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INTERVIEW A symphony of community


Mayo Orchestra
Pics: Michael McLaughlin

A symphony of community

Ciara Moynihan

For 20 years now, the Mayo Concert Orchestra has been a place where people of all walks of life and all ages have come together to play beautiful music. Members include a solicitor, shop and sales people, an artist, teachers, retired people, secondary-school students, factory workers, administrators and a church leader.
Like the kaleidoscope of notes in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 3, together the members form an impressive, harmonious whole. Their common goal: to bring the joy of music to every community in Mayo.
For one member, the orchestra also brought great solace during a difficult period of unemployment. Finola Reilly, originally from Castlebar, worked as an architect in Dublin for 13 years, and then in Mayo for eight years. After she lost her job when the construction industry crashed, Mayo Concert Orchestra was a huge support – and one that ended up changing the direction of her life. “The main thing at the time was it gave me a focus and kept me busy,” Finola tells The Mayo News. She is now an enthusiastic proponent of the benefits that joining an orchestra can bring.  
“Music allows you to express emotions and feelings, and because you’re involved in a community organisation, it gives you at least one focus in the week that you can work towards.
“I found it great when I was out of work. At the time, when I didn’t know what’s going to happen from one week to the other, it was great to have something that was community based, and that helped me feel like I was developing, learning and progressing every week. It’s very good for your confidence. I’d encourage people who need that kind of support to join us as well if it’s something they’re interested in.”
Ten years after joining, Finola is now teaching music part time with the Mayo Concert Orchestra and in Newport, where she lives with her husband, Mark Smith, and their 18-month-old son, Noah.  

Ever expanding
Many members of Mayo Concert Orchestra have been involved since it was formed in 1995, including its current musical director George Lee – a highly experienced orchestral and choral director. A music graduate of University College Cork, he studied under respected masters including Professor Aloys Fleishmann, Philip O’Laoire and Seán O’Riada. He has extensive teaching, accompanying and arranging experience.
“The Mayo Concert Orchestra came out of the Castlebar Concert Band originally,” Finola explains. “George Lee came along and he saw a lot of good-quality musicianship there. He saw the potential for making a concert band by adding strings and keyboards, and that’s what we’re continuing to build. We’re always building on that, looking for members.”
Mayo Concert Orchestra also incorporates the Castlebar Concert Band, which is a marching band, and Mayo Youth Orchestra. “In the Mayo Concert Orchestra there’s around 40 members,” says Finola, “the Youth Orchestra has around the same, and then there’s around 20 in the Castlebar Concert Band. Some people are in all three. Then there’s nearly 70 who’d come for the music classes on a Saturday morning.
“Right now, the youngest member of the Mayo Concert Orchestra is around 15. We did have a member joining at just 13! We’ve also had two octogenarians in the orchestra, so it’s a broad spectrum of ages. Members come from far and wide across Mayo too, including Achill, Kiltimagh, Westport, Foxford and Ballyhaunis, as well as from across the Sligo border.”

Open invitation
Finola joined the orchestra in 2004, after moving back to Mayo from Dublin. Her mother, Mary Reilly (nee Flanagan), a pianist who hails from Westport, was already involved in the orchestra. “I thought maybe it would be interesting to join, because I have always loved music,” Finola explains. There was one barrier to her becoming a member though, and it was a pretty fundamental one: ‘I couldn’t play an orchestra instrument’.
“They had already started doing classes for children at that stage, and a few adults were attending as well. So I just thought, sure I’ll have a go and see how it goes. I picked up violin. We had played violin very briefly in secondary school, but I had never learned to play a tune properly or anything, so I kind of threw myself in at the deep end.”
Finola, who is now a violin tutor herself, did have an advantage. Having reached Grade 8 in piano, she was able to sight read music. However, people who can’t sight read can still end up in the orchestra by attending the orchestra’s Saturday morning classes first, where it’s possible to start a new instrument from scratch.
“People come in and they’ve never played any instrument or ever read music, and we can teach that. Around ten teachers are there on the Saturday morning teaching various instruments, from string to woodwind to brass. It doesn’t matter what level people are at, they’re all welcome to attend and see how they get on.”

