Sonic Strings in Sweden

During the autumn midterm break in 2022, the Sonic Strings Ensemble, a 20-piece orchestra, from Coole Music & Arts in Gort, County Galway, went on a tour to Sweden where they performed a choreographed show ranging from the Wizard of Oz to a James Bond track ‘No Time to Die’ to traditional Irish music. Besides these shows, they also got the opportunity to join the national El Sistema Orchestra Camp and perform with the group in the Konserthuset in Stockholm. Here is the trip from the perspective of Sonic Strings player Kitty (aged 15).

The excitement was building in the days leading up to our musical adventure and I was looking forward to reuniting with friends I had met and collaborated with four years previously in Ireland. Even though Sweden is in Europe, it seemed like such a contrast compared to where I live on the west coast of Ireland. As soon as we stepped off the train in Borlänge, the first thing that struck us was the fresh air – how clean and pure it was. This is something that has stayed with me since. When I inhale a deep breath here it brings me back. This is, I’m sure, due to the abundance of trees we observed on the way to our host families, their black silhouettes cutting through the pristine, cold night air.

We spent the next day preparing for our concert with the Dala Violinists. During a break, we ran outside for a breath of fresh air and to take in the scenery. Autumn was evident; the ground was covered with brightly coloured leaves, yellows, reds, burnt oranges, and browns with the scent of seasonal change pervading the crisp air. Our Swedish friends were kind enough to give us a tour of the area which took in a medieval Christian church. Like any church, it was lined with pews, but in the top left corner, was a balcony where the priest would stand, a curious difference from what we are used to and one which added to the serenity of this wooden structure. In fact, I would say that the wooden interior brings you into the space in a way that I haven’t experienced in Ireland except for when I visited the Church of Ireland in Drumcliffe, where W.B. Yeats is buried.

After our tour, we headed back inside for one last run-through. The evening after the concert was spent getting to know each other. The parents had organised a Halloween-themed scavenger hunt in the church’s graveyard! The idea seemed much more authentic than trick or treating and therefore very promising! We split into teams of four; two Swedish young people, and two Irish young people – a great bonding experience.

As soon as it got dark, Brian, one of our adults in charge, slipped into a scary crazy scientist costume and took great pleasure in terrifying the life out of everyone. Before we got too restless, we were called inside for dinner where we were introduced to Midsommar, a traditional festival on Midsummer’s Eve, celebrating the summer solstice. I was curious how this would be honoured as it is a very ancient custom and one which our ancestors held very sacred. There was a long table filled with food from vegetarian, to meats, to fish. There was smörgåstårta, which means sandwich cake, in English. This wasn’t your average victoria sponge or an indulgent chocolate cake. It was fish cake! Egg and mayonnaise were the base, filled with liver paté, olives, shrimp, ham, various cold cuts, vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers, some grapes, lemon slices, cheese, and smoked salmon! It had a rather interesting sausage, too, which consisted of beef, pork, and a bit of horse meat. They also showed us a few dances with costumes. The girls wore gorgeous long dresses embroidered in plants and flowers, each one different according to their town. They also wore brightly coloured garlands filled with flowers of the summer. The boys wore three-quarter-length pants and a waistcoat. We were taught a traditional song in exchange for our own ‘Rattlin Bog’. After a long night, we headed home with our host families. We had no choice but to head straight to bed as we had to be up for an early start the next day, to make our way to the orchestra camp.

The next five days were spent there where we played music with the Dala Violinists and other people from around the country. Ron, from Venezuela, was our fantastic conductor. His enthusiasm was infectious, showing up every day with an abundance of energy, and making sure we played to the best of our ability. It was a wonderful experience; we got to meet a lot of new people and play different genres of music from the syncopated rhythms of South America to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. Interestingly, there is quite a big Syrian community in Sweden, some of whom I made friends with, which was great because being half Sudanese, it meant I could chat with them in Arabic. They also taught Arabic dance to my Brazilian friend Lorrainy, who is also in Sonic Strings, and me, which was an unexpected and incredibly enjoyable experience. What craic!

Finally, the big day arrived – our concert in the Stockholm Concert Hall. As soon as we arrived, we had sectionals with members from the Symphony Orchestra. Very exciting! After sectionals, we had a quick break and headed to the stage for a very long run-through after which we went out to explore the city! The centre of the city reminded me a lot of O’Connell Street in Dublin. Sensibly, we stuck to the pedestrianised area as there were, I’m sure, more than fifty teenagers to keep track of! There was a buzzing atmosphere and a great vibe somewhat like Shop Street in Galway at Christmas. The buildings made a deep impression on me; side-by-side, in all shapes and sizes, they lined the streets, beautifully preserved in brightly painted colours. I felt a deep immersion in history with an authentic sense of the past. And I must mention the artisan bakeries with their alluring, massive, windows showcasing delightful, golden, fluffy pastries. Unfortunately, there was no time for shopping (or pastries) as we had to get back to the concert hall. Being so exhausted, even the thought of taking money out of our pockets was draining. The next day we had quite an early start as we had to catch a train to Enköping, our last stop. Some host families took us to their community centre for lunch before rehearsal for our final concert. After the evening’s success, we headed back to the community centre and had a lovely Halloween-themed dinner followed by an open mic session! The best part was when we all just lay on the floor and sang a few songs. At 11 pm, we said our goodbyes and headed to our host families. We were absolutely exhausted but had to get up early to catch our plane so we decided to hit the hay and call it a day.

I feel so lucky to have gone on this very special trip. Traveling and making friends through music is a real privilege. I want to thank Katharina Baker and all the beautiful people we met in Sweden for making it such a memorable occasion. Music is a great passport.