The Irish Chamber Orchestra is one of Ireland’s most acclaimed orchestras, celebrated for its eclectic repertoire and its exhilarating playing style. Now in its 56th year, the orchestra continues to innovate, offering a diverse range of concerts at home and abroad, collaborating with leading international artists, and pioneering community initiatives designed to deliver real change.
The orchestra was founded in Limerick in 1963 by the renowned Hungarian composer and violinist János Fürst. Over the years it has thrived under a succession of outstanding artistic partners, including Fionnuala Hunt, Nicholas McGegan, Anthony Marwood and Gábor Tákacs-Nagy, supported by a board that has included such illustrious members as Mary Robinson and Dr Ed Walsh, founding president of UL. It was the passion of these forward-thinking leaders that has enabled the orchestra to grow throughout its history, and that same thirst for excellence drives it today.
In 1995, under the guidance of Dr Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Professor of Music at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, the ICO became orchestra-in-residence at the University of Limerick, forging a deep and lasting partnership with the university – and the city – that flourishes to this day. One of the orchestra’s long-cherished ambitions was to own its own studio and it was John Kelly, CEO of the Irish Chamber Orchestra from 1993 to 2012, who masterminded the fundraising and construction. Opened in 2008, the ICO Studio is a state-of-the-art recording and rehearsal space that provides the orchestra with a world-class home.
From its position at the heart of the cultural scene in Limerick, the ICO has long harboured the desire to play a transformative role in the lives of its people, and in 2008, with the help of seed funding from the university, the orchestra launched Sing Out with Strings, a groundbreaking initiative that offers free tuition to 300 primary school children in Limerick every year. Supported by many generous patrons, Sing Out with Strings has been wildly successful, with many of the children involved going on to join the new Irish Chamber Orchestra Youth Orchestra. The orchestra has also forged a partnership with the University of Limerick’s MA in Classical String Performance, offering an inspiring series of classes to its talented students.
In 2002, violinist Katherine Hunka was appointed Leader of the ICO and her rapport with the orchestra, together with her programming expertise, has been instrumental in developing the ICO’s appeal across Ireland. Thanks to funding from Culture Ireland, the orchestra regularly tours overseas, and it was in Berlin in 2007 that the ICO first performed with Jörg Widmann, the clarinettist, composer and conductor whose energy and verve have been central to the orchestra’s recent success.
As Principal Conductor/Artistic Partner, Widmann works closely with the Artistic Committee, devising diverse and innovative programmes that mix standard repertoire with new work – often specially commissioned – from the best young Irish composers. This dynamic approach to programming has opened up new opportunities for the orchestra to work with leading artists, venues and festivals across Europe and beyond.
The support of the board is crucial to the orchestra’s success. From 2008 to 2017 it was chaired by Michael Buckley, former CEO of AIB, whose business acumen and fundraising expertise enabled the ICO to successfully negotiate the turbulent waters of the recession. Today Aibhlín McCrann chairs a board whose passion and commitment inspires the orchestra to reach new heights.
Despite a challenging funding environment in recent years, the Arts Council – which has funded the ICO since 1995 – has maintained its support, recognising the orchestra’s unparalleled contribution to musical life in Ireland. As a result, the ICO has made extraordinary progress over the last five years, performing 154 concerts in 95 venues at home and abroad. Tours to China, Australia and the US, together with performances at leading festivals and recordings on the prestigious Orfeo label, have enhanced its reputation. Collaborations across six different art forms, from theatre to rock, have introduced a range of new audiences to the orchestra’s work.
Today, the ICO continues to develop its approach in line with the Arts Council’s strategic plan, striving to bring great music to audiences at home and abroad, to develop the orchestra’s reputation and expand its audience base. It is also determined to set the gold standard for community outreach. Its latest project, the Irish Chamber Orchestra Youth Orchestra (ICOYO), picks up where Sing Out with Strings leaves off, nurturing the next generation of young Irish musicians through performance opportunities, training and advice. It’s this ability to innovate while remaining true to its artistic integrity and spirit of togetherness that makes the ICO so unique.