Monday 25 June 2018

Many strings to her bow

As leader of the RTE Concert Orchestra, Mia Cooper is a musical multi-tasker. Our reporter finds out how she balances touring with family life, what her vision is for the ensemble - and the secret to taming a precious Pavarotti

Multi-talented Mia Cooper who leads the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Photo: Mark Condren
Multi-talented Mia Cooper who leads the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Photo: Mark Condren
In tune: Mia Cooper, Paul Frost and their daughters Íde and Joanie.Photo: Mark Condren
Íde and Joanie with their Mother Mia Cooper. Photo: Mark Condren

Maggie Armstrong

Mia Cooper is the leader and principal first violinist of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, which is celebrating 70 years since its first broadcast, marking the occasion with a concert led by Conductor Laureate Proinnsías Ó Duinn. All of which, if you're musically illiterate like this correspondent, won't mean a lot to you.

Ireland has two national orchestras currently under RTÉ's wing, the Symphony Orchestra and the Concert Orchestra. The latter, smaller orchestra, is the "popular" one, with a promiscuously wide repertoire. Over the years it has consistently avoided the charge of fustiness. It did Riverdance. It did Electric Picnic. Sharon Shannon, Imelda May and Niall Horan have been among its collaborators. The One Direction superstar described it as "one of the best orchestras in Europe, if not the world".

It doesn't happen often, but the orchestras have made front page news the very morning we are meeting Mia Cooper. The big report has just been published, the report telling RTÉ what it already knows - that the orchestras are financially overstretched and the national broadcaster can't afford to keep both of them going.

That radio ad telling you to "Love your orchestras!" takes on a note of desperation in the context of this report, which paints a picture of suffering ensembles created in the 1940s to fill a musical demand that is dwindling with time.

In tune: Mia Cooper, Paul Frost and their daughters Íde and Joanie.Photo: Mark Condren
In tune: Mia Cooper, Paul Frost and their daughters Íde and Joanie.Photo: Mark Condren

Classical music, though, is quoted in the report as "moderately popular" in Ireland, third after pop and rock. In the car all the way I have the RTÉ Concert Orchestra on Spotify with the Bluetooth up high. Joe Dolan keeps coming on the shuffle play. I feel this must be a mistake. Then I see he was one of their guest singers. Maybe the Concert Orchestra isn't fusty enough, I think, as he croons "Goodbye my lovely friend...".

The family home, at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac, is packed with musical instruments and music cases - piano, a guitar, a trombone, violins. It is comfortingly cluttered. Mia Cooper, who is from London, lives with Paul Frost, a trombonist from Cork. The couple have two daughters, eight-year-old Íde and six-year-old Joanie and they are learning violin and piano.

Everybody here plays a lot of music and yet, the house is so quiet. There isn't a sound, apart from the hum of some electrical presence in the kitchen, a fridge or a boiler.

Tea is made and sheet music is brushed from the kitchen table. The two girls stand and stare at us like tiny invigilators. "Are you going to sort of chip in, girls?" asks Cooper.

She is very striking with a gigantic smile and a look of Uma Thurman. She doesn't seem aware of any of this. "I'm the shabbiest person on stage," she insists. "I'm the one who always forgets my tights or my lipstick. I went on once with two left shoes. One lovely lady in the audience I think took pity on me. She started making me earrings to try and glamorise me."

Do women in particular have to look the part in the RTÉ Concert Orchestra? "Sometimes the principal conductor will get involved and say he doesn't want any flabby arms," says Cooper.

In tune: Mia Cooper, Paul Frost and their daughters Íde and Joanie.Photo: Mark Condren
In tune: Mia Cooper, Paul Frost and their daughters Íde and Joanie.Photo: Mark Condren

Really, someone said that?

"Only Frost," she replies. Mia Cooper calls her partner Frost. She always has. It gives a nice commanding tone to things here.

But really?

"You're dressing for the occasion," is her secretive deflection.

Cooper and Frost are both a little shy and very funny. They are refreshingly gauche. Between them, they say "don't print that" and "don't put that in" a great many times. They also say things that might be jokes, or might not, it's not clear.

So, what does the orchestra leader actually do? "I'm on the shop floor," she says. "The leader has got to have this sixth sense for what needs to be said and when. And you need a very thick skin and a sense of humour."

