Gwenllian Llyr, harpist-composer

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career performing the harp, and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

As a student in sixth form, I felt very unsure of whether I wanted to pursue a career as a harpist. Even at that young age, I felt the profession would be difficult, with a lot of politics, potential instability, and a need for some sheer luck. I loved languages and would’ve loved to continue that in some way during my undergraduate studies. However, it came down to the fact that I loved playing the harp and knew if I didn’t at least try, I’d always ask “what if?”. My first harp teacher was my mother, who had a successful career performing and teaching, until she eventually decided she wasn’t enjoying that life anymore; she turned to her other love – the Welsh language – and worked hard to develop another career in a completely different field. I think subconsciously this gave me confidence to know that this one decision wouldn’t limit my entire life if I eventually chose to move away from being a musician.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Even as early as 10 years old, I remember experiencing that feeling of being nervous, fight or flight, performance anxiety, however you want to describe it. I think some people/organisations are keen to brush it under the carpet. I remember being almost completely frozen before performing the Harp Concerto by Ginastera in St David’s Hall, so close to not being able to go on stage (and I told the conductor so!); yet I probably still rate that as one of my greatest performances. During my time at The Juilliard School, I tried to take some time to address this issue through a variety of ways, from therapy to hypnotherapy, as well as a school module focused entirely on overcoming performance anxiety. After the many hours I spend thinking about this, I realised that it wasn’t something to fix: it was energy to harness. The reason the concert at St David’s Hall is still such a strong memory is that I took all the nervous energy and used it to bring the music to life. There are so many tips and tricks I learned along the way that I still use to prepare and to help me in that moment, to bring my focus back to the music. The nerves haven’t overpowered me for many years, but their presence is comforting, reminding me that I still care.

Having performed around the world, including Carnegie Hall, do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? What are you looking forward to about performing at Cowbridge Music Festival this year?

I recently performed again in the beautiful Dora Stoutzker Hall at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, which is where I completed my undergraduate degree. In a way, I was one of the unlucky ones – in the building during the renovations but gone before they were ready to be utilised. I love the acoustics in this hall and it’s been a pleasure to return as a professional to perform. The other hall that will always speak to me is Royal Albert Hall. It always brings me back to my clueless 14 year old self, not quite understanding at the time what a privilege it was to be performing Mahler 8 under Sir Simon Rattle at the BBC Proms. This was my first ever Prom and every year I scour the concerts trying to decide what to attend…usually just to torture myself as I often can’t attend the concerts I want to the most!

To me, I always feel validated as a performer when I’m invited back to a festival, which is probably one of the reasons I’m so looking forward to returning to Cowbridge Music Festival in September. It will be a very different style of concert to my usual, being a late night concert, so I’ve really enjoyed creating a programme that will suit this style of concert; a mix of music I think deserves to be heard alongside some lighter crowd pleasers. It includes one of my own compositions, Ffantasi ar Calon Lan, as well as Scriabin’s Nocturne for the left hand which I’ve transcribed for the harp.

You have won many competitions and awards. Which achievement are you most proud of?

This is a tricky one. I think perhaps I’ll say the Len Lickorish Memorial Prize for a String Player of Promise at the Royal Over-Seas League. It’s always fantastic to win a prize in a competition that’s not all about harpists. I felt that I was appreciated as a musician, not just as a harpist. I also felt that in this competition I gave some of my very best performances, reaching a new level of maturity and confidence in my playing.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I try to balance my programmes with things I think audiences believe they want to hear and things I want to play. This isn’t to say that I programme pieces I don’t enjoy playing or don’t feel are worthy of being performed, but it’s important to recognise that we don’t create programmes just for ourselves. I aim to think of a hook or a theme that might sell well to festivals or audiences and spend some time diving into my extensive library and researching some options online. However, I do have to be realistic when thinking about new pieces I want to learn – with two young children, my practise time is currently extremely limited. I’m more likely to relearn something I haven’t programmed for a long time than learn something brand new, even though I have plenty of pieces on my wish list still to learn.

You are currently promoting your new album, Soliloquies. Can you tell me a little more about it? What inspired the programme?

