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The lockdown ensemble: How Ulster Orchestra musicians are keeping the music alive during coronavirus outbreak


Jonathan Griffin and Morag Stewart performing with their daughter Susie

Jonathan Griffin and Morag Stewart performing with their daughter Susie

Patrick and Jacqueline McCarthy

Patrick and Jacqueline McCarthy

Patrick playing the trumpet

Patrick playing the trumpet

Jonathan Simmance

Jonathan Simmance

Jonathan Simmance with Anne Harper and their children

Jonathan Simmance with Anne Harper and their children

Jonathan Griffin and Morag Stewart performing with their daughter Susie

While the Ulster Orchestra has been forced to cancel its concerts for the rest of the season, many of its musicians are keeping busy in lockdown, broadcasting short pieces of music they love through the Let’s Play at Home series. The orchestra has 63 full-time musicians, and 13 have been furloughed. Linda Stewart talks to three musical couples.

‘It’s obvious it really means a lot to people ... they look forward to it’

Trumpet player Patrick McCarthy (45) is head of artistic planning with the Ulster Orchestra and has been performing from his home in Muckamore with wife Jacqueline, a freelance horn player, and daughter Roisin.

Their household is a particularly musical one, with Roisin playing the trumpet and tin whistle and son Fintan (8) playing the guitar and drumming.

"Although Jacqueline is from Derry originally, we met in England playing in an orchestra at the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk. We both freelanced in London and Birmingham before moving to Antrim in 2006," Patrick says.

"The competing, and sometimes simultaneous practice routines of horn, piano, guitar, tin whistle, singing and trumpet add up to a noisy, but generally harmonious household.


Patrick playing the trumpet

Patrick playing the trumpet

Patrick playing the trumpet

"There are usually instruments strewn around every room of the house, and we even spill into the garden for a Friday night jam. We have amazingly agreeable neighbours!

"My wife is keeping the children's schoolwork going, which is hard work for everybody. Both kids are having video music lessons from their tutors at JAM, the Saturday morning music school which normally runs on a Saturday morning at QUB.

"The connective experience of playing with others is much missed though, so we're lucky to be able to make music at home."

In tribute to the Shaken Not Stirred concert, which has had to be rescheduled, the couple played the theme to the Bond movie You Only Live Twice in their segment, with Patrick on trumpet and Jacqueline on piano.

"Our last concert was on March 13 and we are hoping to get back to some sort of activity in August after the orchestra's summer break," Patrick says.

"At the moment we're trying to work out what a socially distanced orchestra might look like and whether it fits in the Ulster Hall.

"The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra has just performed its first concert since lockdown, with 12 players on stage and spaced two metres apart, but there's lots of things to think about (in terms of) how that might work and not work."

Patrick says some of the musicians have never been busier and are enjoying the freedom to choose the pieces they love and want to share on the #UOLetsPlayAtHome hashtag.

"Every weekday and some Saturdays, we've put out an original clip - some original content," he explains.

"Other orchestras have years of archives and were used to streaming already. However we had none of that and it felt like a big difficulty, but it has spurred us on towards creating lots of new stuff."

Some of the talented musicians who have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 during lockdown have included the Lowry family, aka The Quarantine Quartet, and piccolo player Diomedes Demetriades, who has been showcasing his skills on a bouzouki.

"It used to be that the management would determine what the musicians played. At the moment the musicians are making lots of those choices themselves - curating content, choosing their own collaborators and deciding what pieces to play," Patrick says.

"We haven't done one of the big split-screen projects yet, but our conductor Daniele is quite keen that we do something, so watch this space going forward."

The orchestra is also going to be collaborating with the Seamus Heaney Homeplace in a piece called The Helping Hand by composer Neil Martin.

Patrick laughs that he and Jacqueline didn't dress up for their Bond-themed performance - quite the reverse.

"I'd just come off the motorbike from shopping and I was in my bike trousers," he says.


Patrick and Jacqueline McCarthy

Patrick and Jacqueline McCarthy

Patrick and Jacqueline McCarthy

"I think it's been quite nice for our audience, and maybe people who only occasionally engage, to get a sense of seeing the musicians in their home environment rather than seeing them just on stage.

"We haven't exposed our children to it yet - but we might well do. (Violinist) Ioana Petcu-Colan did a Vivaldi piece, with her daughter playing cello, and it was really, really good.

"It's obvious that it really means a lot to people. People whose social lives are built around the orchestra are really latching on to it and they're really looking forward to the message dropping into their inbox each day."

‘The task takes three minutes, but the tech takes three hours’

Violinist Jonathan Griffin and cellist Morag Stewart, both in their 50s and living in east Belfast, met when they were playing for the Ulster Orchestra. They're in lockdown with their daughter Susie and have been performing on the street outside their house during the NHS clap each Thursday.

"We met and got chatting when Morag first joined the orchestra as we recognised each other from our time at the Royal College of Music in London," Jonathan says.

