How It’s New York: Irish Chamber Orchestra is playing at one of New York’s treasures, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. One of the pieces, Termon, by Mícheál Ó Súilleabhaín, commemorates 9/11 on its tenth anniversary.
How It’s Irish: The orchestra is in residence at Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick, and over half of the players are Irish- like its can-do CEO, John Kelly.
This article first appeared in Irish Examiner on Oct. 25
Tuesday October 25, 2011
Not Just An Orchestra But A Cultural Ambassador
John Kelly tells me, as we cross Broadway to Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, where the Irish Chamber Orchestra is playing October 31.
Their program includes the new work Termon, by Irish composer Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin commissioned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and the Prokofiev “left-hand” Piano Concerto, with pianist Leon Fleisher, as well as symphonies from Beethoven and Haydn.
The orchestra is giving 8 concerts across America.
A God guy, the ebullient orchestra CEO repeats.
“I’m not a religious guy, but I believe there’s a great creator of the universe, and that he created us to be successful. My particular gift is music, and I believe music plays a critical role in helping people in their lives.”
He was a violin and viola player in the orchestra 18 years ago when he had the vision to develop the organization in a new way.”I’m a poacher turned gamekeeper,” he laughs.
The orchestra “was a gig band” at the time, without contracted musicians.
He had worked outside of Ireland for 14 years, studying at the Royal College of London, then in Germany. And he noticed most of his Irish colleagues never went home.
He thought: “why don’t we develop an orchestra in Ireland that has the capacity to be the Berlin Philharmonic of Chamber orchestras?”His goal was to form a global brand, an orchestra that could be a cultural ambassador.
He’s done it.
Consider Termon, a piece of music that has international meaning.
It reflects the deep ties between Ireland and America, and the impact that 9/11 had in Ireland, John explains. Ó Súilleabháin ‘s work for Uillean Pipes and Strings is performed by Pádraic Keane, recipient of the Gradam Ceoil Music Award, and was commissioned with the orchestra and monies from the American-Ireland Fund.
It debuted at the US Embassy in Dublin on 1 September, 2011.
The name derives from the Irish “An Tearmann,” meaning “place of sanctuary.”
A chamber orchestra, from 18-40 musicians, is significantly smaller than symphony orchestra’s 90-110.
The size affects the repertoire too, so chamber orchestras mainly perform Baroque, Classical, and specifically composed work, not the romantic wall of strings sound.
When John first envisioned the ICO, there was no money for a standing chamber orchestra with artists on contract, “but I knew God put that idea in my heart. I knew money would come, there was no question in my mind.”
Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin first Professor of Music at the University of Limerick, invited the orchestra to take residence there in 1994, which opened the door for Arts Council funding.
The Arts Council initially was supportive of the idea but told him it wasn’t a priority to be funded.
His Board said there was no money. But he wasn’t discouraged.
“I’ve had too many God experiences. Which people might find a bit strange. It’s like going to the ATM. God wants us to be successful, and he supplies us with the ability and means to do that.”
A professional musician since the age of 9, John grew up in Clongowes Wood.
He was one of five brothers, all of whom played music, and his father was a composer and music teacher. He now lives in Killaloo, in a house he built overlooking the river Shannon.
His positive philosophy came to him in childhood, while attending a small Catholic school, founded by Quakers, “that was called Prosperous, believe it or not.”
He learned that “this was a sin, that was a sin, the other thing was a sin”, but read the Bible where he discovered that God loved, him, regardless of his performance.He had an obligation to see God’s love manifested, he realized.
“I began to see things happen in my life. I went to study at the Royal College of London after I graduated from high school, but I didn’t have the money to study there, and my parents didn’t have the money. I said I’m going, because I knew I had to get off the island. I knew it was time to go. I said, I’ll get a job in a bar and when I have money saved I’ll go for private lessons. And when I went for my first private lesson, the professor after fifteen minutes stopped the lesson and said look, John, why aren’t you coming to study here, we’ve given you a place. I said I can’t pay the fees. He left the room and ten minutes later he came back and said, now you have a full scholarship. I walked out of there and I said, go God.”
When he encounters obstacles, he decides “they are irrelevant. I’ve walked into many brick walls in my life. Sometimes I’ve gone off on my own agenda, as we all do, and hit the wall. It’s like when you wake up with a hangover and you say OK, OK, it’ll be gone.”
And you can’t argue with his achievements.
The orchestra, resident at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick, has a wonderful reputation.
It’s the only professional orchestra based outside of Dublin, and has grown from 13 contracted musicians to 22.
It tours internationally. Jörg Widmann is Artistic Partner.
In addition to their concert season, and festival weekend in May in Limerick city, the ICO is committed to changing lives through music.
Their programs include working with hundreds of children from disadvantaged areas every week.
It’s not so much about training young musicians, but using music to “ignite their desire button.”
The 8-venue tour is part of Imagine Ireland, Culture Ireland’s year of Irish Arts in America. Alice Tully Hall
(on 65th St between Broadway and Amsterdam)
Independent audits have affirmed that the children have greater self-esteem, communication skills, John says. “Our goal is to change national education policy. I believe music should be at the center of all elementary education programs,” John tells me.
“Music is actually more important than language and maths. It’s all about facilitating talent. If you facilitate the talent of the individual, the product will be innovation.
Unfortunately, many don’t believe it. We actually do control our own lives. We decide when to cross the street.”
And I begin laughing, because as a New Yorker, I don’t feel in control of traffic, or choose when my subway line is closed for reconstruction.
How do you know when you’re inspired, or when you just want something? I ask him. A flatscreen TV?
“God has nothing against flatscreen TVs. He wants us to be successful. God is a party animal! People need to realize that.”
“So if I wanted a quilted Marc Jacobs bag…”
“Tell him you want it!” Oh he knows, I say. He’s known for years!
He compares the process to ordering a dish off a menu, and expecting it to arrive.
And the orchestra’s rise, even its existence, does seem like something miraculous.
It began before Celtic Tiger, weathering financial crises, and is going strong.
The program on Halloween night showcases their work, a blend of modern, classical and brand new.
The Prokofieve Piano Concerto No. 4, the “left hand” Concerto, was written for Paul Wittgenstein in 1931, and will be performed by the great Leon Fleisher.
Fleisher, who lost the use of his right hand in 1965 from a rare neurological disease, embodies the spirit of persistence and faith.
Doctors never expected him to perform again, but his will overcame his obstacles.
In the early 21st century he regained the use of his right hand.
His memoir My Nine Lives comes out in paperback 1, November, 2011.
Also on the bill are Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 (music used in the film The King’s Speech, another uplifting story about a man overcoming an obstacle) and Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 in D Major, often called “The Miracle.”
“Because we believe in miracles,” John tells me.