CSO Mixtape: Start of the road

Make a cup of tea, grab a comfy chair and join me on a musical road trip!

Rowan Phemister, CSO Harp

Rowan Phemister with harp
Rowan Phemister, CSO Harp (Image: Peter Hislop)

Rowan Phemister is a Canberra based harpist and harp teacher. He performs in the Canberra Symphony Orchestra and teaches in the CSO’s Rediscovering Music program for people with hearing loss. Rowan has represented Australia as a soloist, one of 26 harpists invited to perform in the 2014 World Harp Congress Focus on Youth Program.

During his high school years, Rowan benefited immensely from the ANU School of Music’s acclaimed pre-tertiary Type 1 program. During his final year at Type 1, Rowan was selected to perform Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for the Governor-General, Dame Quentin Bryce, at Government House. Rowan subsequently completed a Bachelor of Music with first class honours at the Sydney Conservatorium where he twice made the finals of the Conservatorium Concerto Competition.

Through early performance opportunities and experiences, Rowan discovered a love of contemporary and experimental music. Rowan joined the Seven Harp Ensemble in 2013, which performs especially commissioned music by Australian composers including Larry Sitsky, Ross Edwards, Andrew Schultz and Martin Wesley-Smith.

Rowan plays with leading Australian contemporary music groups including Halcyon, Sydney Chamber Opera, Omega Ensemble and Ensemble Offspring. Recent performances and recordings of new works include Halcyon’s release This Moment Must be Sung and the premiere of Rhys Little’s Five Kinds of Breathing with the Rubus Trio. 


Prologue from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone


Performing the Harry Potter soundtrack is always a magical experience. I got pretty excited when this theme was in the program for my first CSO concert back in 2014. The celesta solo at the start would have to be my favourite movie theme and still gives me goosebumps.

I’ve read the books at least three times!

Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, L. 137
I. Pastorale – Lento, dolce rubato

This was the first challenging piece of chamber music that I encountered as a pre-tertiary student at the ANU School of Music. Debussy gives the performers nowhere to hide, as my chamber group quickly discovered! Each instrument is an exposed soloist, finding their way through the soaring melodic lines while balancing the transparent texture.

3 Harp Sonatas, op. 2
No. 3 in C Minor

I played this sonata in the ANU pre-tertiary program, at my first concert practice – a class where young musician play for their peers. The joyful last movement (Rondo) springs out of the tragic second movement and is such a happy moment.

Maurice RAVEL
Pavane for a Dead Princess


This is the first orchestral piece I ever played. The conductor had to point at me when it was time for the harp to play!

Listen out for the strings pizzicatos under the haunting horn solo at the beginning.

Maurice RAVEL
Introduction and Allegro for Flute, Clarinet, Harp and String Quartet

I had the pleasure of performing Introduction and Allegro for Governor General Dame Quentin Bryce at Government House in 2013. Ravel wrote it as a quasi-concerto to show off the newly developed pedal harp back in 1905. The very opening woodwind chords evoke the stillness of the dawn, which is passed onto the strings, before the harp bursts out at the end of the first phrase, dying away in an instant.

Richard WAGNER
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude und Liebestod

This piece brings back fond memories of my first Australian Youth Orchestra National Music Camp. The conductor had a very fragile conducting style, which in turn lead to the this amazingly delicate yet cavernous orchestral sound.

Listen out for the harp chord right at the end!

Elegiac Trio

I’m a member of chamber group called the Rubus Trio, with my colleagues violist Freyja Meany and flautist Hannah Cui. We began playing together during our studies at the Sydney Conservatorium; this was the first piece we performed.

The Rubus Trio is about to launch a website, keep an eye out for us!

Variations Sur Un Theme Dans Le Style Ancien

When I was very young I was lucky enough to attend the Australian Harp Festival, which used to be held at the ANU School of Music. A famous Canadian harpist called Judy Loman performed a recital in Llewellyn Hall; this piece was the last item on her program.

I was awestruck. I knew I wanted to be a harpist after that concert – I’ve never changed my mind since.


Briefly introduce yourself – tell us your name, your instrument, where you’re living and how you’re connected to the CSO.

My name is Rowan Phemister and I’m a harpist with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. I reside in the cozy town of Yass, New South Wales.

What’s your most treasured childhood memory related to music?

I’d only been learning the harp for a few months when I played in my first concert. I realised that all the other students could play perfectly (or so I thought) and that my own playing required some improvement – practice suddenly became interesting!

In the same concert, one of the other students forgot to put on her shoes before going on stage!

How did you come across the repertoire in this playlist?

These pieces are all from my first performance with a new group or in a new space. Music is a road that has lead me to all sorts of places. Each of these pieces was the start of some new and exciting adventure.

Name three places in Canberra that hold some significance for you.

Gungahlin Drive – It always slows me down in the mornings and reminds me not to rush!

Exhibition Park in Canberra – I’ve spent many hours shopping at the LifeLine Book Fair. It’s supplied me with decades of books and sheet music.

The National Gallery of Australia – It never ceases to amaze me that Australia’s greatest art collection is a short drive from my house.

Name something meaningful you’ve received as a gift. What made it special?

My trusty Sunbeam coffee grinder! I was given it for Christmas one year, it keeps me fuelled and ready to go.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in the past year?

I’ve learned not to read the news too often – I’ve had to put myself on a news ‘diet’! The results have been promising so far.

If you were a piece of fruit, which would you be and why?

I’d probably be a banana. I like their soothing effect (due to the potassium).

Are you a cat person or a dog person?

Both! My dog takes me for a walk everyday and keeps me fit. I rescued my cat when it was a kitten. He tried to hide but his loud meowing blew his cover.


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