Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss
was prepared for the March 13, 2002 edition of
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Catrin Finch Shares a Welsh Music Tradition
My husband enters the room and is ensnared by the CD
recording of harpist Catrin Finch’s Bach. It is a nimble, energetic,
and muscular translation of compositions originally written for solo
violin. Instead of the harp’s characteristic sweeps of sound, Finch’s
Bach is resolutely focused.
My husband looks dissatisfied. "There’s something wrong with the
high-low balance," he says. As it turns out, he thinks that the
recording instrument he is listening to is a piano.
Interviewing Finch by telephone from her home in Wales, I wonder
he has made her a compliment, and eventually she responds to his
by saying, "It makes me very happy." But first she takes
stance. "My aim to make the harp sound like a harp. I aim to show
that the harp can sound just as good as an instrument as the piano.
It’s usually regarded as not capable of solo things."
This 21-year-old is a direct, unspoiled member of Generation Y. She
conveys as much by inflection as by choice of words. I imagine at
her end of the phone she rolls her eyes, tilts her chin and lets her
facial expressions emphasize her meaning.
First prize winner in the Young Concert Artists (YCA) International
Auditions in 2000, Finch gives a concert in Richardson Auditorium
under the auspices of Princeton University Concerts on Thursday, March
14, at 8 p.m. Her program encompasses both works for harp and
by Bach, Debussy, Albeniz, and others.
Founded in 1961, YCA has launched the careers of major figures on
today’s concert stages. Winners have included Emanuel Ax, Richard
Goode, Pinchas Zukerman, and Dawn Upshaw. The Princeton University
Concerts Prize is awarded annually to the outstanding YCA winner.
"She walked out onto the audition stage and immediately commanded
everyone’s attention with not only her dazzling technique, but the
expressivity and sensitivity of her playing," observed Princeton
Concerts’ Nathan Randall.
Finch’s instrument was made by Salvi of Piasco, Italy, near Turin.
"It’s an example of today’s modern concert harps," she says.
"The harp is probably in the best, most developed state it’s ever
been. Today’s harps are the finest ever seen. They produce a sound
people didn’t think the harp could make. They’re strong, robust
Finch has had the harp since 1990, when she was 10. After she selected
the instrument from several shipped to Salvi’s London showroom, her
family adjusted to the new situation. "My parents re-mortgaged
the house and changed the family car," she says. Once bought,
the harp demanded a station wagon.
How does she choose a harp? "I select by the sound," she says.
"I like bright sounds, but warm. It also matters how it looks.
A harp can have different kinds of decoration. My harp is very modern
looking. My taste has lately turned away from ornately decorated
Then there are physical things — how it plays and whether it suits
your shape. Some harps are shorter and fatter. I was quite a tall
10-year-old, and I grew around the harp." Finch is now 5 foot
The youngest of three children, Finch remembers absorbing the piano
instruction of her older siblings. "I listened to their
she says. "I was annoying. Being the youngest of three, you
become involved. When the older ones practice, you join in." Her
brother Matthew is an accountant in London. Her sister Emma works
in marketing in Cardiff.
Finch’s father, a native of England, works for a government
development agency. Her mother, a librarian, teaches piano;
she moved to England as a child. "I’m the only member of the
born in Wales," Finch says. "I consider myself Welsh. I speak
Welsh. I learned it at an early age in school."
"We don’t have professional musicians in the family," Finch
says, "but there’s always been a piano in the house. My mother
was keen on us all learning music. Taking music as career was not
thought of, but she considered music important for bringing kids
When Finch was five, she attended a harp concert and
knew immediately that she had to learn to play the instrument. By
age six, she had started lessons.
"I guess I went on and on about the harp," she says. "I
knew that playing harp was what I wanted to do. There was no turning
back. My mind was set. Six was an early age to start, but for me it
was the right time. I was ready. I had been playing piano since I
was four and I knew how to read music. My mother had already bought
me a flute, and she sold it."
