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Orchestral manoeuvres on the campus

The funding and building of the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s new home in Limerick is a rare example of a plan carried out in collective harmony, reports Arminta Wallace

WE DON’T HEAR many good-news stories in these days of doom and gloom; but today’s official opening of the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s new building, on the campus of the University of Limerick (UL), is putting smiles on lots of faces.

Designed by Project Architects in collaboration with specialist acousticians AWN Consulting, the gleaming new block on the college’s north campus incorporates a state-of-the-art rehearsal room, an instrument storeroom and a musicians’ common room as well as office accommodation for the orchestra’s administrative team.

“It became obvious to me about five years ago that we needed to develop our own home,” says the ICO’s chief executive, John Kelly, one of the driving forces behind the project. “When the orchestra relocated to UL in 1995, I was actually the guy who relocated. There wasn’t anybody else.” Once established within the university, however, the ICO quickly began to grow. “We brought Fionnuala Hunt on board, we contracted 13 players, and I hired two other people to work . . . in the office.”

As the university itself developed, rehearsal space became harder to find. “At first we rehearsed in the Bourn Vincent Gallery. But it was being developed as an art gallery, and as more exhibitions were hung it became less and less possible for us to rehearse there. We also shared space with the Irish world academy of music and dance, but as their programmes grew it became more difficult to access that space, too. The primary function of the university is, after all, education. When we found ourselves having to rehearse off-campus in Killaloe, I realised that we were going to have to build our own space.”

To hear Kelly tell the story of the new building, you’d think that getting a €3.5 million project out of cloud cuckoo land and into the real world is something of a breeze. It began with an approach to UL’s vice-president for physical development, John O’Connor. As a result of this conversation the university gifted a site to the orchestra – which, Kelly says, was even more generous than it sounds.

“The site is in the context of a major development of student residencies on campus – a 500-bed complex – so it meant that things like sewerage, pipes, all of that, was already in place. We were, in effect, given a fully serviced site.” With the support of the ICO board, especially its deputy chair, Ed Walsh – a former president of UL and a man who has a reputation for putting ideas into action – Kelly sought government approval for a public-private partnership. “The Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism responded very quickly,” he says. “They saw the opportunity to build a 900sq m home for the ICO for a relatively small amount of money.

So they committed 50 per cent. Limerick city and county put in €50,000 each. We capitalised some rent from the university, which gave us another slice of funding, and we raised €800,000 from private donors.
“Everything just flowed. Everything fell into place,” Kelly says. “But then, this was a good deal for the government. It was a good deal for the ICO. It was a good deal for the University of Limerick. It was a good deal for Limerick.”

It was also a matter of good timing, though, surely? Who would try to get a project such as this off the ground in the current climate?

“Well, you know, when I first mooted this idea I was told that it wouldn’t happen,” says Kelly. “As a matter of fact I was told I’d never get the funding for the orchestra itself, never mind the building. But you don’t let circumstances dictate where you’re going in life. You have a vision, and you get on with it.”


The state-of-the-art rehearsal room, which seats up to 200.

THE AIM OF the ICO has always been, he says, to develop an ensemble that could compete with the best chamber orchestras in the world. “What we’ve really done here from the beginning is facilitate talent – and now we can go on doing that. We have much more freedom to rehearse, to develop education and outreach programmes. We have our own recording facility. We have a music library.”

Having all the admin staff in one place will also, he hopes, make the orchestra’s life easier. “Now we’re all together we can function as a team. And when the orchestra is rehearsing downstairs, we’re immediately accessible to them.” Already, he says, the new environment is prompting members of the orchestra to suggest new musical initiatives. “Although it’s not primarily designed as a performance space, the rehearsal room can hold – with the orchestra – about 180 to 200 people. Various chamber music series will definitely . . . develop – and it’s also a place where we could do some experimental, cutting-edge contemporary work.”

So, when Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism Martin Cullen cuts the ribbon on the new building today, it will be the dawn of a new era for the ICO. The new building gives the orchestra – according to Kelly – a huge advantage over other chamber orchestras of a similar size. “I don’t know of any chamber orchestra that owns its own studio and office complex,” he says. “We’re unique in that context. It’s like we’re not waiting on the bus any more. We have our own transport here now.”

© 2008 The Irish Times

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