Music for all
Finola is very proud of the ethos of the orchestra and its inclusiveness. “A lot of orchestras are associated with cities and certain sections of society, elite audiences perhaps. I think what’s exciting about being involved in the Mayo Concert Orchestra – we have an alternative goal, to share orchestral music with everyone, without exception.
“We tend to play in small communities – sometimes tiny communities – around Mayo. We’ve played in a lot of villages and townlands through the Classroom Cacophonies programme. Set up by two of our members involved in education, it’s about bringing classical music to national schools through a cross-curricular programme. Children learn a little bit about history and geography, as well as verbalising and using arts and crafts to express musical ideas and terms. This culminates with the orchestra coming to perform in the local community, so the children can come along with their parents and friends and whoever’s interested.
“It started out as an educational thing, but it’s turned out to be a great way for us to get to perform. For small communities, it’s a fantastic way get a large orchestra that they may never get a chance to hear come to their village. It’s just had such a lovely ripple effect; a small idea that’s grown into something that we’re very proud to be involved in. It’s just brilliant to think that we’ve played in small villages like Ballyvary, Kilmovee, Aghamore and Killawalla, as well as towns like Westport and Castlebar.”
Finola says the reception has been warm, welcoming and even a little surprised. “Often people think, ‘Oh I wouldn’t know anything about classical music’, but the thing is that orchestral music is a backdrop to everything we do. We don’t even realise it sometimes, but it’s there – in TV programmes, in movies, in theatre, even people’s ring tones! So people are often amazed at how familiar a lot of the pieces that we play are – the music’s not as alien as they might be expecting.”

20th anniversary tour
True to it’s aim of bringing music to every community, Mayo Concert Orchestra is celebrating its 20th year with a series of concerts around the county (see box).
“We have a mixed programme for the upcoming 20th anniversary tour,” Finola explains. “Generally we do tend to play pieces that would be recognisable. We’re including the theme from the Eurovision Song Contest [the prelude to Charpentier’s Te Deum], for example. We’re also working on music from the musical Carousel. We normally play some orchestral versions of some well-known opera pieces too, and that can be very nice.
“This year the brass and woodwind sections are doing ‘In The Mood’. Another piece that I like, ‘Hungarian Dance No 5’ by Brahms, has a lovely eastern-European feel. Often we have dance music – but more historic dance than what people think of when they hear the words ‘dance music’!
“Another one on the programme is ‘Minuet and Galop’ by Offenbach – and if you say that to people they’ll often go ‘Well I don’t know that’, but it’s actually the theme of the Can-Can. We also have the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, and music from Bizet’s operas. There’s usually some 20th century music too.”
Finola’s favourite places to play might be small villages in rural Mayo, but when pressed she does admit that grand venues like the Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall and the Wexford Opera House do hold a certain appeal, especially for someone with a love of architecture. The idea of playing somewhere like that would be ‘very exciting’, she laughs.
Who knows, maybe this community orchestra could one day find itself tuning up on one of these illustrious stages – but for now, its kaleidoscopic cast is happy to rehearse in a Castlebar school hall and perform in every nook and cranny of the home county.

Mayo Concert Orchestra 20th anniversary tour

April 24, 8pm      Welcome Inn, Castlebar
May 1, 8pm        Áras Inis Gluaire, Bellmullet
May 6, 8pm    Óstán Oileán Acla
May 8, 8pm    Ballina Arts Centre
June 19, 8pm    Westport Town Hall
June 21, TBC        Williams Syndrome Fundraiser, Ballintubber Abbey

Admission to the Castlebar concert €15/Conc €10/€30 family. For ticket details for the other concerts, and more information on the orchestra, visit