Athenry Youth Orchestra’s Tour to Belgium

Forty-five musicians from Athenry Youth Orchestra and five tutors travelled to Belgium last week for a whistle-stop, four concert tour over five days. Planning for this tour took place over an 18-month period with more than 400 email exchanges! They had a wonderful, if not exhausting time, and we heard from Athenry Music School Director, Katharine Mac Mághnuis on how the trip went.

“The trip was an equally magical and exhausting experience! We faced musical challenges, and experienced dealing with new concert venues, three different languages, travelling by plane with forty-five students and forty instruments including eight celli, a lever harp and a guitar having their own seats! I was joined by faculty members Ana Cardon (linguistic master who is fluent in English, French and Spanish), Colman Connolly (instrument packer and cameraman) who returned from his home in England to travel with the group, Daire Mac Mághnuis (ninja bedroom and wellbeing monitor) and parent volunteer, Úna Duggan (calming-influence specialist).

The idea of the trip was to see how we would be welcomed in a foreign country and learn how we would like to treat visitors to Ireland. We also wanted to present as many contemporary Irish composers as possible to our new audiences and our programme featured pieces by Dave Flynn, Mike Mc Goldrick, Michael Rooney, Joan Trimble and Vincent Kennedy.

The performances started before we had even left Ireland with a concert in Terminal 2 of Dublin Airport on Friday before our flight.

On Saturday, after rehearsals at our hotel, we drove to Wavre, south-east of Brussels to perform a joint concert with Les Archets de La Hulpe and l’Orchestre de Chambre de la Néthen in the marvellous Salle Columban. The pre-concert workshop was interesting and challenging with the Athenry children quickly revising / learning French numbers for rehearsal entries! Four collaborative pieces were workshopped and performed with each of the four conductors (three Belgian and myself) taking a piece each. It was fascinating to experience the different styles of rehearsal, tone production, articulation and phrasing. All the students were pushed to produce the best possible ensemble sound and all through a foreign language.

Sunday was a feast of socialising, serious fun and first-class music with the Vlaams JeudgHarmonie Orkest who are the national youth wind ensemble of the Flemish-speaking areas of Belgium. After our initial welcome in the concert hall, the amalgamated 100 musicians paraded to the nearby ancient beech tree forest where our hosts had created a game, especially for our visit. Ten camps for ten teams had been marked with police tape just within eyesight of each other. The base camp was in the centre of the forest with a basin of fake beer and a load of syringes! The aim of the game was to get as much beer into your own camp as possible using the syringes through challenges performed by the young people in the open forest. I could just imagine the texts to the parents! “Mum we had a great time, we are running around a forest playing with beer and syringes”.

The Flemish group could not have been more energetic in their organisation of the concert which included building an eight-metre square extension onto the stage in the De Boseil to accommodate both orchestras during our collaborative performance of A Different Drum by Vincent Kennedy. The amalgamated forces were stunning! Our mostly string orchestra was augmented by their flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, horns, trombones, bass trombones, tube and a comprehensive percussion section. It was loud!

On Monday, we had a day off performing and had a day of sight-seeing, shopping and eating and walked more than 20 kilometres! We hosted our honourary patron, Hugh Murphy who had helped us during our 2016 tour and had a fantastic meal in the Hard Rock Café over-looking the Grand Place.

On Tuesday we packed and went to the Atomium to play our last concert in the impressive entrance foyer and to take the tour of the building that was built for the world exhibition in 1958 and is a feat of engineering and imagination.

And then went for our last meal in Brussels in a rather posh Italian restaurant, where many retired couples and individuals were having a nice quiet Tuesday lunch. We felt very sorry for them to have fifty of us foisted upon them but the students simply behaved immaculately! You would not have known that they were on the premises. They moved around from table to table, swapping seats and food but they did it quietly and calmly.

At the end of the meal, when the manager brought me the bill (€825!), it had a reduction of €500 marked paid. When I inquired, we were told that a local man and regular customer, Willy Souply, wanted to buy the students their main course! Ana and I went over and it transpired that Willy’s wife had died a few years before and they had always wanted children, but couldn’t have any. He was touched by the students’ behaviour and obvious regard for each other and felt compelled to make this gesture. On announcing this to the students, the most touching thing happened. A number of the students spontaneously got up and came to shake Willy’s hand and say thank you and all followed suit. Willy cried, I cried, the manager cried! What an amazing act of random kindness and a lovely way to finish the tour! As one of our parents said on our return, “it is random acts of kindness that bond a society” and we couldn’t have wished for a better message for our students.

All of us arrived safe and happy back to Athenry with a sure sense of having experienced something really very special. Both orchestras that we visited have expressed a wish to both come to Ireland and host us again! From my own perspective, it is an honour to travel with these young musicians and to represent Ireland and our Irish composers. Roll on the next trip!”

If you would like to see some of Athenry Youth Orchestra’s Tour to Belgium, please visit: here.