Renowned conductor and passionate about championing Welsh music
The conductor Owain Arwel Hughes is the son of composer Arwel Hughes. He was brought up in 1 Colchester Avenue, Pen-y-lan, Cardiff and would have been born here in 1942 had it not been for the wartime air raids which meant he ended up been born in his Aunt’s house in Ton Pentre, Rhondda. He is unusual for the time in being a Welsh-speaker from Cardiff but that is explained by his parents being Welsh speaking and him spending so much of his school holidays with his relatives in Rhosllanerchrugog, near Wrexham.
He had a strong chapel upbringing, attending Tabernacle Welsh-speaking chapel in the Hayes in Cardiff City Centre from an early age. It had strong discipline with children being required to learn and recite biblical passages from a young age. It also however gave youngsters attending the youth club responsibility from a young age.
Owain attended Marlborough Road Primary School and loved sport from an early age including playing baseball on the Rec. He passed the eleven-plus but rather than attend Cardiff High School which taught lessons on a Saturday morning, he persuaded his parents to allow him to go to Hawardian High School which freed up his Saturday mornings for playing sport.
In 1985 Owain paid a return visit to Howardian with the broadcaster David Parry-Jones. The footage itself is of historical interest as not only does it show scenes from the school that no longer exists but also of a conversation with Howardian stalwart Tom Foster, Latin and drama teacher and cricket fanatic.
Owain was part of a cricket team nurtured by Tom Foster that got all the way to the cup-final and played at the Glamorgan Cricket ground, then at the Arms Park.
It’s perhaps surprising that Owain succeeded in music at all given the fact that the Howardian music master left and was not replaced. Owain recalls complaining to the Head about the lack of a choir to which the Head retorted that perhaps Owain should go off and form one himself – which he duly did. So Owain’s conducting career was catalysed by the lack of a music master at Howardian, but it wasn’t a musical career that Owain set off to attain. He left school with every intention of entering the Christian Ministry by initially reading Philosophy at Cardiff University before intending to onto the South Wales Baptist College in Richmond Road.
He started his philosophy degree at Cardiff but didn’t by any means ignore his musical callings. In his second year he got to lead the male voice choir in the inter-college Eisteddfod competition, a choir that included a fledgling politician Neil Kinnock with whom he has remained friends. Owain redirected his degree studies towards music and from there his career as a conductor was formed. Whilst in college his met his future wife Jean and proposed to her on the steps of his parent’s home at 1 Colchester Avenue.
After graduating in Cardiff Owain was offered a place at the Royal College of Music in London to study conducting where Sir Adrian Boult was his mentor. But he wasn’t just a passive student. Owain highlighted the lack of opportunities for those composing orchestral pieces to hear them played so duly formed an orchestra of his own at the college. As well as conducting Owain played the piano, trombone and percussion instruments.
Before Owain became a professional conductor the Welsh Arts Council gave him a bursary to experience the everyday business and functions of a conductor. Owain chose to shadow the recently deceased Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink from whom he learnt a lot.
In London he immersed himself in Welsh life, attending a Welsh chapel, being a keen supporter of London Welsh Rugby Club and a member of the London Welsh Association for Welsh exiles living in London.
He married at the Welsh-speaking Tabernacle chapel in the centre of Cardiff though tells an interesting tale how it almost didn’t happen as he mislaid the paperwork. Making ends meet was difficult for the young couple. When his wife gave up teaching when pregnant Owain took a job as a taxi driver.
Soon however his career began to take off. He gained appointments with the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra, the BBC Studio Strings and the Halle Orchestra. This led to further appointments with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Over the years he has had international appointments too with orchestras in Cape Town, Newfoundland and Aalborg in Denmark.
In the 1980s he hosted a BBC series The Much Loved Music Show.
His father Arwel Hughes was particularly known for his choral music, and this facility was passed to Owain, whose stint as conductor of the world-famous Huddersfield Choral Society in the 1980s confirmed him as a major talent in the field of large-scale choral works. He has continued to excel in this area both in the concert hall and the recording studio.
He maintains strong links with Wales and in his time has was proud to be musical director of the National Youth Orchestra for Wales and driving force behind the creation and success of The Welsh Proms. His dedication to championing Welsh musical talent is typified by him establishing in 2005 Camerata Wales, a freelance orchestra of the highest international standard for Wales.
He and Jean went on to have two children together, Geraint and Lisa. Tragedy struck in 2016 when Lisa, a head teacher in South London, died of an aggressive form of breast cancer. He dedicated the 2017 Welsh Proms to her.
Let’s not just talk about Owain Arwel Hughes in the past. He is still very much a professional conductor including working with orchestras in Wales.
His contribution to musical life has been recognised by an OBE in 2004 and a CBE in the 2009 New Year honours list.
References and pic credits:
His autobiography, Owain Arwel Hughes: My Life in Music, was published in 2012 by University of Wales Press.
A virtual red plaque for Owain Arwel Hughes has now been added to our People of Roath page.