She chose the harp over the recorder when she was five – Gwyneth talks about her life with her giant instrument as she chooses the discs she can’t live without
Gwyneth Wentink is an internationally acclaimed harpist and arts advocate working across many genres and roles. As both a classical and experimental harpist, Gwyneth has performed on the world’s most prestigious stages – Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, the Royal Albert Hall and Royal Opera House in London, and the Konzerthaus in Berlin, among others. Many of today’s leading composer, including Theo Loevendie, Marius Flothuis and Terry Riley, have written works for Gwyneth. She is solo harpist of both the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the English Baroque Soloists under Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
Now aged 42, Gwyneth decided she would be a harpist when she was four.
‘My father is Dutch, and my mother is Hungarian – they met at a music festival in Hungary. The story goes that my mum saw my father when he stepped out of his car. And she thought: “That’s the man I’m going to marry.” Just like that. They had known each other for about six weeks, when he proposed to her! He had to go back to the Netherlands; they didn’t see each other for a while until he came back with his mother, and they promptly married. My mother returned with him to Holland – she was a very talented piano player and my father was a trombone player and a conductor. I have two older brothers – and no, they’re not in music! They are very musical, and love music, but they decided not to go into the profession.
‘Funnily enough, we’re here talking about my favourite music and what I listen to, but relatively I listen to very little music. I would say my brothers listen to much more music than I do!’
Up close, Gwyneth’s beautiful harps are not only far larger than one expects, but also strikingly complex.
What had appealed to Gwyneth as a child, to make her want to start playing one?
‘It’s funny, because even now, when I look at them, how they’re standing there, I can remember clearly being four and seeing and hearing them above an orchestra for the very first time. And I just remember falling in love, asking my mum, “I want to play that instrument that you hold between your legs.” And she said: “Oh, great, the cello!” It was her second love, after the piano. But I said, “No, no, no, the BIG instrument.” They realised it was the harp – and they were a little bit disappointed!
‘They waited for a while because they knew it’s not easy to play, and finding a teacher could be hard, and if it’s successful, the traveling involved … But when I was five, they took me to a music school, where the teacher said: “She can start with a recorder for two years. And then, if that’s going well, then she can choose to play the harp.”
‘No no no NO! I did not want to play different instruments! And I really knew – yes, I want to play music, but I really wanted to play the harp. So my parents were really sweet; they got me a private tutor and we rented a little harp, a Celtic one. I loved it and things went really fast. I had my first TV performance when I was six – in a dress that my neighbour made! – and I just knew. This is what I want to do the rest of my life.’
Gwyneth lives on top of a rather wild and windy hill in North Dorset, surrounded by forest; it’s a very rural setting and a far cry from a busy Dutch city.
‘Silence is something I always long for. I really need my own time – before a concert, after a concert, or just in general – I need time to recharge. I used to travel in my teens and in my 20s, and I went a lot to India to go on a mountain to find the silence.
‘I think the nature is quite rough here in Dorset. I wake up always early, I get the dog first, I’ll go to the chickens … this morning there was quite a harsh wind, snow had started flying, and the elements are really in your face here. And I think that’s super creative. ‘It makes me also very grounded, when you really are confronted with the elements, and you really see the seasons change. I remember perhaps ten years ago, I was driving in Germany – it was almost winter, and I realised I had travelled so much I had completely missed autumn. I was so much in cities and so much traveling and not paying a lot of attention.
‘And now I’m in the opposite environment, I’m feeling really grateful for it.
‘I’m new to Dorset, and I absolutely love it. I feel very blessed to be here and proud to tell people when they ask where I live. I’ve been here for perhaps four years? But it feels a lifetime already! Maybe because of the COVID years.
‘I think especially it’s that element of the silence, the power of the nature here and the tradition that is still here. And I would say the balance between how human life collaborates with nature is, I think, in such a beautiful balance here.’
A life in music
And so to Gwyneth’s eight music choices, in no particular order, along with how and why they have stuck in her life:
Simeon ten Holt
My first choice is the piece I mentioned about the repetition that goes on. And it’s a piece by a Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt, called Canto Ostinato. It is basically Holland’s most popular classical music piece. It was written in the late 70s, and he was a surrealist composer at the time. But secretly, he was being inspired by the minimal musicians in the states – Philip Glass, Terry Riley. So he started working on this piece, which is very harmonic and very beautiful. And he felt that he couldn’t come out with it. But eventually he brought it out. Originally it was for one to four pianos, with a certain element of freedom for players. It’s made out of little cells or bars. And as a performer, you can choose how many times you want to repeat that. It can take a couple of hours if you want to – or days if you really stretch it out! And when I heard this piece, I was just mesmerised; I thought “I absolutely have to transcribe this for harp!”
