Catrin Finch's mission to shatter misconceptions about the harp
'Those are often the sounds that people associate with it, and that’s OK, but there are plenty of other things that the harp can do,' she says
The fluttering notes of the harp is often described as majestic. But there was a time when that description was used in a more literal sense. In 1871, Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, established the position of official harpist to support the instrument wedded to Welsh culture. That role only lasted a year though, as the player, John Thomas, took up a better offer: being harpist to Queen Victoria.
The position remained vacant for nearly 130 years, before Prince Charles revived it in 2000. Catrin Finch, then 20 and fresh from winning the prestigious Lily Laskine International Harp Competition in France, occupied the role until 2004.
Now an established solo performer with an international following, Finch is set to make her return to the UAE (she performed at Dubai’s Madinat Theatre in 2013) with a concert at Dubai Opera on Wednesday. But while the days of performing for the prince are now far behind her, she has nothing but fond memories of that experience.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time in my career,” she tells The National. “I was young and getting started and here I was getting this job as harpist to the royal family. It was like stepping into another world and it was almost like a fairy tale. Sometimes I would play at Buckingham Palace in front of hundreds of guests and at other times, it would be a smaller performance at a dinner party in one of the prince’s homes at Highgrove House or Sandringham.”
But Finch knew her position wasn’t merely for show. Describing the prince as a “lover of all music”, she says part of his motivation behind re-establishing the position was to kindle a renewed interest in the 47-stringed instrument.
Taking the harp to new places
It is a mission Finch carried on throughout her solo career. She admits that there are many misconceptions surrounding the harp – particularly the idea that the only sound it can conjure is pretty and ethereal.
“Those are often the sounds that people associate with it, and that’s OK, but there are plenty of other things that the harp can do,” she says. “It all comes down to the way the music is presented – the context and repertoire. I hope with my performance I can change some of those misconceptions.”
While Finch’s Dubai Opera programme includes innovative harp renditions of works by Bach, Debussy and Faure, her recent body of work offers a truer reflection of her ambitions with the instrument.
Last year, she released her captivating album Soar, her second collaboration with Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita.
The duo dug deep to fashion a powerful sound that respected both of their musical heritages. An example of this is the sublime Bach to Baisso, which introduces itself with a section from Bach’s Goldberg Variations before segueing into a heaving chant-laden Senegalese folk tune. With the duo’s acclaim growing and their tours getting bigger, Finch says the project has taken up most of her professional time.
“We have been playing together for nearly six years and everything seems to be flowing really well,” she says. “This is an example of putting the harp in a different place and pushing it in a way so that it can be heard in an unexpected situation. This is an example of what I have been trying to do with my work.”
The cool new instrument in pop music
And this time round, she doesn’t need the help of a royal decree. Artists from Bjork to Joanna Newsom have been making the harp hip over the last decade. The biggest ambassador for the instrument today is undoubtedly the indie-rock band Florence and The Machine, whose brilliant harpist Tom Monger can make it rage as much as any guitar.
This all good news for Finch – she says the “Florence effect” is real. “I remember seeing Florence and The Machine at the Brit Awards years ago with a choir of 10 harps behind her and it looked amazing and sounded spectacular. That alone would have a huge effect on the instrument,” she says.
“You also see it now with other artists. Lady Gaga recently performed with a harpist and Bjork has been doing that for a long time. There is now a big scene in the pop world when it comes to the harp – that can only be a positive thing.”
Catrin Finch performs at Dubai Opera on June 12 at 8pm. Tickets from Dh150 are available at www.dubaiopera.com
Updated: June 11, 2019 08:55 PM