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The girl who took the geek factor out of classical music here

Flautist Eimear McGeown, one of the stars at this week’s Clandeboye Festival of Music, tells Matthew McCreary why her young pupils think she’s the coolest teacher ever

Few genres have gone through quite as profound an image change in recent years as classical music.

Far from being perceived as frumpy or plain, mainstream classical musicians nowadays are often more glamorous, well-dressed and sexy than ever.

It is a formula which has worked well for such successful acts as Katherine Jenkins, Il Divo and Rhydian Roberts. But for Ulster flautist Eimear McGeown, such a transformation in the industry has proven a distraction from the genuine talent of the performers.

“It takes away from the love of music and the talent you have,” she says.

“People assume you have got there for other reasons, so sometimes it can be a bad thing. I also understand in the real world that people would think the image is necessary for a solo person in particular to get somewhere. But I don't like the idea of people thinking it's more important than the music, because at the end of the day it's really not.”

At the same time, insists the 27-year-old Craigavon woman, there is still something of a ‘square’ image associated with those who choose classical music as a career.

“I know there are people who would be classed as geeks for playing classical instruments,” she says.

“But I went to a school where music was popular. I taught little kids as well and once one of them told her mum, ‘My music teacher's really cool, she dresses so cool’. It's great to hear because you don't want people thinking it's just geeky. It's starting to disappear, that image. There are times when you wonder if people think of you as just a prim and proper classical musician, but I'm really not!”

Currently based in London, where she studied at Trinity College of Music, Eimear is busily engaged in that pursuit common to many young classical soloists, of ‘making her name’ in a highly competitive industry.

At present her life is a mixture of recitals, private teaching, ensemble performances and even working in a flute shop one day a week.

One major highlight of her forthcoming diary will be her return to Northern Ireland as a guest of the Clandeboye Festival of Music this week. Staged at the Clandeboye estate near Bangor, the festival, held in association with the Belfast Telegraph, features a programme of world-class classical performers, alongside the best rising young stars of Irish music.

It is held under the auspices of Camerata Ireland, the Irish orchestra founded by renowned Ulster pianist Barry Douglas in 1999. And for Eimear, a former winner of the Clandeboye Young Musician of the Year Award, it is a chance to meet up with old friends.

“It's a lovely venue to play in and I’m really looking forward to seeing the orchestra,” she says.

“There's something quite special about Clandeboye. Most places we play in are popular venues so they are constantly having concerts held there, whereas Clandeboye is nice because it's a one-time venue for the festival.”

Having Barry Douglas as a mentor has also proved a massive help to Eimear and the dozens of other young musicians who have competed at the festival each year, and who benefit from masterclasses with the renowned pianist and the other international guests.

“Barry is constantly helping, he wants to know how we are all doing and help in any way he can to make sure we are getting the support we need,” she says.

“In the music world you don't normally have that, so it's been one of the big points of having the competition.”

Making such highly-regarded professional contacts is crucial for young musicians, as in any industry. And for Eimear, moving to London to study after growing up in Northern Ireland presented its own challenges to getting started.

“It’s much easier to get concerts in Northern Ireland because if you have grown up there you have contacts,” she says.

“In London if you only moved there at 18 or 19 it's so much harder because you have no contacts in the same way. You can do competitions to get your CV built up and get involved in things. Also there are a lot more people coming from all over the world to study in London, so there's no shortage of players, which makes the opportunities harder.”

To this end, Eimear has managed to diversify her playing skills into another area of music altogether and regularly appears in concert with the Liverpudlian pop band Amsterdam.

“It’s a complete opposite, a completely different atmosphere and has stretched my playing in a different way,” she says. “I get to improvise, because I am playing a mixture of classical and Irish instruments, so I swap over.

“It's more of a relaxed environment, so you have to perform in a different way as well. I think the two styles complement each other as well, so it gives me more confidence in ways to be a bit more relaxed.

