Alex Petcu and Peter Power: “We Let the Building Win”

The Cork Orchestral Society has brought together two leading local lights in new music for a  show in the Curtis Auditorium, playing with new compositions and touching on the development of contemporary classical. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with percussionist Alex Petcu and sound designer Peter Power.

In addition to maintaining a home for classical music, and a platform for generations of emergent genre musicians from Cork’s conservatories for eighty-one seasons, the Cork Orchestral Society has long been a place for classical music and its practice to develop. In this spirit of innovation, the Society’s latest collaborative concert sees composer and sound designer Peter Power and seasoned percussionist Alex Petcu come together for ‘On Sequences’, a show that brings together elements from each of their respective backgrounds. Hitting on standards from the percussion repertoire, new compositions of Power’s, and previously-performed collaborative work, the show also allows for improvisations, using a wide array of instruments that help blend percussion pieces together.

Although percussionist Alex Petcu was born into a musical family, and benefited from an upbringing within the School of Music’s walls via both his parents being teachers there, it was another passion of his that has informed his body of work, both as a more traditional percussionist, and as a researcher in sound and the properties & potential of everyday objects that create it. “I’ve got a science background. I did physics in college, actually. One thing that drew me to percussion, really, was that, I like all these crazy instruments, it feels almost like a lab, y’know? You come up with all these crazy sounds, and anything becomes an instrument, really. Sometimes things don’t sound like how they should: certain things will sound nasty because that’s what you’ve heard them be, but actually, they can sound completely different, depending on what you do with them, how you hang these things.”

Over the years, Petcu has followed in the family footsteps, partaking in various shows and currently participating as the college’s artist in residence, taking opportunities to develop his craft, and fine-tune concepts like the upcoming Curtis Auditorium show. His formative years being spent in the School of Music have been key to this development. “It helped me a lot. When I didn’t have many instruments of my own, I come in, get practice, get lessons. If I wanted to do a certain piece, most of the instruments, I’d find them there, set them up and rehearse there. It was a safe place to practice, rehearse and get better. With the new building, having the concert hall… when I was there, doing my Master’s, I could use the Curtis Auditorium, and put on my own shows, there. I also organised a couple of group projects there, and it’s nice to get access to a venue like that.”

For Peter Power, the pursuit of sound and its design has been all-encompassing to his development as a practitioner and as a professional. Working with collaborator David Duffy in audiovisual outfit Eat My Noise, Power has run shows in venues all over the city, including installations in St. Finbarre’s Cathedral, and on his own, has worked on commercial projects like Prodijg, at Cork Opera House. Shifting between composition and sound design, this line between the two disciplines is where Power’s contributions to proceedings lie. “I don’t mean to be blunt, but sound design is design, more so than composition. A lot of your role is to become part of the concept, and creative generation of a piece. You’re brought in, there may be a script, or a show idea, built around dancers or singers, and your job is to come in and conceive of the ‘sound world’ that that piece of work occupies. It’s a mixture of technical roles, like knowing how to setup different sound systems; how the software works, presentation, etc., with the creative side of things. It’s quite a funny thing: if you’ve done your job correctly, people don’t realise that it’s happening… or if the sound design is very brash or very loud, people can obsess on it.”

Taking his own musical background into consideration, somewhere between scoring and contemporary composition, the experience of working with Petcu on this collaboration is new territory for the pair, interacting with pre-existing work new and old, but their upcoming Curtis Auditorium excursion is far from their first rodeo. “We’ve collaborated before, more so in these big-scale things, like shows. In this instance, he came to me, said, ‘I’ve approached by the Cork Orchestral Society to do a concert, and I’d like to do something a bit more unusual’. I’d love to work with him, as you rarely get to work with someone like Alex in your musical career. We wanted to do some work that wasn’t just mine, so half of the show is the work of other composers. I said I’d like to write some new pieces, and perform one or two older pieces that are presented in a new way. And how the collaboration grew from there was, Alex and I went to what we called ‘workshop’, where Alex brought in every instrument he had, and we just played, and took notes.”

Speaking on their collaboration, Petcu points out that Power’s experience with big installations, as well as the rapport between them from previous collaborations, has been a difference-maker for his own process in this case. “I’ve done a couple of projects with him already, as part of Eat My Noise, one of them was called ‘Moiety’, which featured percussion, and included myself and a lad called Tomas Gaal. We built on that, but it’s the two of us now, for this gig. It’s not going to just be our stuff, it’s going to (feature) some pieces that I might bring to the table, one piece by Steve Reich, one piece by Michael Gordon…it’ll be (a good mix).”

With a world of big-hall experience between them, the third participant in this experiment becomes ever more important, as the acoustician-designed Curtis Auditorium is custom-built to deliver world-class sonic experiences from live performance. With a DIY approach this time around, the sonic aspect of it is taken advantage of in this case, says Power. “A large part of this was, it’s not a massively-funded production, so there are immediately limitations. It’s what would be called ‘extended concert’ form. It’s going to be presented as a concert, but in a slightly unusual way. It’ll be massively stripped back, there won’t be much in the way of complicated lighting, or any of that. A big concern of this concert for us was how to integrate electronic music, composition and spatial audio into an acoustic percussion ensemble. The thing we’ve been experimenting with the most is a way for the sound to blend, so that it sounds like a new instrument. We allowed the building to ‘win’. It’s huge, it’s got a four-second reverb, it’s unwieldy, and it doesn’t have a huge technical crew, so now what we’re doing is presenting ourselves before the audience, and take some risks, musically.”

‘On-Sequences’ happens at Cork School of Music’s Curtis Auditorium on Thursday March 14th, at 7.30pm. Tickets €20 on sale at the door or

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 See for more details.

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.”