This project – “Soliloquies for Harp” – with Ty Cerdd has been quite a few years in the making. I first discussed the idea with my Artist Manager at City Music Foundation in 2018, though it was still just a skeleton of an idea at the time. Being Welsh and a Welsh speaker is a huge part of my identity. When I was in New York, I felt like people were more interested and open to that than recently; perhaps the change was caused by divisive nature of Brexit, or maybe it was always that way and I just wasn’t aware of it. I wanted to celebrate the rich and diverse history of Welsh harp music, give an equal platform to female voices, and highlight the wonderful contribution of harpist-composers to the repertoire. Some of the music I’ve been playing for what feels like forever, some is brand new. I enjoyed expanding my repertoire while researching potential options, but it was tricky to whittle down the programme to a realistic length. My debut CD, “Dusk to Dawn”, included some more well-known names that would interest the wider public, such as Debussy, Glinka and Bartok, so in that respect, this CD might have a more targeted audience. Even so, I think “Soliloquies for Harp” gives a small glimpse into some of the wonderful music that has been and continues to be created in Wales.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Creatively, I tend to be inspired by nature, specifically water. A visit to my mother’s house by the sea, a walk near Keston Ponds or playing Pooh sticks with my kids by Lullingstone Villas, are all a tonic to my gin. If I was inclined to meditate, I’m sure waterfalls would feature heavily in my path to zen. With such limited time, I find that it’s not inspiration I’m lacking but the ability to use it to my advantage due to the constant juggling act that is parenting. I think what helps me is to find any which way to give my brain time to digest and process things. In an ideal world, the day before each performance I’d spend some time blasting a good workout then relieving any tension in a spa, picking a specific scent to match my mood, phone locked away. Theoretically, my brain would be clear of copious to-do lists, and I might sleep deeply, ready and refreshed for concert day. Unfortunately, that’s not real life – or certainly not mine! I’ve become better and better at getting in the zone with very little time. As long as I’ve prepared, I know that within 10 minutes, I can focus on the story I want to share in the music and let that inspire me.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I think it would be a wonderful thing if schools had all-school choirs. Perhaps if music was present and utilised in schools from an early age (and continued throughout), it wouldn’t be perceived as something certain people do but just a part of everyday life. My kids adore singing and I know they learn so well when they are taught something through song. I know at some point, every day, there will be singing in the house, whether it’s my eldest making up songs, my husband singing my second to sleep, or my humming absentmindedly as I cook. Singing is completely free, but I think it could be a fantastic gateway to enabling more people to appreciate the significance of music to our lives.

·As a musician, what is your definition of success?

As a performer, to feel that I shared a special moment with whomever was in the audience for that specific concert. As a teacher, to watch a student lose themselves in the music and deliver a performance they’re proud of.

Having studied at some of the world’s most prestigious music schools, what advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

Don’t settle. As a student, there are literally hundreds of opportunities waiting for you that could truly change your life. I learned so much about myself through the different experiences in different colleges, competitions, projects, travels, all of which fed my artistry. Widen your circle, be bold, say yes. You can (almost) always come back.

What’s next? Where would you like to be in 10 years?

The last three years have been a bit quiet for me musically, as I sandwiched the dry spell of Covid with two maternity leave periods. I’m just returning to more frequent performances, including ones promoting the new CD, so I’m enjoying the variety of music on my stand at the moment. I have many composing and performing projects that I’m looking to explore once I have some more free time.

In 10 years, I would love to have my own harp department somewhere and performing with a committed chamber ensemble. Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I started at only 16 years old and feel it comes completely naturally to me. I also love performing chamber music, but after leaving The Juilliard School, I have struggled to find the right timing and partner(s) to really make a go of it. But I’ve just begun working on some flute and harp duos that have been on my wish list for over a decade, so watch this space!

Soliloquies for Harp is out now

Welsh harpist Gwenllian Llyr is gaining international recognition for her charismatic and engaging performances.

Gwenllian was twice a prize-winner at the USA International Harp Competition in Bloomington where she was highly praised for her musicianship and her ability to connect with audiences.

She has also won many prizes more locally, including the Len Lickorish Memorial Prize for a String Player of Promise at the Royal Over-Seas League AMC 2018, as well as becoming an Artist with City Music Foundation in 2017.

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