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Starring role for Ukrainian harpist Veronika a year later than planned

A UKRAINIAN harpist will be at a festival in North Wales 12 months later than planned after her appearance last year was prevented by the Russian invasion of her homeland.

Virtuosa Veronika Leminshenko will be joining forces with the Griot Brothers, a trio of talented kora-playing siblings from West Africa, and Pedair, a top Welsh folk group at the fifth Wales International Harp Festival.

The Wales Harp Festival has been organised by Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias (CGWM) since 1999 and is held annually, spawning the International Harp festival which is held every four years and takes place at Galeri Caernarfon from April 5-11.

Most of the daytime activities, including the workshops, the preliminary stages of competitions and foyer concerts, will be free of charge to the public.

Veronika will be performing works by Ukrainian composers at the World Music concert on Monday, April 10.

It will be an emotional return to Caernarfon for the 34-year-old harpist who first attended the festival in 2014 as a competitor and again in 2018. Her first appearance was not long after Russia annexed the Crimea region and she defiantly wore Ukrainian national costume for her performance.

Veronika had been due to perform at last year’s Wales Harp Festival but the Russian invasion of her homeland led her to quit her job with the orchestra in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. She was lucky to reach the airport and board a flight after two other planes were cancelled. 

Veronika’s parents Alla and Yuri and her brother, Maksym, moved to Lviv in western Ukraine from their home city of Kharkiv which lies close to the Russian border and which has been pulverised by intensive Russian shelling.

Other family members, close friends and musical associates sheltered in basements, struggling to find food and resources amid Putin’s ruthless onslaught in Ukraine. But Veronika’s father and grandmother have remained in the war-torn country.

Unable to secure a visa in time to travel to the UK and attend the festival last year Veronika recorded a concert in Paris which was screened during the festival and she was interviewed live over a video link by artistic director Elinor Bennett who is also an eminent harpist.

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Preparing for this year’s festival Veronika spoke movingly about the events of the past year.

She said: “My mother and my young cousins with their mother are living in Wales now under the scheme “Homes for Ukraine”. It’s an incredible programme. We feel a very strong support and a very warm welcome.

“Before the war started we already had friends in Wales and from the first days of the war everyone was willing to help and there are not enough words to describe how grateful we are.

“All the new people we get to know in the Caernarfon area are very friendly and kind, so now there are more and more friends around.

“I recently got a job with the Croatian National Theatre in Osijek but I’m very much looking forward to come to Wales.”

Veronika added: “This festival is closely related to important personal phases in my career. It helped me to grow as a professional musician and as a personality.

“And I have got to know, to listen and to learn from so many remarkable harpists. The Wales Harp Festival is truly an inspiration for my musical development.

“All these years I have felt Elinor Bennett’s kindness and support, she is an absolute wonderful, amazing person and it’s a great honour for me to became a jury member during the last one which Elinor runs as an artistic director.

“I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity and also very proud to present works by Ukrainian composers on the World Music concert,” she said.

For the next few months besides the orchestra work Veronika has planned benefit recitals planned in Czech Republic, Poland, Germany and Austria.

“The funds are going to the “Veronika Lemishenko Charity Foundation” to help Ukrainian people.  We are very grateful to everyone who is contributing to the foundation,” she said.

The Griot Brothers – Suntou Susso, Modou Ndiaye and Sura Susso – are of Senegalese and Gambian heritage and are incredibly talented kora players, multi-instrumentalists, singers and composers are also taking part in the concert.

The kora is a 22 stringed harp lute and is unique to the 700-year-old tradition of the Mandinka people from West Africa to which the brothers belong. Suntou, Modou and Sura embrace their role as oral historians and storytellers, preserving a people’s culture through song, music and poetry. 

Growing up, their family home was constantly filled with music, and they carry those rich musical traditions, cleverly weaving them into exciting modern compositions.

Elinor Bennett said: “Seeing and hearing the three brothers in concert in Galeri will be great. What is exciting to me is the fact that they come from the ancestry of the Mandinka people in Gambia and Senegal and tell the tales of their tradition and sing songs to keep the memory alive.

“This sounds exactly what Pedair do with their songs and melodies and rings true with what we try to do when running a harp festival.”

She added Pedair are a group which draws on the talents of four of Wales’ most prominent folk musicians – Gwenan Gibbard, Gwyneth Glyn, Meinir Gwilym and Siân James. Their fresh interpretations of the Welsh folk tradition emerged during lockdown and gained instant popularity.

The festival’s opening concert features the premiere of a brand new work, Llechi, composed by talented young composer Math Roberts, with words by a twice crowned National Eisteddfod bard, Ifor ap Glyn. The concert also features Cor Godre’s Aran, the well-known singing choir from Llanuwchllyn near Bala where Elinor lived as a child.

Nicknamed the “hip-hop harpist”, Deborah Henson-Conant, is one of the USA’s most popular and flambuoyant performers will be there on April 6.

The following evening’s concert will bring two continents together by combining the Llanera harps of Latin America with harp music from Wales and Europe.

Former Royal harpist Catrin Finch, who has created wonderful musical partnerships with performers on many different styles of harps from many cultures, will share the stage with Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda who the the New York Times described as “almost a world unto himself”.

Renowned harpist Sioned Williams, who is originally from Flintshire, will present the story of Queen Victoria’s harpist John Thomas.

In addition to an extensive series of concerts and recitals the festival also features an exciting programme of competitions.

More details can be found at www.walesharpfestival.co.uk and tickets are available from the Galeri box office online at www.galericaernarfon.com or by telephone on 01286 685222