She remembers buying KitKats for her 48-piece band during a particularly difficult programme. "If I can improve morale, I'd definitely try," she says. "I value people being happy, as much as I do the result of the gig.

"Very awkward things would be left to a manager," she adds. "Like if someone's smelly. And that has happened."

The kitchen goes deadly quiet, as the sad image of someone in a top orchestra being smelly sinks in.

Cooper has now been leading the orchestra for 12 years. She had been five years with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and she ended up in Ireland "almost by accident", she says. "I was looking to change my life, and I saw a job advertised." She knew nothing about Ireland and wasn't expecting to get the job but, "it was a very happy accident".

She looks across at Frost.

"Puke," she says, barely audibly.

Five minutes into her new job, an aged Pavarotti was in the room asking the whole orchestra to tune down their instruments so he could hit the high notes. "He was very grumpy," says Cooper. "It was an awful atmosphere. Poor Pavarotti.

"I remember standing up, because I was a bit outraged on behalf of the orchestra and I knew I should defend us. I just said, 'That's as low as it goes.' He was polite after that. It was just like tapping a naughty dog on the nose. He behaved."

By the time her first year was up she had fallen for an Irishman.

"I spotted him in the back of the orchestra," she says. "And he was just so cute! I remember asking someone, who's the guy with the nice eyes? She said, 'Frost.'

"I thought, well that will never work. He's younger. And then we just got together," she says, and looks at him. "Help!"

"Yeah," Frost says. "I'd play a loud note and she'd be impressed, like, 'ooh'."

Cooper quickly became one of the Frosts, an "unbelievably musical dynasty of a family". Frost's mother played piano, his father double bass. His three sisters are all musicians - Deirdre plays double bass and bass guitar, Sinead plays bassoon and Catriona is a percussionist, currently touring with Celtic Woman.

Frost is a freelance musician, sometimes doing substitute work at the  RTÉ Concert Orchestra. "I didn't get a job," he says mischievously. He plays a bit of everything - commercial, classical, jazz, opera - and composes and arranges music: "I do everything to survive as a musician."

"I remember Íde, when she was just born, a day old, being plonked on the kitchen table in Cork," says Cooper. "I said, 'I wonder what she'll be.' And someone else said, 'I wonder what she'll play'."

She sighs. "I worry that they'll think they don't have other options. But they do. I don't want it to be inevitable, you know."

The Frost family are native Irish-speakers and the two girls attend the local Gaelscoil. Mia Cooper is also learning Irish with Duolingo, so that the family don't have to use English just for her.

"Conas atá tu?" I ask.

"Go maith," she mumbles and hides her face, though later makes up for this shyness when she breaks into song in Lithuanian.

It was never "inevitable" that Mia Cooper would end up playing music at all, let alone go on to lead the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Her father was an accountant and she started the violin when she was six but hated practice as a child.

"My mother kept me at it. She did the whole pretend phone calls to the teacher and threatening to axe the lessons. I'm sure she was at the end of her tether. Until you play with other people you don't realise it will be fun."

"You can't do violin half-heartedly," Frost offers.

"It was torture," Cooper continues. "Mum had this little egg-timer in the shape of an apple and she'd put it to 20 minutes and put it in my room. Sometimes, you'd help it along a bit." She makes a twisting motion, laughing evilly.

When she went to a musical boarding school in Manchester, where there was a queue for practice rooms every day at 7am, things changed. "It was almost to be like everyone else," she says.

As a teenager, she was "shy" and "very fat". (Does she mean that? Who could tell.)

"I remember playing a piece of chamber music. It was Schubert's two cello quintet. I was a teenager, in turmoil, being misunderstood. I suddenly thought, I really understand this piece, I get it. That lights a fire in you."

The kitchen goes really quiet and we discuss The Report.

The authors of the report, by Helen Boaden, formerly of the BBC, have recommended that the RTE Symphony Orchestra becomes a national cultural institution, which some of the orchestra "violently oppose" according to Cooper.

She believes though that it would be a good thing. "Hopefully both orchestras will now be properly funded, if RTÉ take up the recommendations. Otherwise, the options were axing one, or a merger, which would mean losing 70-odd jobs, and dreadful for freelancers."

About €13m in public money goes every year into the orchestras. What's the... ?

"Point of it?" Cooper interrupts. "Well, what's the point in having a football team? People love music and we need music in our lives. You could make it extinct, but then you are closing the door on 300 years of musical history."

