The Kelly Family: Harp Magic at City Hall

Music has always been a family affair for RTÉ LyricFM’s Evelyn Grant and her family, especially the Cork Pops Orchestra. Ahead of their new collaborative show, HARP Magic, playing at the Cork City Hall, Mike McGrath-Bryan talks to Grant and her daughter Jean Kelly.

The Cork Pops Orchestra has been, for many years, the point of entry for young learners to the world of classical music, recasting the presence and power of the orchestra for the burgeoning minds and frames of reference of youngsters. At the coalface of this pillar of music education have been Evelyn Grant and husband Gerry Kelly, prominent music professionals and players in their own right. Their children, including performers Jean and Fiona Kelly, have gone on to become outstanding classical musicians and third-generation composers, and for them, the Pops Orchestra is a family happening. This year’s installment of their annual schools concert series sees them all rally around a common instrument – the harp, a symbol of Irish independence. For Grant, it’s a point of pride. “We love including the harp in our projects, it sounds great. Seeing a demonstration of how it is put together, and how the harpist uses the pedals is really fascinating. And, of course, we love working with Jean. So it is a win-win – for both the audience and the orchestra. Jean and Fiona have performed the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto many times together, so it was a very obvious centrepiece for the concert. Of course, Fiona is really only keeping the seat warm for her wonderful former teacher, Sabine Ducrot, who usually plays flute in the Cork Pops Orchestra, but wasn’t able to take part this year.”

The creative and rehearsal process behind assembling the show is always going to be a demanding one, striking a balance between maintaining interest and educating the young listener, and this year was no different according to Grant, even with the change in dynamic that a family-assembled show brings. “It’s not always easy working with family! But, we have lots of experience of it, and now with three of the four children living in London, working together has become a great way to get together. To keep the marital harmony intact, Gerry and I have very clear roles. He looks after all the business side of things, dealing with the schools, the bookings, the insurance, the marketing and all the rest. My role is much more exciting! The main thing is picking the programme. For that, I need to have a strong theme and to know how I am going to present a narrative around the music to which the young audience can relate… one of the first things I do is prepare the Teachers’ Notes and CD, to send out to the schools in September. It’s like creating the show first, and then fitting all the pieces of the jigsaw together. And it is such a great feeling – and a relief – to get a reaction to the first performance, when we know that it all works!”

Evelyn and Gerry have, in recent years, been running quite a successful outreach project via RTÉ LyricFM, expanding on the educational aspect of the Pops Orchestra’s work. Grant explains the challenges that lie in reaching younger minds, shorter attention spans and new places, as well as what has changed in twenty-five years of doing so. “Surprisingly, I have found that the listening has improved. Maybe is that I have got better at both divising the programmes and commanding the attention. It may also be that the CD that goes out beforehand prepares them for what to expect, and we do keep the excerpts fairly short. But, I find it thrilling that we can have really engaged listening, followed by hilarious interaction – clapping, singing and generally having fun with the music. Our post-primary school audiences seem to be even more open to diverse kinds of music, and they can follow up so easily, through the internet, on anything that catches their imagination. What I love about our work for the RTÉ Lyric FM outreach project is that we reach all ages, and have been able to perform in all parts of rural Ireland. It is a real ‘life-long learning’ experience.”

Performing live as mentioned is harpist Jean Kelly. With a distinguished career with a number of scores and soundtrack credits to her name, including the Lord of the Rings series, as well as a reputation for rearrangements, it must be difficult to pick one personal highlight of her body of work thus far. But there is one that stands out. “One of my highlights was recording solo harp music by Jonny Greenwood a few years ago. We had a wonderful day in the studio, he is such an inspiring musician, and it really spurred me on to start writing my own music and to start experimenting with electronics. Since then I have enjoyed various collaborations with colleagues writing and recording music, including two musicians I met in Cork but who are also now based in London, Alison Arnopp, vocalist, and Rory Dempsey, double bass.”

Harp Magic happens at City Hall next week from November 7th to 9th in addition to a date at University Concert Hall in Limerick the day after. Grant collects her thoughts on pupils’ reactions when asked what her thoughts are, heading into a big run of major events, more specifically for a schools/academic audience. “The pupils always seem to love the energy that happens when there is a big audience present. The teachers who go to the trouble of organising the trip to the concerts deserve great praise. They really enthuse the pupils about live music, and they do a lot of work on the programme. So, I take very seriously my responsibility to give them plenty of material around the musical content, so that it really is a worthwhile, cross-curricular experience. It is very exciting for us musicians to get the positive reaction we always receive. Classical players love a rock-star response!”
Of course, right around now will be silly season for a lot of players, as the academic and touring years kick into high gear. Jean’s next engagement looks set to be an educational excursion of an eclectic sort. “I am off on a UK tour with a group called The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments. For our winter line-up, we are performing as a trio – Hardanger fiddle, Nickelharpa and Irish harp.” Evelyn, meanwhile, relishes the upcoming projects and performances that form part and parcel of her work. “I’m looking forward to presenting the Cork Youth Orchestra’s Christmas Concert in City Hall, early in December. Such a wonderful group of young musicians! This is the proper start of Christmas season for me. Then, there’s a collaboration with Voiceworks and the Percussion Department of the Cork School of Music, a concert in aid of Cork University Hospital Children’s Unit. Not forgetting my work on RTE lyric fm – I love when the Christmas music begins on Lyric after December 8th.”

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