A MUSIC prodigy took a step forward towards realising his ambition of becoming a concert pianist after scooping a prize at a prestigious festival.

Ellis Thomas, 20, from Penrhyn Bay, near Llandudno, was the joint winner of the accompanist category at the Wales International Piano Festival at Galeri in Caernarfon.

He shared the top honours with Edward Leung, 27,  the accompanist in residence at Westminster School, London.

The prize was donated by former music teachers and the R. Davy Jones Trust, with Ellis and Edward getting £1,050 each.

For Ellis it was the second time he had taken part in the festival, having first played at the event in 2016 when he was just 15 years old.

This time he scored a double success because he was also placed second in the senior competition category.

The festival, which is held every four years, was organised by Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias (William Mathias Music Centre) which is headquartered in Caernarfon and has satellite bases in Denbigh and Ruthin.

It showcases concerts by professional musicians, masterclasses and education outreach projects as well as hosting prestigious piano competitions with prizes this year totalling nearly £10,000.

This year the festival took on a hybrid format with the evening concerts pre-recorded and streamed online, while competitions and other events taking place live at Galeri Caernarfon.

Benji Lock, winner of the junior competition. Credit Iolo Penri.

It was originally due to be staged in May 2020 to mark the year of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in December 1770.

But due to the effects of global pandemic lockdowns and concert venue closures worldwide it had to be postponed again in October last year and again in May.

Despite  the setbacks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 festival attracted a full complement of competition entrants.

There were 16 competitors in each of three categories for junior solo pianists, senior solo pianists, and accompanists. It is one of only a handful of festivals in the world which includes an accompanist category. It is one of the few festivals to do so.

Organisers say it would not have been possible to put on the festival without the support of the sponsors which include the Arts Council of Wales, Colwinston Trust, Foyle Foundation, Gwynedd Council, Pendine Park care organisation via the Pendine Arts and Community Trust, Roberts of Port Dinorwic, Ty Cerdd, Snowdonia Fire Protection, A&B Cymru and several individual donors.

After the lockdown period and having to play in front of microphones and cameras, Ellis said it was great to play in front of a live audience.

“It was also nice to be able to play somewhere so close to home. My parents and my grandparents were able to attend and there were many people I knew in the audience,” he said.

Ellis added he enjoyed the competitive nature of the festival. “The setting of pieces for the accompanist category gave me the opportunity to play pieces I might not have otherwise played. And accompanying is a different skill to playing solo. The pianist must be more sensitive to the playing or singing of the other person,” he said.

He has been playing the piano since the age of six and is currently a student at Cambridge University. He hopes to continue his musical studies after graduation and is applying to music colleges and would like to become a concert pianist in future.

Joint winner Edward Leung, originally from New York, studied at Princeton University before jetting across the Atlantic to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

Tomos Boyles, winner of the senior competition. Credit Geraint Thomas

While in the Midlands he heard about the festival from a fellow student and decided to enter.

“This was before the pandemic so things have moved on for me since then,” he said.

The four day trip to Caernarfon was Edward’s first visit to Wales and he found the town and surrounding area to be “beautiful and inspiring” despite the changeable weather over the weekend.

“I was able to walk around the town and alongside the sea. I found it very motivating,” added Edward.

During the final he had to accompany two soloists in which he chose their pieces from a list of options provided by the organisers. He also had to accompany soprano Alys Roberts while she sang a song by well-known composer Dilys Elwyn Edwards.

Meanwhile, talented Benji Lock scooped up the top prize of £700, generously donated by Geraint and Judith Davies, in the junior section, with Charlotte Kwok, from Llanharan, in Rhondda Cynon Taf, coming second.

The 17-year-old, from Tondu near Bridgend has been playing the piano since he was eight and has been a student at the prestigious Purcell School in London for the past four years.

“I competed a little bit but my attention was drawn to the festival at Caernarfon and I thought I would give it a go.

“It’s a well-respected competition and it will certainly feature on my CV,” he said.

Benji says he listened to a lot of classical music when he was younger and decided he wanted to play the piano.

“My mum plays a little bit but not much. I got into it myself and she helped at the start,” he said.

In the future Benji would like to be a concert pianist and is hoping to study piano at a music college after he leaves the Purcell.

“I don’t know which one yet, I’ve got a lot more to learn.” He added.

As a second subject Benji is studying composition and is particularly fond of film music. He has composed the score for some short films already.

The Senior Piano Competition saw Tomos Boyles take the accolade and the prize of £3,000 donated by food company Roberts of Port Dinorwic.

It was the second time the 21-year-old from Cardiff had competed at the festival. In 2016 he took part in the junior section.

He was extremely happy to win the first prize.

“I am in my third year studying music at Christ College, Oxford and I’m hoping to do postgraduate study at a conservatory. I’m in the process of applying and winning this competition will be a boost. Certainly the prize will be a help towards living costs wherever I go and study,” he said.

Tomos is an old hand at competing. Not only did he compete in Caernarfon five years ago he has taken top honours at the Urdd National Eisteddfod. But he admitted to being a lot more nervous when he is being judged.

“Knowing that someone is paying attention to every note I play makes me more nervous. I treated this competition like a performance that I wanted people to enjoy listening to,” he said.

Tomos added the acoustics at Galeri Caernarfon are very good and is envious of those who attend classes organised by Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias every week.

A former pupil at Cardiff’s Cathedral School Tomos has been playing the piano since he was eight years old. He hopes to become a concert pianist and his engagement diary is beginning to fill up with performances at Aberystwyth and Lampeter already lined up. 

Iwan Llewelyn-Jones, the festival’s Artistic Director, said the standard of competition was “tremendously high” and congratulated all the pianists who took part.

“We had a good number of competitors from all over the UK and beyond.

“The standard of playing was tremendously high. Everyone had prepared meticulously and were very confident in the final stages.

“Several made strenuous efforts to attend despite the various Covid-19 restrictions”, he said.

Iwan paid tribute to the competitors and supporters who kept faith with the festival and also festival administrator Catrin Morris Jones and CGWM staff who had worked incredibly hard to make it such a success.

“I’m so glad we were finally able to stage the festival. It is earning itself a niche all its own in the musical calendar and we hope to build on this.

“We took the decision to stage it in a hybrid fashion with pre-recorded concerts being streamed online and it worked well.

“I’ll be sitting down with other officials in the next few weeks and begin to plan the next festival. I already have some ideas in mind,” he said.

But before then Iwan hopes to bring back this year’s winners for a special concert once all restrictions have eased in order to give them and the audience the opportunity to enjoy their music.

The virtual concerts can still be viewed via the website www.pianofestival.co.uk