Catrin Finch: By royal command

As she comes to the end of her two-year stint as harpist to the Prince of Wales, the young virtuoso Catrin Finch tells Lynne Walker how the prestige position has boosted her international standing
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Catrin Finch, harpist to the Prince of Wales, is likely to do for the harp what James Galway did for the flute and Evelyn Glennie for percussion. Her royal position is the jewel in the crown that includes an exclusive recording contract with Sony, an increasingly high profile and a nomination in the Classical Brits for "Young British Classical Performer". Her star is well and truly in the ascendancy.

You used to be able to distinguish harpists from other musicians as the ones with the Laura Ashley frocks and beautifully coiffured hair. Think of the big harp names - Marie and Sidonie Goossens, Marisa Robles (who inspired Finch to take up the harp) - and they're almost exclusively female, pace Osian Ellis. It was a harpist from the Vienna State Opera who made it to become the first woman member of the Vienna Philharmonic; and Finch, longtime harpist in the National Youth Orchestra, was, at the age of 10, the youngest NYO member to play at the Proms.

In the long line of royal harpists, a tradition dating back to medieval times, you had to be male as well as Welsh, and it helped if you were blind. But in 2000, when Prince Charles revived the royal appointment, a position last filled in 1871 during Queen Victoria's reign, Catrin Finch broke the mould in many ways. Her parents are English, although she speaks Welsh and grew up in Wales, and she has recently married the sound-engineer son of her first harp teacher, Elinor Bennett, and the former Plaid Cymru president Dafydd Wigley. The couple live in Gwaelod y Garth, near enough to Cardiff for Finch to combine royal engagements with her burgeoning international career.

She's one of only three musicians connected to the Royal Family, the others being Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen's Music, and the Queen's Piper, Jim Stout. Finch came to the prince's notice when she represented the Purcell School, playing at the celebrations surrounding his 50th birthday. It's a two-year appointment and although she was re-appointed in 2002, Finch stands down as Royal Harpist this year as she reaches the cut-off age of 25.

"I'm sorry to be retiring because it's been a bit like a fairy tale," she says. "I've played at all sorts of events, at Buckingham Palace, Windsor, Highgrove House and St James's Palace, as well as whenever Prince Charles has Welsh engagements. I just hope people won't mind that I'm not the Royal Harpist any more." She played at the official opening of the second term of the National Assembly of Wales at Cardiff Bay, and later this year she's booked for the opening of the Wales Millennium Centre.

Any whiffs of scandal, tales of royal intrigue, I wonder? After all, a royal appointment is a bit different from the usual round of harp engagements - weddings, hotel functions, cocktail parties and after-dinner strumming. What went on as she plucked her strings? Disappointingly little, it would appear. "It's all been very straightforward," she says. "I was nervous at first, but it's been made really easy and quite informal. We say hello and chat and sometimes have a cup of tea. It's been a great pleasure, a real honour and fantastic for my career." In America, where she's built up quite a following thanks to support from the Young Concert Artists' Trust, she milks the royal dimension quite shamelessly. "Royal Harpist" is how she's billed there, and she's aware that it gives her prestige before she's even played a note.

Being in the royal pocket (she receives a small honorarium) doesn't seem the most obvious way to make the harp trendy. But Finch, strikingly good-looking and clearly self-assured, is a bit of a crusader. For a start, she shied away from the ornate gold harp with its angelic associations and plumped for a no-thrills, all-black harp by the Italian makers Salvi. "I didn't want any fuss, and with its black pillar, black neck and black soundbox, it looks a bit like a standing piano. My other harp is art deco-influenced, but not in the least flowery. You'll never see me with cherubs."

She also persuaded the American firm Lyon & Healy to make her a small pink electronic harp that she can sling over her shoulder. Quite different to the traditional harp with its foot pedals, this one uses levers and allows the player to stroll around. It goes down well on her schools' tours, the most recent of which took her from Glasgow to London, travelling in a motor-home. Her progress was followed by Classic FM, which broadcast twice-daily bulletins, e-mailed, texted or phoned in by Finch.

Unlike in Wales, where so many children play the harp, a lot of these school children hadn't seen or heard one before. "I used to be a bit apprehensive and so were the kids. They thought they were in for a boring half-hour. But once they see and hear it, they become interested in the fact that its strings are made out of sheep gut, that it's like a robot inside with 3,000 moving bits, that I play bits of classical and some jazz, and that they can have a go."

Finch has a flute and harp duo, enjoys playing chamber music and has toured with the renowned Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, but it's a frustration that the repertoire for solo harp is so limited. In orchestral programmes it plays a major role in works by Berlioz, Wagner, Strauss, Mahler and Elgar, as well as by many French composers, and Britten wrote sympathetically for it, too. Handel transcribed some of his organ music for harp, Mozart composed for flute and harp, but those who have created works for solo harp and orchestra are few - Glière, Ginastera, Eichner, Boieldieu, Villa-Lobos, Nino Rota, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Rodrigo, Jolivet and the Welsh Hoddinott and Mathias being among the most obvious. Finch has made several arrangements herself, although only one, "Chicken Pickin' Ragg", is featured on The Harpist, her second Sony album.

She recently completed a version for harp of Mozart's A major Piano Concerto K414, which receives its premiere at the Barbican's Mostly Mozart festival later this month. "It's my first attempt at arranging a concerto and it's been a challenge as well as fun - although I'm playing it from the piano score and there's very little that I've had to actually change. It's not really an arrangement; it's more a case of playing a concerto designed for piano on a harp. I play a lot of keyboard works by Bach on harp, as well as piano pieces by Debussy, but if I had the money I'd like to commission more music specifically for the harp."

Prince Charles was behind her first commission, a six-movement double concerto, Over the Stone, from her compatriot Karl Jenkins. She feels that his musical style, like that of Steve Reich and Michael Nyman (whose names she mentions as composers she'd love to commission, along with Thomas Adès), suits the harp perfectly. She collaborated with Jenkins for her debut CD for Sony, Crossing the Stone. His arrangements and original compositions drew on a mixture of influences from world music to minimalist techniques.

Popularising the harp is not confined to this country. Through her British royal connections Finch has become involved with the Thai royal family, one of whose members, Sunida Kitiyakara, invited Finch to help her launch a new harp school, the Tamnak Prathom Harp Centre in Bangkok.

"Sunida asked me to give a concert on her grandfather's newly-restored harp, a 90-year-old British Morley instrument, and then decided to build a harp school," she says. "She bought a dozen or so harps and asked me, as a patron, to give regular concerts and masterclasses. I've never flown with a harp, though. Salvi are good at helping out by arranging harps wherever I'm playing in America or Asia." And in the autumn, if her plan comes off to give a concert in aid of War Child in Kralavitsa, on the border of Bosnia and Croatia, the RAF will fly out her harp.

Finch's ambition to make the harp cool with kids may also boost the sales of estate cars, vital in transporting the instrument, and also the work of chiropractors, since putting out your back while putting the harp in position is a danger. Weight-lifting is not encouraged as a sport as it tenses the muscles harpists need to keep relaxed.

"There is arthritis in my family, which could be a problem on an instrument where nimbleness and flexibility mean everything," says Finch. "But I try to lead as normal a life as possible, and at the moment that means DIY and gardening as we get our house into shape, and walking Scooby the dog."

Her advice to her royal successor is simple. "Take as much advantage as you can of the position and its benefits. Play at everything, tell people about your appointment and, most of all, enjoy it. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Keep your thumbs up and fingers down and you'll be sorted."

Catrin Finch's CDs are on Sony. She appears at the Mostly Mozart festival, at the Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550), on 23 July, 7.30pm