Cork Youth Orchestra: “We’re Standard-Driven”

Having celebrated its sixtieth anniversary last year, Cork Youth Orchestra is getting ready to take to one of the biggest stages this country has to offer, as ensembles of young musicians nationwide converge on Dublin’s National Concert Hall next month. Ahead of their big performance, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with director Tomás McCarthy.

For over sixty years, young musicians from schools all over the county have come together for their first experiences with large-ensemble performance with Cork Youth Orchestra (CYO), rehearsing currently at the CBS school in Deerpark. Debuting in 1958 at UCC’s Aula Maxima for an audience including the then-Lord Mayor and Mayoress, CYO has subsequently fine-honed its reputation for developing members’ talents and its legacy among the city’s artistic institutions. Down through the generations, the ensemble has performed at every major venue in the city, taken excursions around Europe, and performed at the openings of major national cultural events, cementing its place in the fabric of the city’s educational and artistic life. CYO’s musical director and conductor Tomás McCarthy summarises a busy year. “We have an ongoing programme, all leading toward a concert tour of Italy in 2020. We’ve just come out of our sixtieth anniversary, with concerts in City Hall, Killarney and Kenmare. Over six concerts, we played to nearly five thousand people. We had five sold-out concerts in City Hall. In April, we had four orchestras performing, and one of them had 120 members, who had been in the orchestra at any time between 1958 and now, including two people that had played sixty years ago. In preparing for the concert, we had two of the principle performers from Phantom of the Opera, and they were phenomenal to work with.”

Under McCarthy’s tuition, the ensemble continues to go from strength to strength, and a two-year path to a major performance series in 2020 begins with next month’s gathering of youth orchestras at Dublin’s National Concert Hall, under the auspices of the Irish Association of Youth Orchestras (IAYO), itself based in Cork city centre. As another year begins, McCarthy’s twenty-first as musical director and conductor, he brings us into the nitty-gritty of preparing for a performance on such a large scale. “The National Concert Hall comes part of our journey toward Italy in July 2020. We’ve been working all year ‘round on the concerts we’ve performed, and in amongst all of those are the rehearsals. We also have to rehearse for this concert in four weeks’ time, which is a much different programme. We would be the largest orchestra taking part, and at that, we’re the largest youth orchestra in Ireland at present, with 131 members on-stage. There’s a huge logistical support team involved, it takes fourteen people to run this, and it can’t be done without their involvement or input. A managerial team, libraries, roadies, transport… the National Concert Hall is a great opportunity for our members, who have never and may never again have the chance, that’s the primary reason for doing this. To play there is a good experience for all players, and we’re delighted to be able.”

The background of the ensemble’s membership is varied, taking in a wide range of young ages, and attracting applications for positions from around the county, such is the standard of musicianship that the ensemble has displayed in recent years, and its subsequent reputation for polishing and enhancing musical talent. Maintaining this state of affairs is a priority for McCarthy. “Of the 131 members, we would be approaching most communities in Cork county and city. The majority of our members and performers would come from the county. We have people in from East, West and North Cork… Kinsale, Midleton, Carrigaline, they come from everywhere, really. So, without specifying schools, most of the city schools would be represented. We’re Cork, the greater Cork area. We’ve taken sixty years to establish our identity, and we’re quite proud of that. We’ve established a reputation as the primary orchestra in the South of the country, we would be highly-regarded, and people are aware of our audition process every Spring. We’re standard-driven. It can be quite difficult to get in at this point, because the standard of tuition has risen dramatically in the past few years. It’s a wonderful thing to see, and we’re one of the beneficiaries of this.”

While the CYO requires time, effort and a good amount of dedication over one’s time in the group, it offers young people something a little bit more than average by way of an introduction to professional musical experience and a set of events to attend. Generations of families in Cork have come through the Orchestra’s ranks and picked up social and teamwork skills that complement their innate musical abilities, and members find those skills easily transferable in other environments. “I had three of my own children go through the orchestra. My youngest has just left, she’s eighteen now. It involves getting ready to go from around six o’clock, and getting home at ten o’clock on a Saturday. You have this teenage outlet, from September through to May. For any young person to have somewhere to go to meet such a large group of friends, and they become friends for life, it’s a great attraction. For some the music might even be secondary, but it all mixes to become a powerful energy. People always comment on that, this togetherness. They don’t have to work hard to make this happen: they’re talented, and they’re team players. It’s a magic you won’t get with an adult group.”

Over the course of twenty-one years, McCarthy has seen a great amount of young people become alumni and continue their musical training through third-level education, further orchestral experience and their own solo adventures in other genres and formats. Narrowing noteworthy examples of same down to a few favourites, then, is understandably difficult. “The list is so long. Speaking from my own family, my brother Declan has gone on to play with the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra. Another brother, Mícheál, has gone on to be highly-regarded on the Australian music scene. Not to name names, one of our former members, Muirgen O’Mahony, has qualified in London as a singer, and on New Year’s Eve, performed live with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, so that’s an accolade for her. We did a survey a few years back, and 27% of our members continue into the profession.”

This year’s IAYO excursion, entitled Young Musicians Centrestage, will feature, alongside the Cork contingent, orchestras from Galway, Meath, Dublin, Louth and Limerick. It’s a unique annual opportunity for audiences to see more than four-hundred young musicians from around Ireland, performing classical works and new arrangements. McCarthy has put together a special programme of performance for the occasion, and discusses what goes into selecting pieces for the ensemble and the stage on which they’re performing. “We’re going to be performing a piece called ‘Danzen #2’, by Arturo Marquez, and we’ll perform a Festive Overture by Shostakovich, as a sample of what we’re doing: good, strong, classical work.” As the year’s preparations for the 2020 performance in Italy continue, and the ensemble enters its seventh decade, there’s a lot for McCarthy to consider as he collects his thoughts heading into the NCH performance. “I’ve always loved performing there, and I’m delighted to be able to accomodate the members, give them the opportunity. I’ve played there as a teenager, and to come back there as a conductor several times over the years, it’s a fine experience. It’s about the young people, their experience, and their families, seeing their children onstage, the pride they get from that.”

The Cork Youth Orchestra perform at the National Concert Hall in Dublin as part of Youth Orchestras Centrestage on Saturday February 9th, with performances beginning at 3pm and 8pm. Tickets priced from €7.50 to €15.00 are on sale from the National Concert Hall box office or online from http://www.nch.ie. See http://www.iayo.ie for more details.

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