27 October 2021

Kira Doherty thrives on challenges of change

By Lark Music

Vacuum-packing offal was an unexpected, temporary career change for the Philharmonia Orchestra’s 2nd horn player Kira Doherty, when she worked in a local butchers during lockdown. Now Kira tells Lark Music how change can be a positive force.

“I was probably one of only a few people earning a minimum wage who could eat fillet steak every night during lockdown.

Working as a freelance musician it was unclear what financial support there would be – in the end things were fine for me – but becoming a key worker meant that in the deepest, darkest point of lockdown I was able to have a structure and connection.

I also kept in touch online with my students at the Royal College of Music; it was a case of forgetting routine and payment but trying to give positivity to help each other through.

It can be difficult teaching over the internet, especially if there is a poor microphone set up or the screen freezes, so it is so good to be back teaching face to face.

At the RCM we went back for summer term, although there were restrictions in place, so I was often sitting by a draughty open window for six hours while students played! It’s good to see them back but they are still recovering; playing music is about being with other people so they’ve been shell-shocked by the isolation.

But in every crisis there are opportunities. Covid threw everything up in the air and it is still landing. That is incredibly exciting and incredibly scary for arts organisations as we come out of this. It’s a positive time but a potential danger zone when things are starting up. We are entering a critical phase.

The London music scene is unique with dynamic, healthy competition, unlike other major European cities that often have only one orchestra in town which is heavily subsidised. You can never rest on your laurels in London because diminishing funding makes it both difficult and challenging.

As an arts organisation the time is right to look at what an orchestra is, how we serve our community and what our purpose is.

It’s a world that’s not entirely an innovative area of the arts because of its re-creative nature; there is a traditional format of orchestra/audience at the core that you want to preserve, so you are not going to completely change. People come to see musicians and hear wonderful pieces with absolute excellence on stage. Yet there is still space to innovate in thoughtful and meaningful ways.

At the beginning of our first concert after the pandemic I spoke to the Royal Festival Hall audience and said one thing that has become clear is that a huge part of the joy of making music is in our ability to share it with others.

We need to preserve what is important but think about everything around that – there is a lot of potential and places where we can rethink and interact with the communities we are in.

We found ourselves in a weird situation recording and sending out music during lockdown with no live audience in the hall, but it did make us realise the wider reach of streaming.

We need to keep our eye on the ball, so I see a huge opportunity if I can contribute as we take a long, hard look at ourselves – what are we doing, what can we do better and what can we do differently?

I met Alyson Frazier, who set up the award-winning charity Play for Progress, which delivers trauma-informed creative programmes and support services for unaccompanied minor refugees and asylum seekers in Croydon. We have the platform and reach that they might not. I am therefore thinking of ways we could work together in order to amplify what she does with the platform we have, and to show how music can be transformative in our communities.

Immigration is a big subject and topical, so exploring the communities and what role music can have is really important.

I am an immigrant myself from rural Quebec, in Canada. Yes, it is a completely different experience, but I have some understanding of learning how to integrate into a new community. When I came to the Royal Academy of Music for my post-grad in 2004 I realised everyone else was way ahead of me. It was a shock and I knew I had to pull my socks up fast.

Another exciting change at the Philharmonia is working with Principal Conductor Santtu Matias Rouvali.  After a long association with Esa-Pekka Salonen, who stepped down in June, few words had to be spoken to know what he wanted, such was our closeness and familiarity. With Santtu we have someone who is willing to change the rule book and he’s interpreting pieces differently, shedding a new light on them.

The classical music world likes to preserve, so it’s not easy for a conductor to do something different. It has to be well thought through and meaningful. When done well it can make you listen to a piece differently, so that’s what I find really interesting about Santtu.

He is extremely energetic and dynamic. Your eyes are drawn to him, he is almost balletic in the way he conducts, using all of the space. It is very nice to watch both for audience and orchestra.

Sometimes he interprets pieces subtly and sometimes not so subtle! During the Alpine Symphony we played recently, there are 24 horns offstage and he said, ‘No, I will bring them onstage’.

Something that should be quite distant becomes completely in your face!

He definitely keeps everyone on their toes – and that’s exactly how it should be.”

For more information or to book tickets visit philharmonia.co.uk