Friday, October 8, 2010

Listening to Wales: The National Eisteddfod

The National Eisteddfod of Wales is “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).

By the time we arrived at the grand pink tent that served as the Main Pavilion, the festival was almost at an end, and all of the exhibits had closed down.  We walked across the festival grounds past rows of empty stalls to join the crowd of ticket-holders waiting to be let in.  Still, the night was fine, and, once inside, we took our seats just five rows back, stage center, almost directly in front of the harp.

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):


  1. Surely, surely, you must either be Welsh or live in Wales? I cannot work this blog out.
    Although i live on the wrong side of the border, there is a lot of singing here too, lots of little choirs and much joyful performing; there is something in the air in the Marches too.

  2. Thank you for so much information - I gave a hint to your blog to some German friends. Do you know Philip Glass? (they gave me that link)

  3. What a wonderful evening - I wish I'd been there. Thanks for bringing some of it back, particularly "Annie's Song" in Welsh...I wish I'd been there!

  4. I'm immensely enjoying your musical journey through Wales!

    The videos of the artists' performances are simply outstanding. Catrin Finch gets my vote for top musician of the Eisteddfod.

  5. Well, this was a musical feast! But all rather on the quiet side, for some reason known only to Blogger...

  6. Thanks to everyone for taking time to comment. so glad you enjoyed the post!

    Jinksy: Thanks for the heads up; to readers, if you encounter this problem, headphones can help enormously.

    Friko: From what we saw of the Marches, where you live, there is no wrong side of the border--it's all beautiful, and I'm not surprised to find out it's tuneful as well!

    Britta: How kind of you to send the music post on to your friends. And indeed yes, you may let them know, I do know of Philip Glass.

    Carol-Ann: Would have been fun to have you with us! I, of course, had no idea who Rhydian Roberts was, but apparently he has a very large fan club--many of whom have found and checked out this post! I just hope they're willing to branch out and view the other great performances.

    cybersr: And there's one more Wales post to come: A Conversation with John Metcalf, Part III, "Everybody Has Genius." I hope you enjoy it.

    Indeed, Catrin Finch is something. So great to hear and see her on her home ground!

  7. I'm late to the party - but what a party! Lovely, lovely music. How wonderful to be there in person for it. RA, your account is a wonderful review of the night.

  8. It was a very memorable occasion. The awe-inspiring drive through the Valleys to reach the Eisteddfod then echoed throughout the music and the joyous audience participation. Both were an enrapturing experience. I had a hallucinogenic moment where I wanted to live in Wales and learn Welsh. Nor did I feel outlawed. It was a friendly affair where people engaged their souls, voices, language.

    This is rarely encountered in our part of England where people know to keep their emotions to themselves. A classical concert, in the English (South-East) tradition, is almost exclusively for the well-heeled, white middle and upper classes. A place to be “cultural”; the theatre likewise. Even at local music events, the rear seats fill up first, people listen. Listen, not participate. Whatever the efforts of the performer to engage, the audience can be stoically inert, sometimes even talking over the music. Feet tapping, swaying or clapping along are taken up only by the revolutionaries. Some braver souls may then join in. End of performance clapping, however, can be endless. It’s polite you know.

    Whilst in Wales a singing choir even erupted in a car park at a mountain centre.Again, this would be very unusual in England unless people were extremely drunk or on drugs(and then you wouldn’t want to encounter it) or singing a madrigal or something in Latin.

    Perhaps I cannot be all English. Or perhaps, middle-class. I loved the Eisteddfod. There was such passion. A great thank-you is therefore due to the American who, though in the minority, persevered with the English majority and gave us a wonderful evening.

    I muse to myself if the experience illustrates that whilst race does not determine who we are there are strong cultural differences that can.


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