“I wouldn't be as stressed out now in a classical concert, I just treat it as any other concert. And you realise the audience want the same thing, to enjoy the performance, so you shouldn't worry about every little detail all the time.”

Her involvement with the band also gave Eimear the opportunity — rare for a classical performer — to play at the Glastonbury Festival in 2008.

“It was on the acoustic stage, and it was a crazy experience, I couldn't believe it was happening,” she enthuses.

“We had supported The Pogues one time as well, which I thought was crazy, as I had grown up with them and there they were just standing there.”

A sideline in performance art ensemble Juggling On Tap — in which Eimear performs alongside a tap dancer who juggles, and a world music percussionist — is another way of keeping her creative talents exercised, and has even kept her in touch with her Irish roots.

“In a couple of shows I did Irish dancing in the middle of it,” she laughs. “It's not a normal kind of thing, it's more for theatre people who are into circus acts — it was a bit different!”

She also got the chance to perform in London’s West End, providing music for the stage version of Lord of the Rings

“I did that for over a year and it was incredible,” she says. “It was quite challenging because everything has to be so spot-on and exact. You're picking up different instruments as you go along, literally having two bars to swap instruments. It was stressful but enjoyable too because the music was so different, Celtic mixed with classical.

“I thrive on it, though, because it makes me perform better,” she adds. “Your adrenaline gets going and you feed off the energy of the audience. As long as I'm organised and have prepared then it’s better.”

And like many young performers Eimear’s talent was nurtured through school and family life, although her passion for classical music was not always an obvious career path.

“I’m from a traditional Irish music background,” she says.

“My sister plays the Irish fiddle and brother plays banjo and we would have grown up going to music festivals and fleadhs.

“But there's not really any classical background in my family — I don’t quite know where it came from actually!”

The Clandeboye Festival of Music runs until Saturday, August 21. See www.camerata-ireland.com for details

What’s on at Clandeboye

Monday

Masterworks evening, 7.30pm:

Mozart — Violin Sonata in E minor

Brahms — Sonata for cello/piano in F major

Brahms — Trio for horn/|violin/piano

Tuesday

Chapel lunch music:

Malcolm Arnold — Fantasy for solo clarinet

Johan Kvandal — Salmetone (Hymn Tune) solo horn

Telemann — Fantasies Nos.10 in G, 11 in B flat, 12 in D minor for solo viola

Messaien Des Canyons aux Etoiles — solo horn

Evening Encore, 7.30pm:

N Burgmuller — Duo for clarinet and piano

Bruch — Romanian Melody

Brahms — Sonata for viola/piano in E flat

Tchaikovsky — String Quartet No 2 in F Op 22

Wednesday

Chapel lunch music:

Ravel — Duo for violin and cello

Dohnanyi — Serenade In C Op 10 for string trio

Barry Douglas Piano Recital,

7.30pm:

Chopin — Polonaise in C Minor Op 40 No 2

Chopin — Nocturne in E flat major Op 55 No 2

Schumann — Fantasy in C major Op 17

Liszt — Sonata in B minor

Thursday

Chapel lunch music:

Bach — Suite N° 3 in C Major BWV 1009 solo cello

Hindemith — Solo Sonata op, 25 no.1 viola

Young Musicians Showcase,

6.30pm

Friday

Soloists’ Evening Marquee

7.30pm:

Camerata Ireland – directed by Michael d’Arcy

Golijov — The dreams and prayers of Isaac, the Prophet

CPE Bach — Flute Concerto in D minor

Tchaikovsky — Andante Cantabile for cello & strings

Tchaikovsky - Valse-Scherzo for violin & strings

Glazunov — Idyll for horn & strings

Gershwin — 3 Preludes for clarinet & strings

Saturday

Family concert Music For All,

noon:

Gala Evening with Camerata Ireland Marquee, 7.30pm:

Rossini Overture La Scala di seta (Silken ladder)

Beethoven Piano Concerto No 2

Mozart Symphony No 40 in G minor

For ticket information and prices please telephone 0800 977 6074 or 9039 4234

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