The Cork man leading a festival of musical youth

A festival showcasing young orchestral musicians in Ireland was one of the first items on the agenda of the newly formed Irish Association of Youth Orchestras (IAYO) in 1994.

The Cork man leading a festival of musical youth

A festival showcasing young orchestral musicians in Ireland was one of the first items on the agenda of the newly formed Irish Association of Youth Orchestras (IAYO) in 1994.

The first festival took place in the National Concert Hall in 1996. Every year since, hundreds of young musicians in youth orchestra and ensembles from across Ireland have converged on Earlsfort Terrace for a day long extravaganza of performances. To date over 8,000 musicians have taken part.

For some, it is valuable experience of Ireland’s premier concert venue en route to professional careers and for others a gala occasion yielding memories to treasure. The IAYO will celebrate its 25th Festival on 8 February 2020 at the National Concert Hall, Dublin.

To mark the milestone, Allin Gray, IAYO director called for proposals from conductors with ‘a vision for something great’ to be performed by a festival orchestra with players drawn from member orchestras to open the evening concert.

Cork native Tom Crowley is tasked with choosing the programme as well as assembling and conducting a Special Festival Orchestra that will open the evening concert. I spoke to Crowley a day after the players met for the first rehearsal and his mood was buoyant.

Tom Crowley
Tom Crowley

While the festival is celebrating young players, I thought it would be a good opportunity to celebrate composers who dedicate their time and creative energies to writing music specifically for youth orchestras. It is a special skill.

Crowley has selected three living composers from three different generations. Opening the programme is a piece by Declan Townsend who is familiar to readers of this paper as a music reviewer.

“Declan Townsend is a cornerstone of music in Cork for decades. Much of his music was written for students he taught at the Cork School of Music.”

‘Aisling’ was commissioned by the Cork Youth Orchestra to celebrate their 40th anniversary in 1998.

“Sam Perkin is the youngest of the three. His piece Dreaming in Sign Language was commissioned by the festival for the 20th anniversary. A bizarre and amazing piece, it’s very powerful if it is performed with conviction.

"There is a part for solo violin, harp and percussion. The others don’t play instruments but form three groups who perform choreographed body rhythm with shouting, humming and whistling.

"When I described it to the players as a bit like doing the haka, there were some raised eyebrows. We have a choreographer coming in to work with the orchestra next weekend to make it really tight.”

The third composer, German native Katherina Baker directs a music school in Gort, Co Galway.

Katherina writes so cleverly for young players. I use a lot of her material in my own teaching. The kids get a real kick out of playing it.

Eight orchestras will perform in the Main Auditorium including the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland who celebrate 50 years and the Symphonic Waves Youth Orchestra, an orchestra formed in anticipation of Galway’s year as European Capital of Culture.

Crowley who combines a career as violinist and conductor will direct a project later this month aimed at younger listeners. In the tradition of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf an 11-piece ensemble will illustrate the characters and action in a setting of work by Roald Dahl’s at the Everyman Theatre.

“I first came across Paul Patterson’s settings of Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes in 2013 when I was invited to conduct a tour of Little Red Riding Hood as part of a cross border initiative. We did 3 Little Pigs the following year and finished the tour in Cork at the Half Moon Theatre. Paul flew in for the performance unannounced and loved it.”

But first, there is a project to execute with the Special Festival Orchestra. Crowley has chosen to close the programme for the IAYO Festival with Galop Infernal from Orpheus in the Underworld (The Can-Can)

“The Offenbach is in there because it’s nice to finish with a bang!”

- The IAYO Festival of Youth Orchestras is at the National Concert Hall, Saturday; Revolting Rhymes is at the Everyman, Cork, February 27-29

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