Finding a harp teacher was no problem in Wales, where the harp is
the national instrument and most schools own harps and have harp
on staff. Finch currently studies with Skaila Kanga at London’s Royal
Academy of Music.
Before acquiring the Salvi harp at age 10, Finch outgrew three
larger and more sophisticated instruments. The Salvi, like all concert
harps has 47 strings, giving it a range roughly the same as that of
a modern piano, and seven pedals. Finch succinctly explains how the
pedals work. "There are three slots to each pedal," she says,
" — flat, natural and sharp. There is one pedal for each scale
step. The C pedal will move every C on the harp. It’s very easy to
get the harp into any key you want. But it’s virtually impossible
to play a fast chromatic scale. You can’t move your feet that
"The advantage of the harp is how it handles glissandos,"
Finch says. These are the smooth sweeps covering a large range of
pitches; they are tricky to pull off comfortably on a piano. "By
using the pedals you can play two of the same note at a time. A fast
glissando, which is a series of plucked sounds, sounds like a chord
because of the pedal settings. You can get different chords by
the same strings when the pedal settings are changed."
One of the special demands of playing the harp, says
Finch, is coordinating hands and feet. "It’s hard enough when
the brain has to worry about one bit of body. It’s worse when there
are more parts. In the kind of pieces I play, the feet are as
as the fingers because the feet control the pitch." Sometimes
Finch practices hands and feet separately.
"If you want to be concert harpist, you must move on as soon as
possible to a pedal harp," Finch says. "At 10 my playing was
at stage where I had to get a new harp. Having had the harp since
then, the main part of my studying was on this harp. My playing now
suits the Salvi harp. It would be difficult for me to switch."
This season Finch premieres a double harp concerto commissioned by
England’s Prince Charles. "Playing the harp is quite a lonely
thing," she says. "It’s like piano. You need nobody else.
You carry the whole show. Being able to share the stage with someone
else is lovely."
The day of a performance Finch stays calm. "I eat bananas before
performing and take it easy the day of a concert. It’s too late to
do anything then. I just go with the flow. For me the panicking begins
a few weeks ahead of time. That’s when I worry about learning the
notes, and not messing up on stage."
Finch evaluates the success of a concert by the audience reaction.
"There’s no such thing as a perfect performance," she says.
"You can always find ways to improve. Even while I’m performing,
I think of ways in which I could have done things better. If the
is enjoying themselves, that’s what I’m there to do. You could get
bogged down in how many wrong notes you played. But if the audience
has had an experience because of what you’ve done, it’s a success.
It’s a sign of success when someone comes up after the concert and
says, `Wow!’ That’s why you spend hours and hours — for the few
minutes of joy you bring people."
Invited to tell of a narrow escape in performance, Finch comes up
with a repetitive narrow escape story. "You’re playing a piece
that you’ve played hundreds of times," she says, "and suddenly
you don’t know where you are. You have to improvise for a while, and
then it will come back. You can’t guard against memory lapses. It’s
a successful mistake if no one else notices. Mistakes will always
Finch is now nearing the end of a two-year term as the royal harpist
to Charles, Prince of Wales. The prince had heard her play at his
50th birthday celebration and Finch’s former teacher was on the
committee. The post was last filled in 1871, during Queen Victoria’s
reign. "Being the royal harpist is a fantastic honor," Finch
says. "I play at official and private functions. It’s no more
than once a month maximum. I get to meet people that I never dreamt
I would meet."
When Finch looks back at the beginnings of her life with the harp
as a young child, she says, "It just blossomed from there."
Never underestimate the power of a determined five-year-old,
one blessed with parents who have the good judgment to take her
— Elaine Strauss
Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Recital features original works and
by Johann Sebastian Bach, Claude Debussy, Jean Francaix, William
Isaac Albeniz, Manuel De Falla, and Bedrich Smetana. Adult $19 to
$29; students $2. Thursday, March 14, 8 p.m.
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