevant to the region”, she says. “People here don’t have a lot of contact with contemporary classical music so it’s great to be able to show people that it is something they can appreciate, and at different levels. Very often if people like the idea behind a piece, it will excite their minds even in advance of actually hearing the music.”
For Finch, this concert concludes a musically exotic week. Back in Wales she performed two concerts with the Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita, having previously worked with another kora legend, Toumani Diabaté. Is this harp-like instrument now a further string to Finch’s bow?
“No, but I’ve tried it, obviously,” she laughs. “It’s a completely different instrument, but they go together really well. It’s nice to get involved with new things, see them develop.”
A prodigious talent, Finch admits that providence also helped launch her on to the global stage. While studying at London’s Royal Academy she performed at a party for Prince Charles then received a call from Buckingham Palace explaining that the royal family were keen to reintroduce a long-abandoned tradition, appointing a royal harpist to the Prince of Wales. She accepted, and for the next four years played at grand ceremonial occasions, “where there are hundreds of guests and you’re a little fly on the wall, really”, she says. Finch clearly recalls the intimate events with more fondness.
“Sometimes there’d be a dinner at [the royal residences] Highgrove or Sandringham,” she explains, “and I’d become part of the evening with them. Those in particular were a great privilege to do.”
That position, and an award-winning documentary about it, raised her profile enormously. She secured a UK recording contract and a management deal in the US “because you know the Americans are crazy about our royal family”, she explains. “It’s a bit of a princess story, I suppose.”
Having achieved great success with both traditional and contemporary material, Finch is now actively encouraging the next generation. The electric harp is useful as it “has all sorts of effects pedals”, she says. “It’s fun, so it does inspire young people especially.” She recently launched an academy, with ambitious plans to stream music lessons into classrooms, via the web. But for now, she takes a more hands-on role, including sessions with young musicians during this Dubai visit. “It’s part of my ethos to do stuff like that,” says the harpist.
Her journey continues.
Catrin Finch will be performing Monday at the Madinat Theatre in Souk Madinat Jumeirah, at 10.30am and at 7.45pm. Tickets start at Dh125 from www.thescore.ae
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