Emotional concert at Wales International Harp Festival to remember controversial drowning of village

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A top harpist revealed the Welsh premiere of a new piece of music to remember the controversial drowning of a village will be a highly emotional occasion for her.

Sioned Williams’ grandfather Huw T Edwards led the campaign against the submerging of Capel Celyn in the Tryweryn valley above Bala in 1965 to create a reservoir to provide water for the city of Liverpool and the Wirral.

Sioned Williams

Although ultimately unsuccessful, the mass protests were a touchstone political moment and are credited with sparking a rebirth of Welsh nationalism

The harpist, originally from Sychdyn, in Flintshire, who is stepping down as the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Harpist after nearly 30 years in the role, commissioned the work, The Drowning of Capel Celyn, on her 60th birthday.

She will be playing the piece, written by composer Michael Stimpson, at the Wales International Harp Festival at St Mary’s Church in Caernarfon on Easter Monday, April 2.

Other highlights of the festival, which is in its fourth year, include a celebration of the life and work of the globally-renowned harpist, Dr Osian Ellis, to mark his 90th birthday.

As well as being the Professor of the Harp at the Royal Academy of Music, Dr Ellis was for many years the Principal Harpist with the London Symphony Orchestra and he was held in such high regard by Benjamin Britten that he wrote his Harp Suite specifically for him.

More than 100 harpists from countries as far afield as Japan, America, Russia and Thailand will be coming to the festival, which has Galeri in Caernarfon as its main venue, Easter Sunday, on April 1, to Saturday, April 7.

Back in the 1960s, Huw T Edwards was an influential trade union leader with the Transport and General Workers’ Union in North Wales and he was elected chairman of the Save Tryweryn campaign, something of which Sioned Williams is extremely proud.

She recalled: “I remember sitting on the banks of Llyn Celyn as a young girl with Taid and I felt a huge sense of sadness which remains with me to this day. I have visited there many times since and reflected on the catastrophic events which should never have happened.

“The work by Michael Stimpson is so poignant and the Caernarfon concert will be the Welsh premiere of the work and will be performed in the presence of the composer as Michael Stimpson will be there.

“I hope people will have a chance to reflect once more as they listen to what is a haunting and beautiful piece of work.”

She added: “My Taid, Huw T Edwards, played a major part in trying to stop the flooding and three men, Owain Williams, Emyr Llewelyn Jones and John Albert Jones, who sadly died in November last year, attempted to bomb a transformer at the dam site.

“It was Taid who apparently paid the bail money to get one of the three men out of prison.”

“The Michael Stimpson composition is such an amazing and beautiful work and really does just justice to how people felt, the utter devastation as water rushed into the valley drowning the chapel, the post office, Quaker meeting house and cottages.”

And, at the start of the performance, Sioned will read a poem, Tryweryn, which was written by her grandfather Huw T Edwards and published in a book of Welsh language poems he penned called Tros F’ysgwydd (Over My Shoulder).”

A former pupil of the festival’s director, Elinor Bennett, Sioned went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music where she was taught by Dr Osian Ellis.

Sioned became only the second harpist to achieve the Recital Diploma, the most highly acclaimed performance exam, at the Royal Academy, Elinor Bennett having been the first.

She toured the world as a soloist for almost 20 years and had her own radio programmes on Radio 4 and the World Service, and became the first British musician to win the prestigious Concert Artist Guild Award in New York.

However, after signing a contract to be the Principal Harpist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1990 Sioned was left devastated after being diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder – McArdle disease, a glycogen storage disorder.

She said: “I cannot express the emotions I went through. However, my heart decided to rule my head and here we are 28 years later and I’m still a harpist.

However, after 28 exciting years working with the most wonderful composers and conductors in the world, I will relinquish my position and have a final concert with the orchestra under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis in the Barbican on April 13. I will then concentrate on pursuing other musical adventures. I aim to never stop playing the harp. I simply couldn’t!’.”

According to Elinor Bennett the concert with Sioned at 7.30pm on Easter Monday at St Mary’s Church, Caernarfon will be an unforgettable and hugely poignant occasion.

She said: “The fact that Sioned’s grandfather led the campaign against the destruction and drowning of Capel Celyn adds a real personal touch to what remains an emotive issue to many Welsh people.

“I share Sioned’s memories as my father, Emrys Bennett Owen, was also part of the campaign to save the village and, as chairman of the Penllyn Rural District Council, and was part of a delegation that went to lobby the Liverpool MP, Bessie Braddock.

“I’m thrilled that the concert will feature wonderful music for treble voices and harp by famous composers  –  John Rutter, Benjamin Britten, Gustav Holst and his daughter, Imogen Holst who worked with Osian Ellis at Benjamin Britten’s Festival in Aldeburgh.

“It will be a particular pleasure to welcome the renowned Palestrina Choir of St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral,  Dublin with their Director, Dr Blanaid Murphy, to perform four  rarely-heard works for choir and harp  with Sioned Williams and  Anne Denholm, Official Harpist to HRH The Prince of Wales.

” It’s going to be an amazing evening!”

For more details about the Wales International Harp Festival please visit www.walesharpfestival.co.uk