North, South Irish musicians play in harmony

Bombs and snipers in the North? Protestants versus Roman Catholics? Tension , strife, turmoil? Not the way Olive Smith sees it, or Iseult Wilson, or Sandra Ellis, or Amanda McCann.

In their Irish world, the North provides trumpets, oboes, flutes. Protestant violinists play beside Catholic violinists. All mix together behind violas, cellos, bassoons.

Theirs is the musical world of the Irish Youth Orchestra (IYO). Founded 11 years ago, it has gone from strength to strength, cutting across religious and regional grounds.

It brings together upward of 130 Irish musicians, between 14 and 21, twice a year for one week at a time in nine-hour rehearsal sessions of Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, Berlioz and other composers. It mixes North and South, Protestant and Catholic together, in jazz jam sessions after hours and in a now-traditional New Year's Eve disco dance in Dublin.

"We're really not conscious of who is Catholic, who is Protestant, Northern or Southern," said Mrs. Olive Smith, director and founder of IYO, in an interview here.

"Everyone just plays . . . We've had a first cello from the North, and first viola, and a number of trumpets and oboes and flutes . . ."

"And can they play!" said 18-year-old Iseult Wilson of Dublin, a violonist with the IYO for four years. Relaxing after classes at Trinity Colelge, she went on:

"All the Northerners can play at least two instruments. They are fantastic musicians . . ."

"We've had three Northerners in the clarinet section," chimed in Amanda McCann, 19, herself in the clarinet section for six years. "But you just wouldn't know they were from the North, unless you happened to notice they didn't come to mass on Sunday . . ."

"I hadn't even thought about it until you asked me," said Sandra Ellis, 18, an IYO viola player for 2 1/2 years.

The man who has conducted the IYO from the outset, violinist Hugh Maguire, teaches at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies in Aldeburgh, in Suffolk, England. By telephone, he said:

"All the youngsters get on terribly well. Oh yes, they do talk about violence in the North. Southerners will ask what it's like when a bomb goes off , and the Northerners tell them.But they are together to play music, and they just don't discuss why the violence goes on. I'm not even sure the adults know why any more . . ."

Musically, the IYO has made its mark. At an international festival of youth orchestras in Aberdeen, Scotland, recently, it was one of only two orchestras to receive a wholehearted ovation. (Taiwan was the other.)

Its program -- Shostakovich and Berlioz --praised by critics.

"The IYO has made an immense difference to the music of Ireland," Mr. Maguire said. "As many as 25 members have gone on to play with the two Irish symphony orchestras. The whole quality of Irish playing has been lifted.

"We plan to continue as we are. Our aim is better playing, improving the youngsters' techniques and experience."

For 15 months, the waiting list of young people for places in the IYO numbered about 100. So Mrs. Wilson has launched a separate orchestra for players under 15.

"It's scary how well they play, too," commented Iseult Wilson with feeling. "They move right up past you to the top desks . . ."

Of the three players I talked to, only Sandra Ellis might continue full-time. Violas are always in demand. Iseult Wilson will keep playing but she is studying physiotherapy at Trinity College. Amanda McCann is to be a microbiologist. Musical opportunities in a small country like Ireland remain limited.

But all three praise the IYO to the skies for what it has done fo r them, for their playing, and for Ireland.

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