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Guest blog: A harpist’s tale – September in New York

Welsh harpist Gwenllian Llyr has left home to study at Julliard. She’s chronicling her adventures in New York here.

By Gwenllian Llyr 

After a non-stop day of classes, lessons, work and practise, I realised that I have been in New York for almost a month.

Gwenllian Llyr

That quite startled me – why does time do such funny things?  In my sleepy state I started to reflect on my time here so far.

My first day here, I remember just wanting to sleep all day! But no such luck – there were placement exams, meet and greets and so many lectures happened while I lived in a haze of jetlag.

‘Orientation week’ was definitely very different to my experience of the UK’s ‘Fresher’s Week’ – for one thing it wasn’t actually based around alcohol!

It was nice that there were some similarities, such as a hilarious visit by the Hypnotist and a Casino Night with a chance for gambling with monopoly money!

I’ll admit that the lectures about Safety in NYC and Drugs and Alcohol Addiction weren’t exactly the highlights of my week, but I did go to see the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and explore the farmer’s market in Union Square.

I also met so many international students that week, and the school has been fantastic about trying to involve everyone in appropriate activities and letting us know what opportunities are available. I’ve already got work-study positions in the career services department and as an usher, and have been appointed the teaching assistant for my teacher Nancy Allen!

My schedule here seems so much busier than I would imagine it to be if I were studying for a master of music degree in the UK. (Maybe I’m mistaken since I haven’t actually done one.) I have always loved a challenge, so despite my first reaction of horror at the amount of work expected from each class I have managed to fit all my homework in with my practise.

For example, I have ear training twice a week, and a test (which counts for my grade) in every lesson! I also had to do four hours of revision on Sunday to catch up on my history listening and reading work. I do prefer being busier than with no work. Maybe I’ll reflect more on this when I’ve been here for a little longer.

Another reason for my busy schedule is my participation in NJE – the New Juilliard Ensemble. Last Saturday, I performed my first concert at Juilliard, and it proved to be much more grandiose than I originally imagined. The first piece that I performed in was Wald by Hans Abrahamsen, which was very difficult for a novice in contemporary ensemble performance. Since the concert was recorded I will definitely be interested to listen to this piece. With all the counting it was difficult to appreciate the atmosphere and overall effect we created.

The other – ‘Concerto for Ornette’ – was the crowd-gatherer. A concerto for chamber ensemble with improvised alto saxophone, originally written for the legendary Ornette Coleman.

This was an incredible experience because we were able to work with the composer Carman Moore, and also witness Morgan Jones, the brave Juilliard student who accepted the challenge of performing this piece. The audience included not just the work’s dedicatee Ornette Coleman, but also Henry Grimes, Butch Morris and a NY Times reviewer who had this to say:

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to improvise freely on alto saxophone throughout the premiere of a concerto not only inspired by Ornette Coleman, one of the most natural melodists and distinctive improvisers in American music, but also actually intended for Mr. Coleman to perform. You should evoke the work’s dedicatee without merely mimicking his sound and gestures.

“Oh, and Mr. Coleman will be watching, amid an audience of his admirers and renowned jazz-world peers.

“Under the circumstances you could feel that Morgan Jones, a master’s degree student in the Juilliard School’s jazz program, deserved a medal just for agreeing to play Carman Moore’s “Concerto for Ornette.”

I realised from my participation in NJE how much I enjoy contemporary music; working with composers to discover new sounds for the instrument is something I have been doing for many years. But it was a new experience hearing how different instruments can compliment each other and work together.

As for other things, I have been starting new pieces which I always really enjoy, and getting to know New York. I have a social security number so that I can get paid. I have an American “cell” phone and can understand the subway (to a degree!).

I’m also noticing that slowly but surely I am getting slightly Americanised! Little things such as getting a membership at the ‘Y’, and using the ‘elevator’ instead of the ‘lift’ and the ‘trash can’ instead of the ‘bin’ are all becoming a part of my American persona.

But with a few British friends around me (and a quarter British harp class!), I’m sure that I won’t lose all my Welshness.

September 11th in New York

9/11 – the day loomed large for ages, and I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to being in the city on the 10-year anniversary of this tragic day.

We were sent warnings and cautions days beforehand about packages and transport. I kept thinking that 10 years ago, people wouldn’t believe this could or would ever happen. It’s hard not to reflect on how much the World has changed since.

The Juilliard Journal re-printed pieces about the day, and the raw emotion felt as if it was bursting off the page in one student’s account of this heartrending event.

Gwenllian Llyr and Danny Lopez, the British Consulate General New York

I accepted an invitation by the Welsh Government and Visit Wales to ‘A Concert of Commemoration’ that Sunday at Avery Fisher Hall. Several Welsh people had been invited as guests, and it was wonderful to meet some Welsh people that were so friendly and encouraging (and nothing to do with my studies!). After reading so many people’s accounts of this day I was worried about being terribly sad, but this concert was different. Alongside the feeling of respect and remembrance, there seemed to be a collective sense of hope and optimism which was truly an inspiration.

The concert was almost sold out, and included a US premiere of Karl Jenkins’ work For the Fallen: In Memoriam Alfryn Jenkins, as well as The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace with its sublime Benedictus. The music of the entire concert was very appropriate, but one string motif in Memorial by René Clausen was so eerily similar to what I imagine the screams of those on the planes and in the towers to have been that I almost felt unable to listen anymore.

Despite all the wonderful music, one piece still plays so vividly in my memory and that was the Adagio for Strings by Barber. It was the perfect opening to the concert with its expressive simplicity that really seemed to embody my thoughts and feelings perfectly.

After the concert, I was invited to the British Consulate General for a reception. With it being fashion week and the concert having just finished, finding a taxi to get there was a bit of a mission. Unfortunately I had class soon afterwards so I wasn’t able to stay for long, but it was nice to meet more British people in New York and hear about some of the other commemorative events that had taken place that day.

So many times people have vowed that they will never forget this day, and I don’t believe that our generation ever could.

The difficult part is allowing ourselves to move ahead without fear of forgetting the tragedy of trivialising the bravery of so many on that fateful day.

As Danny Lopez, the British Consulate General of New York stated: “Reflect, remember, rebuild.”

  • To find out more about Gwenllian’s upcoming concerts or to contact her directly, please visit: www.gwenllianllyr.co.uk

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One thought on “Guest blog: A harpist’s tale – September in New York

  1. As a harpist do you get lots of people asking if they can use your harp as a bow to fire an arrow from?

    Do you keep a stack of arrows handy for these occasions?

    Posted by Michael Cargill | September 30, 2011, 8:43 am

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