So I have made an arrangement for harp and electronics and visuals, and I have toured with that in the past, but I’ve always wanted a version for acoustic harp – and that one is coming out next May. I’m really excited about it! I recorded that in Forde Abbey in Dorset.
But this version I’m sharing is a beautiful recording for two pianos and a marimba. It’s a piece that just plays an important role. I’ve played at the most funky occasions, you know – like underground techno festivals in Japan to weird places in Russia, and in India, and then went on a state visit with the king. It’s got a wide audience – young people, people who didn’t really know anything about classical music, and it’s kind of a ritual, this whole music. I’m always mesmerised with how the audience responds to it and how they embrace it.
This is something that is important to me, that has an important part in my musical career. It’s the first opera written by Claudio Monteverdi, and I played it on the Baroque harp. It’s such a powerful piece, the human expressions were so poignantly brought out in music, and the way he writes for harp … there is a moment about two thirds down the opera, where the harp has a solo of a couple of minutes where everything is silent, and this small, solo comes in. It’s such powerful music and a moment also in the opera. I’ve played that a couple of times, and it’s definitely one piece that I wanted to put in the list.
Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90: III. Poco allegretto
This one means a lot to me. It’s actually a piece when my partner and I got together – Brahms Symphony Number three. It’s a piece that John Eliot was conducting, at the time when we got together.
I’ve known the piece for a long time, and I always thought it was such a moving and just utterly beautiful piece, but now it has extra meaning.
We’ve got some Indian things coming up! So this is a recording by an Indian bansuri flute player, Hariprasad Chaurasia, and he is an absolute legend on the Indian flute. At one point in my career, I got a scholarship from the Dutch government, and they said I should do anything I wanted, to explore anything I chose. And I said, “Well, I want to do something with Indian music.”
So they connected me to Chaurasia. We played a little bit together, and I had no idea what I was doing, this was classical Indian music!
He said, “Well, just play something in E!”.
And then he invited me to a concert in New York, which was just an incredible experience. And he is such a legend; even being in the presence of him playing was a life-changing experience. I have played with him a couple of times over the years, and he’s a huge musical inspiration and example to me.
To the Light
This is linked to my previous recording of Chaurasia. At that first performance with him in New York there was a saxophone player from California, George Brooks. He is a composer and saxophone player of jazz and Indian music – I didn’t know him at the time, but he has become a collaborator and good friend and we perform quite a lot together. We set up a trio with Kala Ramnath on the North Indian violin, George on saxophone and me on harp. We’re kind of creating a new genre, with the influence of classical music, the improvised northern Indian world and then the jazz. It’s complex and challenging but it’s one of the most fruitful and meaningful things that I’ve done.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Staying in the Asian realm, it’s a recording of a qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan. I’ve travelled to India quite a lot since I was 19. Either just to travel – I love the country – or to meditate and stay there for a while. I was in Delhi, which was usually my base, and I would always go to qawwali, which is what they sing when the sun sets on a Friday. It’s a form of Sufi Islamic devotional singing. There is a shrine where the poet Kabir is buried and also Hazrat Inayat Khan, the musician who brought Sufism to the west, and who was a teacher of Debussy and Scriabin. At that shrine they have this qawwali and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is one of the most known Pakistani qawwali singers. And I’ve always listened to it. I find it super-charges the soul.
We go to South America now! This is my favourite – I wanted to have a harp piece in here, and this is the harp concerto. It’s a fantastic piece. For me, it’s my favourite harp piece. I’ve done it through my career many times. It really showcases the harp, what it can do. It’s very melodic, it’s very expressive. It has quite wild moments. And the orchestra is really big, with a very big percussion on the back. Super exciting. And just a great piece.
Brothers in Arms
This one’s slightly out of the norm of the other ones! I was thinking, what means something to us when I was growing up. We used to go to Hungary a lot, and we had these long car journeys, and we would either listen to Pink Floyd or to Dire Straits. And I think if there is one band that I really grew up with, and listened to a lot with my brother, it’s Dire Straits, so I chose Brothers in Arms.
I’m such a reader, it was very difficult to make a choice!
I thought that it would be good to have something light and funny on my island, and I love, love, love David Sedaris as a writer.
Any of his books would be good, basically I think they’re all great, but maybe Naked. I think that’s a fantastic book.
Well, I thought this was easy – that’s going to be my harp, obviously! And then, okay, if I have to choose which harp, I would probably take my pedal harp. Although … I’m thinking now … the sand and the damp won’t be good for the mechanics … should I choose another? … no, they will last for a while. Yes, it will be my pedal harp. It’s wood, it’ll float, I’ll use it as a boat!
You can listen to Gwyneth’s full interview with Jenny Devitt in the BV Podcast here.