Monday 14 October 2019

'Granny Smith' and Ireland's first youth orchestra

Biography: Olive Smith: A Musical Visionary

Gillian Smith Somerville, paperback, 432 pages, €20.61

Respect: Olive Smith was way ahead of her time in her treatment of teenagers
Respect: Olive Smith was way ahead of her time in her treatment of teenagers
Olive Smith: A Musical Visionary

George Hamilton

Venezuela was on the news when I picked up Gillian Smith's biography of her mother Olive, a hitherto unsung heroine of the Irish musical scene.

Around 50 years ago, that country embarked on a remarkable programme of cultural inclusivity, using classical music to improve the lives of as many young people as it could.

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Out of this grew the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, comprising Venezuela's top young talent, brought to international prominence by the now principal conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel.

Fifty years ago in Dublin, Olive Smith was founding the Irish Youth Orchestra, reaching out to enrich young lives through music.

This is a story of how things used to be, when getting anywhere was down to the determination of tenacious individuals who refused to give up on their dream.

And it's so much more, besides. Between the covers lurks a social history of a Dublin, unashamedly middle class, that is scarcely represented on the bookshelves.

Olive Richardson was born into a Presbyterian household in Rathgar in 1906, the youngest of three daughters.

Piano lessons, the church choir, the Girl Guides. Alexandra College. First in the Leaving in Science and Maths. Trinity, where female undergraduates had first been accepted only 20 years before. Marriage, and a position in administration at her alma mater. Music was a constant thread, taking part in piano and organ competitions at the Feis Ceoil, singing in Dublin's top choirs.

Olive was in at the start of the Music Association of Ireland in 1948, appointed treasurer of a society that one of its founders, the composer Fred May, reckoned might do for music what the Irish Literary Revival had attempted some 50 years before.

As a pressure group, the MAI campaigned for a purpose-built concert hall in Dublin. Instead, UCD's Aula Maxima in Earlsfort Terrace was converted for the purpose. That Olive was trenchantly opposed tells of her tenacity and determination.

By this stage of the story, we're well into the heart of the matter, of how this musical visionary, as the biography is subtitled, saw her ambition realised with the foundation of the Irish Youth Orchestra.

The first small steps had been taken at a residential summer course at Our Lady's School in Rathnew, Co Wicklow, in 1970.

Under the direction of the conductor Hugh Maguire with John O'Conor, the pianist, as orchestra manager, the week-long event set out to "give secondary pupils from all over the country a chance to play with other musicians of their own age and to receive first-class orchestral tuition".

That they most certainly got, with recollections recorded of the spine-tingling sensation of being involved in the playing of Schubert's 'Unfinished Symphony', something they'd never have experienced at school.

By all accounts, there were high jinks, too, card playing into the small hours, and even what's described as "a dawn escape down to the nearby beach", a breakdown in discipline that led to a summit with the ringleaders of this craic and fun.

One of them was the principal cellist, Gerry Kelly.

He recalls that meeting with Granny Smith, as they knew her. We can't have you all running wild, was her line. How are we going to sort it?

She was way ahead of her time, Gerry recalls, consulting teenagers and respecting their opinion. There was never any bother in subsequent years.

Love stories began on that course. Gerry first met his future wife, my RTÉ lyric fm colleague Evelyn Grant, in Rathnew that summer, and they were married in 1975.

There's some film footage from the time, which Olive herself shot, in a documentary that charts the first 10 years of the Irish Youth Orchestra, on the Journal of Irish Music ­website (, a real trip down memory lane for those of us whose ­teenage years were neither today nor yesterday.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the orchestra, and it's going from strength to strength. Gillian Smith - herself an accomplished soloist and chamber musician - has combined exhaustive research with a most carefully crafted narrative to produce a book that's part social history, part chronicle of the cultural life of a country short on resources, finding its feet.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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