the largest festival of competitive music and poetry in Europe.” It is conducted entirely in Welsh, and its origins date back to the 12th century.
This year, the National Eisteddfod was held in Ebbw Vale, Blaenau Ghent, formerly the constituency of MP Michael Foot, and we were in attendance at the closing concert. The trail that led us there began with Welsh composer John Metcalf’s beautiful composition, Mapping Wales, on which Catrin Finch was the harp soloist.
Of Finch, Metcalf states simply, “She’s the best harpist in the world that I’ve heard.” When we learned Finch would be playing in the Eisteddfod’s closing concert, we knew we had to be there to hear and see her live.
Going to the National Eisteddfod’s closing concert is a bit like missing breakfast, lunch, and dinner and eating only a dessert. We missed out on all the pageantry (including the Chairing of this year’s Bard).
Finch wasn’t the only performer. Indeed, the chief attraction seemed to be Rhydian Roberts, a young Welsh baritone, who, while classically trained, had decided his future lay in “crossing-over.” To achieve his ambition, he entered “The X Factor” competition, one of Simon Cowell’s myriad of “talent show” productions. Roberts had a terrible initial audition, but Cowell, in a rare humane moment, allowed Roberts a second chance. Roberts went on to win second place and has since released two best-selling albums.
My verdict on Roberts? He seems a bit too fond of the grand entrance, but he can certainly sing. And you really haven’t lived until you’ve heard John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” sung entirely in Welsh.
Also appearing was a young soprano, Gwawr Edwards. She has an attractive voice and pleasant stage presence, though she’d been packaged so tightly it was hard to imagine how she could breathe, let alone sing. Still, she sang some lovely solos, and, with Roberts, some appealing duets. It will be interesting to see whether Edwards is able to make her way to greater heights. We think about the crowded field of talent that’s out there, and how hard it is to make oneself known. We wish her luck.
What really set the stage alight, by our reckoning, was the mixed choir Côrdydd. The choir has racked up first place awards in its category at several Eisteddfods, and was chosen the “Choir of the Festival" in 2008. This is certainly a case where hearing the music and seeing the performers is worth a thousand words:
And then there was Catrin Finch. Of course, in these circumstances, we couldn’t experience the full measure of her talent: the beautifully paced and seamlessly staged concert was intended to, and fulfilled its mission of, having a popular slant, with short pieces that provided something for everyone.
That said, Finch onstage was eagerly looked for, and a pleasure every time. Whether as accompanist or soloist, she had a relaxed, natural presence—and can she ever play the harp!
Once, when introducing Finch, we thought we caught the Mistress of Ceremonies say “Scott Joplin” as she pointed, not to the harp, but to the piano. Finch came out, faked a flub or two on the harp, shrugged, and walked over to the piano.
It isn’t fair that she should be that good at the piano, too, now, is it?
To close the concert, all the singing forces and the terrific band that had played throughout joined together for “Cwm Rhonnda (Bread of Heaven)” and the Welsh National Anthem, “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers).” This, of course, brought everyone to their feet. The audience sang along, and, at the end, erupted into cheers and applause.
Our friends from England commented how remarkable it was that the Welsh banded together like this over poetry and song. They couldn’t think of anything quite like it back home. Nor could we.
And, indeed, as we walked down the empty grounds to catch our bus back to the parking lot, we passed by a tent where singing (of a sort) was still going on.
On July 3, 2010, the Gorsedd of the Bards conducted the Proclamation Ceremony for the 2011 National Eisteddfod. A grand old tradition lives on.
In case you aren't sure whether she was faking those flubs, here's Catrin Finch in concert on the harp:
Annie's Song (Roberts, accompanied by Finch):
Come What May (Edwards and Roberts, accompanied by Finch):