"Our household can be pretty noisy with the three of us practising in different rooms at the same time. Occasionally, Susie and I might bash through some duets or Morag would accompany us on the piano.

"However in normal times, Morag and I would usually be busy preparing for Ulster Orchestra concerts and Susie would be away at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

"The three of us have been in lockdown together and it's been pretty good."

Morag says lockdown hasn't been as big a shock to the system as it may have been for many others.

"We are probably unusual compared to a lot of other people in that we work together all the time anyway," she adds.

"Lockdown does make it all the more intensive, but we are used to each other's company 24 hours a day.

"If it gets too much, you might go for a walk, but on the whole we are doing okay."

While Jonathan has been furloughed and cannot play for the orchestra at present, Morag played Nimrod from the Enigma Variations for the Let's Play At Home series.

"Prior to that, there was a call out for people to clap for carers, so Jonathan posted a piece online - he played Elgar's Salut D'Amour," she says.

Their daughter Susie has returned home from England, where she was studying at the Royal Northern College of Music.

The family teamed up to play You'll Never Walk Alone on two violins and a cello on the doorstep of their east Belfast house to mark the weekly Clap for Carers.

"I think people were very pleased - a few people got their mobiles out.

"I saw someone on the corner, obviously taking footage of it as well," Morag says.

Jonathan says they have been learning new lockdown skills, with Morag having a go at men's hairdressing.

"I do a nice men's haircut - it's quite good, actually, and I'm very proud of it," Morag explains.

The couple say they have spent a lot of time getting used to the mysteries of Zoom. "Like any new tech, the task takes three minutes and the tech takes three hours," Morag says.

"It helps to have a 22-year-old in the house because they know how to do it. They can edit files and convert audio files into something else that we don't even know exists.

"It's been a big learning curve finding different ways to do things."

‘The feedback shows it’s possible to enjoy music on the internet’

Viola player Jonathan Simmance is an animateur working as part of the Ulster Orchestra's learning and community engagement team and his wife Anne Harper is a freelance clarinet player who often works with the same team.

The couple live near Rathfriland and have three children, Martha (11), Maire (8) and five-year-old Lugh.

"We both work for the learning and community engagement team. They are the team that have come to the fore now as the orchestra can't be on stage, so we are all about engagement," Anne says.

Last Friday Anne posted a piece that she performed in collaboration with Colum Sands, a song called Better Times from his album Song Bridge, which seems particularly appropriate at the moment. Due to technical problems, Anne ended up working until 4am trying to get the piece ready in time.


Jonathan Simmance with Anne Harper and their children

Jonathan Simmance with Anne Harper and their children

Jonathan Simmance with Anne Harper and their children

Anne and Jonathan duetted for the Let's Play At Home series, with Anne turning to harp for one of the pieces.

One of the pieces we did was a very intricate piece of classical music by Bach and the other piece was a planxty by Turlough O'Carolan, who was a traditional Irish composer living at the same time as Bach, " she says.

"The idea that classical musicians only do one thing may have been the truth in the past, but it's not the case now. People enjoy a lot of variety."

Jonathan was playing in the orchestra up until recently but now works in community engagement.

"It's been good to see people leading from the back. Part of my job is to inspire others," he says.

The musician generally has to stick to whatever they're told to play, so this has been a big change, he says.

"It's completely different and the musicians love doing it - they're kind of revelling in it. Because it's community engagement, it's what I like doing and it's not such a formal setting as a stage. Now we're getting to do it at home with the kids," he explains.

Anne is also giving free online music workshops for young children as part of the freelance side of her work.

"The feedback has been really positive, particularly for special needs families. It shows it's possible to still teach and enjoy music with children online," she says.

Jonathan and Anne are also planning to do another piece for Let's Play At Home with their children performing rhythms on oil drums.

"While we listen to a wide variety of music at home and play instruments a lot, we aren't pushy parents with the kids," Anne says. "They have lots of opportunities to learn from what goes on in our home and we enjoy watching them develop their own ways.

"There is no better sound than a child singing, because you know they are happy and in the moment! So they inspire us and teach us and we give them the opportunities to make music whenever they want to, but it's not forced on them.


Jonathan Simmance

Jonathan Simmance

Jonathan Simmance

"They don't realise how much music goes on because for them it is normal. What has been harder since lockdown is managing the technology and our rubbish internet connection! We didn't train in video editing at college."

"I think this is one of the things about lockdown that people will remember, the music and the songs.

"Music is so evocative anyway. People still talk about Vera Lynn from the back in the war years and I think that people will talk about Somewhere Over The Rainbow when they talk about coronavirus."

The Ulster Orchestra is releasing live-streamed recitals, split-screen chamber ensembles, tutorials and tips for players and conversation about its music as part of its Let's PLay at Home series. Each day these are posted to YouTube. To access the playlist, search for #UOLetsPlayAt Home. Follow on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and use the hashtag #UO LetsPlayAtHome, or join the email list for regular round-ups.

Belfast Telegraph