CELLISSIMO – a festival is born

It was in 2013, as we were preparing our 2014/15 concert season, that Finghin Collins, Music for Galway’s new artistic director, said he’d like to have a season focussing on the cello: such a gorgeous instrument, he mused, closest to the human voice, so sensual in form, so versatile: fabulous on its own, great in trios, quartets, quintets, so beautiful as part of an orchestra and fantastic as soloist instrument: “We’ll have such fun!”

And fun we had – the title for the season CELLISSIMO was suggested by board member and soul of MfG, Claire Cuddy – the season turned out really well, so much so that we doubled audience figures in comparison to the previous season.

“I’d love to have a cello festival!” was the next thing Finghin said. And when, about a year later, the people in charge of the bid book for Galway 2020 came looking for big ideas, this is one they went for. The bid was won, and we were encouraged to think big and bold.

Where to start? In March 2017, we brazenly contacted the organisers of the Cello Biënnale Amsterdam. They invited us for lunch – it lasted three hours and by the end Johan Dorrestein and Maarten Mostert had become our collaborators and friends. They taught us so much; we will never be able to thank them enough.

Finghin and I took ourselves off to Roundstone for a few days in October. Suzanne Black had joined our team to provide support in the office. It left us free to clear the decks and to concentrate on what we had given ourselves as our brief: this was to be a Galway-inspired event, covering as much of the region as possible and bringing a major international element to it. It was to be accessible and attract the seasoned classical music lover as well as the simply curious, to mobilise local audiences and draw audiences from all over Europe, if not the world. Landscape, Language, Migration: those were the themes and we would let them inspire us. Armed with flip chart, paper, sharpies, markers and post-its, we headed west; Finghin with his vast knowledge of repertoire and the world’s best cellists; as for me, I had dealt with collapsing pianos and false in-concert fire alarms; between us, we figured we’d manage.

Within three days we had the bones of a nine-day festival. It included everything from the glitzy superstar cellist to intimate solo performances, from orchestral performances – world premieres of cello concertos co-commissioned with the Cello Biennale Amsterdam – to a children’s strand. We looked at the cello in Irish trad, set up a cello trail on Inishbofin, and plotted concerts of various sizes all over the county. That was the theory.

For the next three years we worked very intensely on turning the flip charts into reality. And then there was the commissioning of the GALWAY CELLO: an idea by Philip Fogarty inspired by the theme of Landscape, turned into an exquisite instrument by luthier Kuros Torkzadeh using timbers that had grown in east Galway.

Then, five weeks before its start, with the brochures printed and ready to post, came the lockdown. After months of uncertainty, there was the request to reimagine but make it work before the end of March. Well now here it is, the first edition of CELLISSIMO (it shall return every three years ); in its essence the same, with a few extra twists, running from March 25th to 31st, 2021. It will be all online, but its by-line is ‘Music for the Senses’. More than ears, I hear you say? Yes. Read about it here next week.


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