Saturday 19 October 2019

Rebels & romantics - meet the members of Ireland's coolest orchestra

When the Trinity College Orchestra takes to the stage this summer, it will be in wellies not dress shoes - and they'll be playing Bowie rather than Beethoven. Here, Lauren Murphy meets the members of Ireland's coolest orchestra who are bridging the gap between old and new music, and talks to some of its graduates who've gone on to successful careers in the field

Giving it wellie: Orchestra members Kellie O'Neill, Luke Rynne Cullen, Mark Deering, Theo Foley. Photo: Kyle Tunney
Giving it wellie: Orchestra members Kellie O'Neill, Luke Rynne Cullen, Mark Deering, Theo Foley. Photo: Kyle Tunney
The Trinity Orchestra performing at the Forbidden Fruit Festival
Hozier sings with the Trinity Orchestra
Former orchestra member Alex Louis Ryan is now Hozier's musical director and bassist. Picture: Caroline Quinn

Anyone who's been to a music festival will be all too familiar with the painstaking process of packing. Tent - check. Sleeping bag - check. Toothbrush - check. Babywipes - check. Viola, French horn, oboe - ummmm... check?

"The priority is not to lose your instrument when you're camping," says Kellie O'Neill, nodding. "Yep. That would be pretty bad."

If you hadn't already guessed, O'Neill is not your average festival attendee. Along with her college mates and friends, she is a member of the Trinity Orchestra - aka the coolest orchestra in Ireland. Comprised of students from the famed Dublin university, they have brought their contemporary repertoire to festivals the length and breadth of Ireland over the last eight years, giving the back catalogues of various artists (from Gorillaz to Arcade Fire to Michael Jackson) and albums (from Daft Punk's Discovery to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon) a thrilling classical makeover. They recently played their 'Girl Power' set at Dublin's Forbidden Fruit festival, which included Britney Spears and Cranberries songs - and later this summer, they will bring their hugely popular David Bowie set to the newest kid on the summer festival block, All Together Now, in Co Waterford.

As the orchestra's Auditor Luke Rynne Cullen explains, it was the draw of doing something different that first led him to audition for the orchestra. The 21-year-old Blanchardstown native - now about to enter the final year of his English and History degree - began playing viola at the age of four and played in several youth orchestras as a youngster.

Former orchestra member Alex Louis Ryan is now Hozier's musical director and bassist. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Former orchestra member Alex Louis Ryan is now Hozier's musical director and bassist. Picture: Caroline Quinn

"Music was always my hobby growing up, so I wanted to do something else instead of studying it at third level," he explains. "I thought the fact that the Trinity Orchestra was playing at festivals and stuff would be something new and enjoyable; we're used to playing big symphonies, so to finally play a bit of pop music was nice," he smiles. "I joined the Orchestra first year, and in second year I was the Players' Coordinator. Now I'm the Auditor, so it's a big step up - I don't know what I'm in for next year. It's definitely a baptism of fire."

Preparation is already underway for both the All Together Now gig, as well as the influx of new members that Fresher's Week will bring. Rynne Cullen says that membership numbers fluctuate throughout the year (they still play classical concerts during the academic year), but naturally, there is always a surge of interest as festival season approaches.

"Our maximum number would be around 70; we also have a production team behind us now too, as well as a few videographers and photographers," he explains. "For performers, though, usually we'll have around 54 on stage. What we usually say is, 'Look, attendance is key - if you want to play at the festivals, your attendance needs to be up.' I hate playing hardball," he grins, "but you have to. There's too many people to manage."

Although the Trinity Orchestra was formed in 1989, it wasn't until recent years that it began incorporating popular music into the predominantly classical repertoire. Rob Farhat, who now works as Talent Development Manager for live music agency Serious in London, was one of the people who pushed that agenda.

"One of my predecessors, Brian Denvir, had started a tradition of doing orchestral arrangements of popular music with Sigur Rós in 2009, then we jointly did Radiohead in 2010 - both of which were fairly successful," Farhat explains. "That summer I had fallen in love with Daft Punk's seminal album Discovery, and it dawned on me that it'd be the perfect next step for the orchestra; a rare example of an artist and album that had popular appeal and critical acclaim in equal measure. I also wanted to open up the orchestra to more people, so for the first time we held auditions for singers and band members, which led to the discovery of some incredible talent - like Hozier, Saint Sister, Loah, and members of Wyvern Lingo, Spies, Tandem Felix, and more."

Farhat admits with a hearty laugh that his arrangements of Discovery were "pretty terrible", but there was an undeniable appeal to those who may not have attended orchestra performances in the past.

The Trinity Orchestra performing at the Forbidden Fruit Festival
The Trinity Orchestra performing at the Forbidden Fruit Festival

"I guess the novelty factor meant that people were fooled into thinking it was great and the initial sold-out performances led to invites to play at Electric Picnic, Forbidden Fruit, and other festivals which continue to this day," he explains. "But as amateurish as those arrangements were, in hindsight, I guess we were kind of ahead of the times - this was a few years before professional orchestras started collaborating with the likes of Pete Tong and Jeff Mills."