But the idea of being asked to sit still, and not being able to get up and buy a drink scares people off, I venture.

"Most of us can do without a drink for 45 minutes, can't we?" she says sharply. "I wonder, have we forgotten how to sit and listen? It is a very fast-paced world, isn't it? Tablets, iPhones, we're very busy. Maybe it's more important than ever to sit and do nothing except listen. Involve yourself orally and visually with what's going on, I think that's incredibly valuable."

Why is it that young people are not going en masse to classical concerts?

"People may not be sure what they'd be getting themselves into by coming to a concert. It can be challenging finding younger audiences, people who don't know that they like it - but they do."

We talk about the many eclectic things the Concert Orchestra has done over the years. They did the scores to the films Room and Mrs Brown's Boys, and live scored The Lord of the Rings and Indiana Jones.

They did the recently broadcast one-hour TV special with Niall Horan. And if you still think the  RTÉ Concert Orchestra is a relic of the Victorian past, look at the videos of 2FM DJ Jenny Greene playing Everybody's Free to the bare-chested ravers at Electric Picnic.

"We're the chameleons, and thriving on it," says Cooper.

"Because the music is so light-hearted, you can't take it too seriously. You can't get too serious about an Abba medley. It's different to a Beethoven symphony, which you're almost precious about. We have a laugh with some of the music we play."

"The Symphony Orchestra probably has one type of audience, we have many," says Cooper. "An audience that comes to hear Niall Horan wouldn't dream of hearing Schubert and that's great. We have a very wide reach and that's very exciting."

The shocking gender imbalance in her field - a tiny number of female conductors and disproportionately few female composers making their names, highlighted when the National Concert Hall chose pieces by 19 female composers and 70 men for their 1916 centenary celebrations - does not particularly bother Cooper.

"String players, it's largely females," she says and shrugs a little. "Women conductors, it's great. But we have to have lives and families too."

Being two full-time professional musicians has obvious repercussions on family life. "There are no real schedules, no routine, to anything we do," says Frost. They both tour and work nights, and they are on their ninth au pair.

But the children get to run around in the pit of the Wexford Opera House, and the NCH is their "playground", where they get to put their teddy on the bassoon and get a free chocolate from Bernie in the cafeteria.

The RTÉ Concert Orchestra went on their first tour to China for a month this winter, playing Bill Whelan's Inishlacken among other things - "even seeing your colleagues in a furry hat in the snow is fun, it's different!" says Cooper. Frost toured for three months last year playing in Nathan Carter's brass section.

"When he's gone," says Cooper, "you turn into an octopus. You're doing everything. And you get used to it."

"It was tough enough to come back and get into the swing of doing the lunches and getting up early in the morning, when you've been Mr Showbiz for the last two months," says Frost. "I always had a guilt on tour that I'm not at home, I should be at home really."

"We're not sort of Mick Jagger," Cooper interjects. "I don't have any delusions about the context of my greatness." Both appreciate silence and "crap on the TV" at the end of a long day of producing perfect sounds. They like Bondi Rescue and cookery programmes.

The girls are getting ready for a piano lesson. Practice seems to be a bone of contention here, too. "It can take half an hour of persuasion to get 10 minutes of violin practice," sighs Cooper. "I have a lot more sympathy for my mother."

It's hard to picture the child that used to diddle the timer during practice. "It's the fear of embarrassment that makes me practice now," she says. "It's handy being both musicians. We both offload if we've had a bad gig. I'll definitely come home and blurt it to you, Frost. 'I missed something!' 'I played like an idiot!' I'm quite good then at erasing bad experiences."

As for good experiences - there are clearly enough of these to stoke her passion every time and keep her on the road.

"There are some pieces that take you on this incredible extraterrestrial journey. Late Beethoven quartets. It's just totally cosmic. You're gripped from the first note to the last. There's a physical satisfaction, too. Hitting the right notes. Knowing that collectively, you did a good job."

"Is that boring?" she says when it's time to go. So ends a delightfully quirky encounter with one heart-warming family of minstrels. You can't help thinking: I'll have what they're having.

The RTÉ Concert Orchestra will celebrate its 70th birthday at the Sounds Amazing concert taking place at the National Concert Hall on May 30. To book tickets, priced from €12-€39.50, see nch.ie

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