Ortús: Bringing classical music back to Cork

Ortús: Bringing classical music back to Cork

Violinist Mairéad Hickey and cellist Sinéad O’Halloran are behind the Ortús Chamber Music Festival.

IT has been a force to be reckoned with since its inception in 2016 and Cork’s unique chamber music festival is showing no signs of stopping.

Approaching its fifth year of events, Ortús is the brainchild of two renowned Cork musicians, cellist Sinéad O’Halloran, 25, and violinist Mairéad Hickey, 24.

Ortús, an amalgamated word of the Latin ‘oritus’ (origin) and the Irish word tús (beginning), is an homage to the ethos of the festival.

Renowned Cork musicians wanted to come back to the city which had given them their start in music and showcase their astounding progress since leaving the county.

As well as this, Ortús aims to prove that chamber music is as relevant and as exciting as it was 100 years ago.

The Artistic Directors are now taking it in turn to curate Ortús each year, owing no doubt to their hectic work commitments outside of the festival. At the helm of Ortús in 2020, which will run from February 28 until March 1, Mairéad explained that the festival is also a means of showcasing international talent to a Cork audience.

“Sinéad and I wanted to create a festival where we could return home once a year to play our favourite chamber music with Irish musicians as well as international musicians we have met on our travels,” she said.

Mairéad, who is originally from Bermuda but moved to Cork with her family when she was seven, began playing the violin at the age of three with Jyrki Pietila. From 2003 to 2014 she studied with Adrian Petcu at the CIT Cork School of Music and spent a year in France studying at the Conservatoire de Nantes with Constantin Serban.

She is now studying with Mihaela Martin, one of the world’s most outstanding violin virtuosos, at Kronberg Academy, sponsored by the Hilmar Kopper Stipendium.

Mairéad has managed to garner local, national and international attention to date. She regularly performs throughout Ireland, playing with both the RTÉ National Concert and Symphony Orchestras as well Camerata Ireland and Kremerata Baltica. She has performed in every major concert hall in Ireland and abroad in venues including the Royal Festival Hall, London, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn and Carnegie Hall, New York.

This year’s festival, which will take place in venues across the city and county, features a stellar line up of musicians, as Mairéad highlights: “We have some of the most incredible musicians, not just of this generation, but in the world, who will be joining us from the USA, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Russia, Belarus as well as from here in Ireland.

“I can’t wait to play wonderful music with them and introduce them to Cork audiences.”

Such musicians include the likes of Russian-German violinist, Georgy Kovalev, Dutch-American violin virtuoso Stephen Waarts and features newly commissioned work by composer Seán Doherty, to name but a few.

Mairéad, who has countless accolades to her name including NCH Irish Young Musician of the Year 2010–2012 and Music Network/Centre Culturel Irlandais Music Performance Bursary 2019/20, spends the majority of her time travelling and performing on stages around the world and it’s what keeps her love of music alive.

“I would say my favourite parts of being a musician are travelling to places I wouldn’t usually go to, meeting new people and constantly learning. For example, in November, I travelled to Cuba where we played Mozart with musicians from Havana. It was very inspiring to work with these musicians as they have a very different approach to Mozart than we do in Europe.

“In the end, we all understand the music similarly together, but the rehearsal process was very interesting,” she told The Echo.

Whilst the opportunity to travel is no doubt immensely exciting, could Cork be doing more to entice these incredible musicians to stay?

“Cork has a bittersweet relationship with classical music,” Mairéad explains. “The CIT Cork School of Music is an incredible school — it is where I met my teacher Adrian Petcu with whom I studied between the ages of seven and 18. Cork produces wonderful musicians with bright futures — but one problem is that Cork has no professional orchestra. So most musicians must leave. I have no choice. The type of career I have at the moment would simply not be possible in Ireland. It’s really sad and something the government needs to put serious thought and then action into.

“Most major cities around the world have at least a Symphony Orchestra, an Opera Orchestra (with resident opera and ballet companies to go with it) and a Chamber Orchestra so musicians can choose to work in their home city. Cork has none of the above and I think Ireland as a country needs to wake up to this if we wish to aspire to be considered equal to our European neighbours,” she continued.

Whilst Artistic Directors Sinéad and Mairéad were successful in attaining Arts Council and Cork County Council funding from the outset, sourcing the means to host such an ambitious festival year after year is still a challenge.

“Finding funding is always the most difficult and stressful part of running the festival. Most of our funding is on a yearly basis, so we are in a precarious position. We send out many applications and letters seeking support, some of which are successful, some unsuccessful, some ignored,” Mairéad said.

“We are grateful to have received funding from the Arts Council and Cork County Council since the first festival in 2016. Cork City Council came on board for the 2019 festival. We are delighted this year that Hayfield Manor has partnered with us and will be a wonderful home for our visiting international musicians in 2020.

“Above all, we do rely on local businesses for advertising revenue and are enormously thankful for all of our invaluable Friends of the Festival. Running a festival is expensive when you think of the cost of air tickets for musicians (and cellos!), piano rental fees, venue rental fees etc.

“Friends of Ortús are absolutely vital for the survival of the festival and all donations are greatly appreciated.”

Since its inception, Ortús also utilised the skills of local Cork people to make the dream of hosting a chamber music festival a reality.

Douglas native Alice Coleman, a graphic designer and illustrator, created the festival’s striking logo as well as festival programmes and is still designing for the festival in its fifth year. As part of the festival, there is also a number of masterclasses and outreach work conducted.

Last year, the Ortús musicians gave a masterclass to the Wispa Quartet of the Cork ETB School of Music who went on to stun audiences with their stellar performance on the Late Late Toy Show back in November.

With so much coordinating to undertake as well as studying and performing on international stages, it could be easy to see how making a career out of music could dampen one’s love of it, when the demands are so high and the competition is so tough.

“It can be really tough to have a career in music. You need to develop a thick skin to filter out negative criticism while at the same time being ever critical of yourself as that is how you progress. It’s difficult to find the balance between being extremely self-critical, while at the same time having the confidence to believe in what you do. I do have to make an effort to remind myself that deep down I love music and I chose this career, even when the going gets really tough,” Mairéad said.

Although it may be no Carnegie Hall, Mairéad assures us that Cork still has a special place in her heart and she enjoys the downtime when she returns home.

“I like to just spend time with my family and catch up with a few friends, or go for a walk by the sea with our dog.”

  • Tickets for the fifth year of Ortús will be on sale in Pro Musica and on the
    festival website: www.ortusfestival.ie in January.

Musician Mairéad Hickey is one of the organisers of Ortús — Cork’s unique chamber music festival. She talks to AMY NOLAN about plans for this year and the health of classical music in Cork.

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