Hozier's musical director and bassist Alex Ryan was also a member around the same time, joining the orchestra in 2010 for their Daft Punk shows and later playing bass for their Arcade Fire gigs, amongst others.

"The orchestra was a very exciting place to be at that time," he agrees. "It was pretty cool to be part of a 50- to 70-strong group of college kids who were playing the main stages at festivals like Electric Picnic and Forbidden Fruit - it was just great fun all-round. I got to know some good people through it. I had met Andrew [Hozier-Byrne] a few times before our time in the orchestra - we were in the same course, same year - but I suppose we got closer through it. He certainly became a staple of the vocal section, as I did of the band."

Since becoming Hozier's musical director, Ryan has toured the world and led the band at high-flying awards shows, prime-time TV slots and as headliners of various festivals - but he credits both his instrumental abilities and his leadership skills to his time in the orchestra.

"I suppose I became something of an unofficial MD unto the orchestra band, in the latter years. Some degree of leadership was called for at times - particularly in rehearsals - so I'm sure that's had ramifications for my current skill-set, to some degree," he nods. "As well as that, I've been lucky enough to arrange some of Andrew's music for orchestral forces over the last few years - a practice which I began during my time in Trinity."

One of the best things about his experience, however, says Ryan, is the social aspect. "All I can say is, if anyone is reading this who is musically inclined and pondering whether or not to join the ranks of such an ensemble - do it," he smiles. "Fast friends will be made. There is fun to be had."

That's a sentiment shared by Theo Foley, a 21-year-old drama student who also plays viola in the orchestra. He admits that there is a certain kudos that comes with playing the coolest festivals in Ireland every summer.

"Even my barber today was like, 'Oh, you're in Trinity Orchestra? And it's hilarious when you're talking to your friends and one of them mentions a festival and you can say: 'Yeah, we played that. I went for free, too,'" he says, laughing. "But I think it's also becoming more important nowadays to bridge this gap between classical music and modern music; the orchestra is a nice mid-ground of both."

Along with the aforementioned Luke Rynne Cullen and Kellie O'Neill, he and oboe player Mark Deering (19) heartily agree that, yes, it is as cool as it looks - especially when you get to rub shoulders with other festival acts.

"Because there are so many of us, we usually don't get backstage passes," shrugs Foley. "But we've been lucky in the past - we were speaking to LCD Soundsystem at the Picnic because they were soundchecking before us. It was very brief, but... they were there!"

Like Alex Ryan, Deering says that the social aspect is crucial to the orchestra's success. "I got involved because I wanted an excuse to keep up my instrument - and there's really no other way to do that when you play the oboe," he laughs. "But yeah, the social aspect is very important. I've just finished my first year and joining the orchestra has been huge. There are so many people you can get to know, especially on trips away. We went to Lisbon in January, and after that everyone knew each other so much better."

"The orchestra ranges from first to fourth years and we even have a lecturer in the orchestra," adds Rynne Cullen. "And sometimes we have mature Erasmus students that come over, too - so you get to communicate and socialise with people across a wide range of ages and nationalities, and you immediately have something in common with them: music. It's a great way to make friends."

"It can be really hard to talk to people who aren't doing your course; it's good to learn more about what other people are doing," O'Neill agrees. "And the connections that you make are handy, too - some of them are training to be doctors, and you never know when you'll need one of them in the future!"

They all fizzle with excitement at the thought of performing the Bowie set at All Together Now (a bus is being organised to transport the musicians, and a truck to transport their instruments, in case you were wondering how that works). Rynne Cullen says that choosing a setlist to arrange and perform from an artist like Bowie can be difficult, but "we usually go with the well-known songs - although we do give the arrangers some leeway, as well. We're very flexible," he adds, smiling. "It's an hour-long set, so we usually have a lot to cover."

"I think the Bowie one has been my favourite out of all the ones we've done so far," Foley enthuses. "I'm a huge Bowie fan anyway, and the selection of songs and medleys really works; they're absolute bangers that everyone knows from the first beat. When we got to play with Hozier at Electric Picnic in 2016 - he sang Heroes with us - that was an amazing experience, too."

As for where the orchestra is going in the future? Well, the sky's the limit and the submission process remains open to students who have an idea for what band or artist they want their musical chums to tackle next. This lot, meanwhile, have their own ideas. "I'd love to do Justin Timberlake," admits Rynne Cullen. "What?! I want Alt-J!," protests Foley, laughing. "I think ABBA would be cool," proffers Deering, to a chorus of approval from his fellow musicians. "Yes!," exclaims Foley. "ABBA is the one we really need to do - and it's topical now, with them releasing new material and everything."

You read it here first, folks - from Rebel Rebel and Life on Mars to Waterloo and Thank You For the Music? As Rynne Cullen sums the perennially ambitious group's attitude up: "Why not? Music is there to be played and listened to, to be enjoyed in different forms; it'd be a real shame for us not to include it all."

Trinity Orchestra plays David Bowie at All Together Now, which takes place at Curraghmore House, Co Waterford from August 3-5, see

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