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Harpist, Anne Denholm talks new music and Ensemble Cymru ahead of the May Tour

We speak to Ensemble Cymrus Principal Harpist, and current Royal Harpist, Anne Denholm in the run-up to the May Tour to find out how working with Ensemble Cymru helps promote something very important to her.

©Julian Dodd

Royal Harpist Anne Denholm is a staunch advocate of what the harp has to offer. Working with Peryn Clement-Evans, Artistic Director, Anne has helped formulate the programmes for both of Ensemble Cymru’s November and May tours.

Any opportunity to include the harp in chamber music is a valuable chance to demonstrate the incredible versatility and power of the instrument, said Anne when we spoke to her in October. “Our goal was to show a variety of instrumental combinations featuring the harp, and to create programmes that are diverse, entertaining, and sometimes challenging.

Bach to Baby © Laura Ruiz

During the 2016 Autumn Tour, the eclectic programme included a work by late Welsh composer, Mervyn Burtch. The theme of combining more traditional works alongside new and exciting repertoire continues in the upcoming May Tour, which features compositions by Sally Beamish, and Welsh composer Hilary Tann.

The unusual programme is telling of another passion; Anne is extremely enthusiastic about contemporary music.

This interest in new music started when I was around fourteen, says Anne. I was asked to record a new solo work for harp as part of the local Young Music Makers of Dyfed organisation. I was fascinated by the challenge and reward of performing something entirely new and unfamiliar.

Ensemble Cymru have been working hard to demonstrate the versatility of the harp over the past few years, and also worked with Eliza Netzer during the May Tour of 2016. But the Bangor-based company haven’t neglected another important aim; to include newer compositions in their programmes.

The Royal Harpist shares this dedication to modern classical music. Although Anne has been interested in contemporary music from a young age, she advises it is more about maintaining an openness to new ideas.

I would say it is probably more specifically a love for experimentation! she laughs. This then often results in unusual combinations of instruments, from specific commission projects, to my collaborative work with The Hermes Experiment, to an Indian fusion band!

© Tom Porteous

Anne’s involvement in The Hermes Experiment is just one facet of her varied career, but it’s indicative of her dedication to exploring new ideas. The Hermes Experiment is comprised of a distinctive ensemble of Double Bass, Soprano voice, Clarinet and Harp. The ensemble regularly commission new works from composers, as well as working on their own arrangements. The Hermes Experiment also works with Nonclassical, a project created by Gabriel Prokofiev, most famed for his Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra.

It is clear to see that Anne feels that this experimentation is immensely important to Western art music as a whole. There are recognised names in the world of classical music, and many audiences are at ease with the works of Mozart or Debussy. Yet there is a wealth of unexplored repertoire from both the 20th and 21st centuries that the Royal Harpist is keen to share with listeners.

Contemporary music is the music of our time and as such is very relevant to us, Anne affirms, and it is true that we should find more in common with contemporary music than we do with works written 300 years ago. The more classical music and its world is allowed to experiment, grow and develop, the broader the range of audiences that will be able to relate to it.

As musicians and audiences alike experiment and engage with new music, the more likely it will truly become the “music of our time”. Yet some listeners can be a little hesitant to delve into the world of contemporary music. Anne explains: “As with anything else, change can be unfamiliar and difficult, and it can take time for new trends to become familiar and accessible’”.

Exposing ourselves to unfamiliar music, however, does not just expand our ability to adapt to new concepts. It also has a very important cultural impact.

I believe it is important for classical music and its audiences to be open to new sounds and experiences, if we want to nurture the creativity of our current generation, Anne asserts.

© Martin Wess

The responsibility that musicians have to contemporary music, therefore, is two-fold. It is essential that musicians draw audiences to listen to, engage with, and importantly, understand music they may be less familiar with. And in turn, creative talent can be successfully cultivated.

Ensemble Cymru have always taken the task of presenting new music seriously, and Anne agrees that it is an enormous duty to guide audiences through a new musical experience.

I think how we present new music is absolutely key and a serious responsibility for us as composers and performers – and audiences shouldnt feel at sea during these new musical experiences.

Of course, a concert of modern classical music is not for everyone, and some audiences can still be a little unsure whether to immerse themselves into the contemporary experience. Anne stresses that balance is absolutely crucial if musicians are to spread their love of new music.

I enjoy playing the full range of repertoire for the harp, and as a performer one always has to be aware of the context and audience for your performances, she says, before adding: Versatility and variety are key!

And so, by collaborating with Ensemble Cymru, Anne has created a varied programme which will appeal to a wide audience. By interweaving modern classical music, alongside works by the likes of Mozart or Vivaldi, Anne is continuing to introduce contemporary compositions to audiences everywhere.

As Anne says, in the May Tour, there is truly something for everyone!

Anne will be on tour with Ensemble Cymru between May 1st – 14th. Please see our events page for a full list of dates and venues.